Super-Real

Peter Campbell

  • The Pre-Raphaelites by Christopher Wood
    Weidenfeld, 160 pp, £18.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 297 78007 7
  • The Diary of Ford Madox Brown edited by Virginia Surtees
    Yale, 237 pp, £15.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 300 02743 5
  • Eric Gill: Man of Flesh and Spirit by Malcolm Yorke
    Constable, 304 pp, £12.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 09 463740 7

You know a Pre-Raphaelite picture when you see one, but definitions come hard. The paintings are likely to be detailed, but Rossetti’s are soft and generalised; they often take subjects from English poetry or the Bible, but can be pure landscapes, or illustrations of Greek myths, or even about modern politics. The Pre-Raphaelite programme – to replace an exhausted tradition, of painterly conventionalities and trivial subject-matter, with a style which paid close attention to the detail of natural appearances and took themes of an aesthetically and morally elevated sort – is clear enough. The results evoke responses which are nothing like as simple.

From the first the Pre-Raphaelites were able to rouse both anger and admiration; a Soho sex shop with Burne-Jones posters as its sole window decoration suggests that whatever it was about their work that made people uneasy still tells. Pre-Raphaelite pictures can be memorable even when they are unlikeable: indeed, are sometimes most memorable when most unlikeable. Holman Hunt’s ghostly phosphorescent scrum of naked goblin-children tumbling after the Holy Family’s donkey in The Triumph of the Innocents; Rossetti’s heavy-eyed, full-lipped stunners, pouting, dumb and sulky; Burne-Jones’s corpse-pale nudes, and girls dressed in clinging synthetic stuffs which, when you think of touching them, set your teeth on edge: such pictures stick in the mind, but in an uneasy and nightmarish way.

A technical decision – to paint with pure colours on a wet white ground – determined the look of the bright and detailed (as against the dreamy and clouded) kind of Pre-Raphaelite picture. Painfully brilliant carmines and greens; square yards of turf or river bank reproduced near life-size, leaf by leaf and flower by flower; the effect of sunlight on wool or hair; consistency of attention which gives a square yard of tweed the same degree of detail as a square inch of mouth: such habits of work make background and props super-real. They involved the kind of attention to appearance which could have led to a Seurat-like dedication to the transcription of effects of light. But moral seriousness – which meant narratives or allegories – was as necessary to the Pre-Raphaelite plan as verisimilitude. So models, dressed for their parts, are placed in front of these scenes and recorded with the same objectivity. The Pre-Raphaelites perfected the art of pageant painting – setting up dramatic scenes and then recording them.

Caravaggio and Rembrandt observed real corpses and beggars – they shocked and can still shock. The Pre-Raphaelites too often embarrassed – and still embarrass. Moreover, there is something rather dogged about some aspects of the Pre-Raphaelite work ethic. In April 1855, Ford Madox Brown wrote in his diary about the drawing for Work: ‘This is now to me a species of intoxication,’ he exclaims. ‘When I drew in the poor little vixen girl pulling her brother’s hair, I quite growled with delight.’ This entry is interesting because it is very much the exception: a multitude of others record hours of work on a sleeve, or days on a piece of sky. Pleasure in conception was brief, the labour of execution long, and in Brown’s case fraught and pretty joyless: ‘Up latish, bath, saw my turnips were all false in colour, ruminated over this disgrace and tried to retrieve it.’ ‘Worked at the draperies of Our Ladye about 2 hours, head aches.’ Comments like these, and endless notes of scrapings-off and repaintings are typical.

Madox Brown’s and Holman Hunt’s kind of literalism was not, however, a continuing or sufficient condition of Pre-Raphaelitism. Millais, the most talented and natural painter of them all, pretty quickly succumbed to the pleasures of facility. Rossetti is described by Brown in his diary as painting the calf in the never-to-be-finished Found ‘like Albert Dürer hair by hair. He seems incapable of any breadth – but this he will get by going over it from feeling at home. From want of habit I see nature bothers him.’ And, of course, feeling at home did prove Rossetti’s forte.

You are not logged in