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.

It seems possible that one stumbling-block for the Pre-Raphaelites was that they had before them, in the prose of Ruskin and the poetry of Keats and Tennyson, a visual world fully realised in words which suffocated their powers of invention. They could never achieve anything half as precise as Ruskin’s observation of how ivy grows or clouds form, while bringing Keats’s precisions to canvas was a misguided enterprise. Hardy’s man who ‘used to notice such things’ would have become a bore if he had insisted on noticing everything. Christopher Wood’s glamorous and glowing picture book (Pre-Raphaelite pictures seem to suit Japanese printers) offers useful information about the extended Pre-Raphaelite team he presents. He favours the every-dog-will-have-his-day attitude to Victorian painting. Criticism is a pendulum that will always swing back: ‘The Pre-Raphaelite movement was a dominating force in English art for over fifty years, and it is once again part of the very fabric of English culture.’ For all that the critical pendulum has swung back and forth, unresolved problems – most of them stemming from conflicts inherent in the Pre-Raphaelite programme – have been apparent from the beginning. It is cruel praise which sees success in ‘Burne-Jones selling for six-figure prices’, and in it becoming ‘fashionable for girls to look “Pre-Raphaelite” again’, and ignores the sadness of high aims unrealised.

Ford Madox Brown was older than the founders of the Brotherhood and never a member of it. But Rossetti came to him to be taught – he himself was trained on the Continent – and he knew the others well. For example, Woolner, the sculptor and one of the original members, was the inspiration of The Last of England (Brown, along with Holman Hunt and Rossetti, went to Gravesend to see him off for Australia). His diary is not continuous. It begins in 1847; there is a gap from 1850 to 1854; and the last substantial entries cover March 1857 and January 1858. The commonest use for the diary is to note hours worked – or conversely to confess to days wasted and lack of application. A constant stream of hardships and discomforts is recorded. The index makes painful reading: ‘Suffers from ague ... apoplectic numbness ... boils ... bowels ... colds ... discouragement ... dizziness ... face ache ... fever ... flea bites ... headaches ... indigestion ... rheumatic inflammation ... the sulks ... toothache ... vomiting’, and, with one more entry even than ‘laziness’, ‘want of money’. It is the diary of a man hard pressed (although his fortunes did slowly improve), whose natural combativeness was exacerbated by poverty. The impression emerges of a forthright, argumentative, not over-subtle character. He occasionally looses off tirades which he later finds were misplaced: ‘Heard taking of Sebastapol being all a lie so my flaming up to epic pitch was unnecessary and unwarranted.’

The pleasures of the diary – the detailed accounts of his painting apart – are anecdotal. The spiteful exaggeration in his account of a committee meeting makes his portrait of Ruskin a caricature – but a rather convincing one:

Ruskin was playful & childish & the tea table overcharged with cakes & sweets as for a juvenile party. After this, about an hour later, cake & wine was again produced of which R. again partook largely, reaching out with his thin paw & swiftly absorbing 3 or 4 large lumps of cake in succession. At home he looks young and rompish at the meeting, at Hunts meeting he looked old and ungainly, but his power & eloquence as a speaker were homeric. But I said at the time that but for his speaking he was in appearance like a cross between a fiend and a tallow chandler.

Rossetti, whose friendship is the one most rewardingly described, is also best shown at his worst, or most exasperating. He stayed with the Browns while he was working on Found:

This morning, Gabriel not yet having done his cart & talking quite freely about several days yet, having been here since the first Novr & not seeming to notice any hints, moreover the two children being here & one stupid girl insufficient for so much work Emma being within a week or two of her confinement & he having had his bed made on the floor in the parlour one week now & not getting up till eleven, & moreover making himself infernally disagreeable besides my finances being reduced to £2. 12s which must last till 20th January, I told him delicately he must go – or go home at night by the bus – this he said was too expensive. I told him he might ride to his work in the morning & walk home at night, this he said he should never think of.

The manners and problems of the squat or the student flat are recognisable.

But the diary is more than a source of stories for histories of English bohemianism. In recording the progress of work on individual pictures it is as good an insight as we are likely to get into one Pre-Raphaelite’s methods and intentions. The Last of England is particularly well documented. When Brown resumes the diary in 1854 he writes:

At the beginning of /53 I worked for about six weeks at picture of The Last of England, Emma coming to sit to me in the most inhuman weather from Highgate. This work representing an out door scene without sun light I painted at it chiefly out of doors when the snow was lieing on the ground. The madder ribons of the bonnet took me 4 weeks to paint. At length finding that at this rate I could not get it done for the Acady I gave it up in much disgust & began repainting the sketch of Chaucer.

On 19 September he writes: ‘Rain so had out the picture of The Last of England & scraped at the head of the female figure.’ The next day he settles on a shepherd plaid shawl (rather than on the large blue and green plaid in the sketch) for the woman. On the 24th he spends two hours dressing up the lay figure of the man, and on the 30th he is working on the ‘coat of the Emigrant from the one I made on purpose two winters ago at Hampstead & have [never] worn since then it being horrid vulgar’. There is more work on the coat on 2 and 3 October and he is still at it, painting in the yard and suffering from cold, on the 12th and 15th. Later we read: ‘All day spent placing the shawl on the lay figure’ and of 40 hours pencilling in the pattern of the shawl. Snow stops work on the tarpaulin, the lay figure is out in the yard sitting ‘like a Guy’. Rossetti has borrowed his great coat and a pair of breeches, but at least some work is being done indoors: ‘Now the pattern [of the shawl] is all drawn and covered with a tint I put in the out door effect. To have painted it all out of doors would have taken six weeks of intense cold and suffering & perhaps have failed.’

On 3 January the female lay figure is ‘triumphantly stripped’ and Emma gets her shawl back. In March a trip is made to Limehouse to get a pig-net and an old block for the foreground. Now the cabbages are needed, begged from a neighbour when the greengrocer’s prove to be spoiled. They will be painted again from new models before the picture is finished. Painting and repainting goes on: ‘This is the last day of August and the picture which was to have been finished and “exploité” by this time is still on the easel.’ 4 September is ‘My last day at the picture Thank God.’ On the fifth, he takes it to London and sells it to D.T. White the dealer – for £150, this to be paid in six months, and to include the copyright. On the 15th, he is back at work adding rusty stains and changing the colour of the bench at White’s suggestion. A year later it is exhibited in Liverpool. The long wrestling match with appearances which the diary records was rewarded. Brown’s obsessional need to paint exactly what he saw and to get full value from every square inch of canvas gives The Last of England great force. It is a felt, but not sentimental view of the immigrant’s lot. Pre-Raphaelite painting was a hybrid art which (like the set-up photograph) mixed real accidentals with contrived compositions. Brown’s diary was worth publishing in this full form because his rather humourless and inflexible integrity of purpose shows how, in one case, the Pre-Raphaelite programme was carried out.

In 1851, in a note on ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’, Ruskin wrote: ‘Now in order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it: They must not do too much of it: and they must have a sense of success in it – not a doubtful sense, such as needs some testimony of other people for its confirmation, but a sure sense, or rather knowledge, that so much work has been well done, and fruitfully done, whatever the world may say or think about it.’ Now if Ruskin in some degree begat Pre-Raphaelitism, and they together begat Morris, who begat the Arts and Crafts movement, which begat Lethaby, who appointed Edward Johnston, who taught (and shared rooms with) Eric Gill, then Gill, who revered Ruskin, and had as sure a sense as any man of the necessity for good and fruitful work, can be reckoned a distant inheritor of part of the Pre-Raphaelite legacy. He was also plugged firmly into some 20th-century circuits.

His sculpture was shown alongside work by Matisse and Picasso in the second Post-Impressionist exhibition; he carved the stations of the cross in Westminster Cathedral; he lettered war memorials up and down England and carved the figurehead (Prospero and Ariel) for Broadcasting House. One of his type designs – Gill Sans – appeared in Modernist manifestos, another – Perpetua – provided titling for Coronation orders of service. He was a radical conservative who saw little in the world that would not be improved by a return to good old ways and good old days – yet he worked willingly and successfully with modern machinery. His writing about art, society, clothing, life, love, work and money combines Chestertonian medievalising Catholicism, a Ruskinian attitude to work (and art-work), and a plain man’s dislike of art-nonsense. He argued in brisk prose in which one downright commonsensical remark is not infrequently found to contradict another. His friends and assistants spoke of him warmly; he seems to have been less hectoring in the flesh than on the page. He was prolific. Lettering, carving, type designs, book illustrations, engravings and drawings were produced in an abundance which would be more remarkable if his style of smoothed-down and rounded-off surfaces did not seem so suitable a vehicle for an overflowing of craftsmanlike work. Like Stanley Spencer, he left sheaves of erotic drawings. A collection of studies of penises was offered, at Gill’s suggestion, to the Royal College of Surgeons: he thought ‘anatomy books are not well illustrated in respect of the male organ.’ They were turned down because they did not ‘show any pathological condition’. There was the rub – he had no desire to dwell on the horrid actuality of crucifixion, or draw less than perfectly pneumatic flesh. David Jones was right when he spoke of the ‘toyishness’ of Gill’s sculpture, of ‘lack of weight and volume’ and of ‘a linear grace ... not always foiled enough so that too often elegance and sometimes a positive slickness harmed his work’. The ‘linear grace’ was only a benefit when he was cutting inscriptions and designing type – here there is no over-refinement, only mastery which increased with age. His best wood engravings – those for the Four Gospels, for example, where letters and human figures are literally intertwined – were designed as decorations for printed texts, and are more embellishments than illustrations. His carving, for all that he objected in theory to man-made decoration on machine-made buildings, looks best when it is part of an architectural whole.

Gill’s Autobiography is longer on social and aesthetic theory than on narrative – most of what happened to him, he said, happened in his head. Malcolm Yorke says more about ‘excesses of amorous nature’ than friends and disciples do (like Robert Speaight, whose biography came out in 1966), in whose hands his reputation has largely rested. The very presence of a woman was a temptation and incitement: he had Ayatollah-like ideas about women’s clothing – perhaps a reflection of his preternaturally low arousal threshold. Before and after his marriage he went with prostitutes – he and his wife wrote each other confessional accounts of their sexual pasts, and Gill in his says: ‘It is only necessary to add that though since marriage I have “known” other women – all prostitutes with the exception of ... – such things have been mainly incidental and have occurred during absences from home as a result of a slack notion of the rights and wrongs of sexual things ...’ He went on being slack, and agonising about it. Yorke tells of other affairs, and of the attraction for Gill of bohemian freedom – despite his scorn of bohemian attitudes to life and work. One gets very little sense of what any individual woman, as against women in general, meant in Gill’s life. They, like the girls in his drawings and carvings, are sexual presences rather than individuals.

Yorke seeks to assess Gill’s place in 20th-century art and art-theory. This proves not so much difficult as unproductive. Chesterton, in a sympathetic review of Gill’s Art Nonsense, wrote, ‘he begins so very much at the beginning, that there is no getting behind him or treating his absolutes as relative to anything else,’ while the young Gill could say of his work in relation to that of Matisse that ‘if, on the other hand, you are like me and John and McEvoy and Epstein, then, feeling yourself beyond the reaction and beyond the transition, you have a right to feel superior.’ He was always free of self-doubt. Seeing photographs of him in his smock (he was against trousers but sometimes wore loose drawers underneath the smock), stalwart and bearded, it is easy to think of him as a Medieval master-craftsman. The Catholic convert accepted the authority of God, the master exercised the authority of his craft, the letter-cutter worked within limits set by the authority of accepted shapes. In Gill, more than in most other recipients of the socialist-arts-and-crafts tradition, one sees that part of the price of the ‘reasonable, decent, holy tradition of working’ which he so firmly believed in, might be loss of freedom and inventiveness. Yorke speaks of the coherence and integrity of Gill’s life, of the continuing pertinence of the questions he asked, and finally agrees that Gill was right in claiming that it was the times which were out of joint, not him. He is wonderfully patient, and unravels contradictions and identifies weaknesses, in what Gill wrote and made, without losing enthusiasm for what he achieved.