The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: A Revolution in Seeing

It’s 1848 and there’s a revolutionary unease across Europe, from Naples to Prague, in Paris and London. The French king has been deposed (again) and there are the stirrings of a new approach to landscape painting in the village of Barbizon just outside Paris. Karl Marx has just published The Communist Manifesto. And in Britain there are waves of protest: the Chartist Movement is demanding the right to vote for all adult men, equal electoral districts and secret ballots at elections. In London the authorities are fearful: the Royal family has removed to the Isle of Wight; cavalry, soldiers and voluntary constables patrol the streets and the director of the British Museum is in full defensive mode, stockpiling bricks and stones on the Museum’s roof to be hurled down by loyal staff onto the feared swarm of rioters below. 20,000 Chartist protestors gather on Kennington Common, delegates are sent to Westminster; Parliament ignores their petitions.

In the British art world: William Blake was quietly forgotten; Samuel Palmer has gone mainstream, John Constable is dead; Turner is ageing, a recluse, his paintings spoiling under the leaking roof of his studio and gallery. The Royal Academy exhibits commercial, decorative, somewhat less-than-exciting paintings to the new rich industrialists and manufacturers. It seems to have been a time of tedium…

However, in a back street of London, there was a radical – revolutionary – development as a group of young Sketching Club artists came together, a “band of zealots” who from 1848 to 1856 would work collectively, committedly, to develop a new way of painting “built on the assumption that art should deal with serious issues… not trivialities to amuse the leisure hours of the middles-classes”. They rejected the abiding authority of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ still-influential lectures (calling him Sir Sloshua), abandoned the Academy’s high-evaluation of Raphael’s paintings and turned instead towards notions of earlier, pre-Renaissance art: overturning perspective, clarifying line and brightening colour. As an affront to the Academy artists’ use of A.R.A. or R.A. in their signatures, these young radical signed their paintings P.R.B. – the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

A roll-call of their names includes some who are now famous, others rather less well-known.


Self Portrait (1847)
John Everett Millais (1829–1896)
[Walker Art Gallery]

portrait - Rossetti

Self portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) [c/o Bridgeman Images]

portrait - Hunt

Self-portrait of William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) [1845; Birmingham Museums]

portrait - Brown

Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) Self Portrait in a Brown Coat, c. 1844 [private collection] – a close associate of the PRBs, but never a member.

Lesser-known PRBs include: Thomas Woolner (1825-1892) sculptor (unknown photographer); William Rossetti (1829-1919) [sketch by Dante Rossetti; private; art critic]; Frederick Stevens [1853; sketch by William Rossetti; private] and Charles Allston Collins [1850, JE Millais; Ashmolean]


“None of them were very clear about how they were going to express what they meant, but they all had a healthy appetite for rebelling against the order of the day, which they regarded as singularly stuffy, the established artists of the Academy turning out pictures the colour of bitumen, a dingy brown pigment impregnating the canvas; the subjects classical clichés.

The first meeting of the group was held at Millais’ parents’ house on Gower Street… Like all their gatherings it was an informal occasion even though they were serious about the issue. Amid teasing, much laughter and generally letting off their rollicking spirits, they declared the Brotherhood to have four definite purposes:

1. to have a genuine idea to express
2. to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express it
3. to sympathise with what was direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what was conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote
4. and, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

…The result was a brilliancy of colour combined with startling realism.”

[from “Wives and Stunners” by Henrietta Garnett, p.3]


The effect of this ‘manifesto’ was. ultimately, to analyse “the visual” and investigate “ways of seeing”. Let us turn to one of Rossetti’s early works:

Rossetti - Girlhood

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
[Tate Britain]

“The Virgin Mary is shown here as a young girl, working on an embroidery with her mother, Saint Anne. Her father, Saint Joachim, is pruning a vine. The picture is full of symbolic details. The palm branch on the floor and thorny briar rose on the wall allude to Christ’s Passion, the lilies to the Virgin’s purity, and the books to the virtues of hope, faith and charity. The dove represents the Holy Spirit. This was Rossetti’s first completed oil painting and the first picture to be exhibited with the initials ‘PRB’, for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, inscribed on it” – Tate.

This extraordinary work was painted by Rossetti at the family home in Hallam Street, just north of London’s Oxford Street; his mother and sister (Christina, the poet) were the models. It was painted very slowly with small brushes and thin oils on a white background, giving the luminosity and bright colour that was so different to the usual ‘golden browns’ of British paintings (most artists used bitumen to give their work the atmosphere of an ‘old master’, giving a certain warmth, but which darkens over time). It was one of the first effects to be noted – and duly criticised – by Academics who, further, noted the rejection of any ‘principal light’ in the picture (from which colour would radiate in increasingly darker tones). Instead Rossetti and the PRBs sought closely-worked backgrounds as well as foreground details, rejecting the ‘dark corner’ effect, and so developing a ‘flatter’ perspective (that might remind us of stained glass windows).

In turn, the faithful study of nature and desire for truths meant that Rossetti rejected the idea of young Mary reading (the usual improbable picture) and, instead, he shows her embroidering a lily under the direction of St. Anne whilst her father, St. Joachim, prunes the vine just beyond.

Symbolism prevails: the lily stands for innocence, the dove at the window represents the Annunciation and the Holy Spirit, the vine the coming of Christ and the red robe suggests his Passion. Part of the reaction against the work of the PRBs was due to this overt symbolism. The Catholic Church had been legalised again only in 1829 and the immediate outcome was a call for ‘high church’ theology and ritual (there were protests, even riots, as a consequence). In the corner, just behind Mary, Rossetti has painted an organ, reflecting the revival of choral music.

In this context we might turn to “Christ in the House of His Parents” otherwise known as The Carpenter’s Shop, painted in 1849-50 by John Everett Millais (Tate):

Millais - Carpenters Shop

Again, we see the clarity of colour, the extent of fine detail and the use of the full canvas, right to the corners; and the ‘truth to nature’ mantra is central. Millais studied for this painting in a carpenter’s shop on Oxford St. noting, for example, the muscular arms of the carpenter. But it is the liturgical symbolism that abounds throughout – from the dove of the Holy Spirit on the ladder to the positioning of the workbench as akin to an altar and, of course, the blood of Christ dripping from the palm of his hand onto his foot, pre-viewing the Crucifixion. Outside the window a field of sheep – the congregational flock (and, perhaps, a reflection of the gawping viewers at the RA exhibition!).

Bringing this image of Jesus and his family into an everyday carpenter’s shop on Oxford St. caused something of a rumpus. Charles Dickens, no less, described the infant Jesus a “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering red-haired boy in a nightgown” who seems to have hurt himself playing in the gutter. And Mary – so horrible in her ugliness, “would stand out as a monster in the vilest cabaret… or the lowest gin shop.” Bang goes Dickens’s romantic concern for the poor then. And Millais’ mother cannot have been too pleased, for she was the model for Mary.

It seems there was just too much grounded ‘reality’ for the connoisseurs. The painting forces us – as viewers – to work, to look actively, at all the details of the picture and so reflect not romantically nor nostalgically nor even imaginatively, but seriously on the story of Christ, its meaning – and its re-presentation – in the contemporary everyday world.

Just to pick up on another Rossetti painting in relation to this ‘truth to nature’ we might note “The Annunciation” he painted at the same time Millais was working on The Carpenter’s Shop.

Rossetti - Annunciation

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [1849–50; Tate]

“Rossetti sought in this work a radical reinterpretation of the Annunciation. Traditionally the Virgin was depicted in studious contemplation, reading a missal at a prie-dieu; but here Rossetti shows her rising awkwardly from a low bed, as if disturbed from sleep, while the Angel Gabriel presents her with a white lily. Both figures are dressed in white, a symbol of the virgin’s purity, and the angel’s role as the messenger of god is emphasised by the small white dove hovering beside him, signifying the presence of the holy spirit. Rossetti used several sitters for his figures, including his brother, William Michael, for the Angel and his sister, Christina, for the Virgin” – Tate website.

One can imagine the reaction to the Mary here in similar terms as that towards the ‘blubbering’ boy Jesus; despite the symbolism and the haloes, the young woman is vulnerable, shy and awkward – the ‘truth to nature’ here is the truth to psychology: a young girl being suddenly awoken by an Angel and realising the full import of its message.

I want to return, however, to Rossetti’s “Girlhood of Mary Virgin” for, to me, there is another aspect to the painting that is absolutely central to our understanding of these early works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood…


Mary here is working on her embroidery, she is in this context an artist and, notice how she represents that element of the PRB manifesto to ‘study nature attentively’ – she is looking directly, seriously, concentratedly on the flower itself. To my mind this is a painting about seeing, about looking; about making art. The artist must attend to the truth of what she sees and in turn we, as viewers, must attend to all the details of the picture. These are not ‘pretty pictures’ for the dining rooms of the wealthy; these are arguments, debates about art, visual culture, the act of seeing; looking actively as artist and viewer and, in turn, taking the role and purpose of art seriously.

Two other early PRB paintings also take up this theme:

Millais - Wyatt

Mrs James Wyatt Jr and her Daughter Sarah by John Everett Millais (1829–1896) [Tate Britain] painted in 1850 seems a surprisingly stark painting for the Brotherhood, especially in terms of its low, dark colours and the very stiff poses of both mother and daughter. Yet, as previous pictures we’ve seen it has a very strong design, refuses the ‘dark corner’ method of painting, and it queries ideas of seeing and visual culture by clashing an array of representative styles. The Tate tells us that on the walls we have:

“from left to right, prints after Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia, Leonardo’s The Last Supper and Raphael’s Alba Madonna…. Millais disdained Raphael at this time, and used this portrait to set out his position as a Pre-Raphaelite. His stark, realistic portrayal of this mother and child contrasts sharply with Raphael’s soft, idealised depiction of the subject.”

As Millais rejects the traditional, softly-rounded ‘mother and child’ formulation, he takes this dramatic frieze-like method, laying out the subjects across the canvas without offering any depth to reject complex ‘renaissance’ technique – indeed we might compare this more simplistic, flat and linear approach to the pictures in the children’s book that lies open, or indeed the doll which is just as stiff in limb and expression. In turn, still in contrast to the Raphaels, Millais’ style is closer to early Italian and Flemish – that is pre-Raphaelite – portraiture or perhaps the paintings of 18th century England (that is, pre-Academic).

As Elizabeth Prettejohn writes: “The picture does not imitate any one prototype, nor even a single primitive style; instead it explores a variety of primitive modes from the childish through the amateur to the archaic… It asks the viewer to think about the differences between naïve and sophisticated, archaic and modern, childlike and mature” [The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites p.22-3].

In other words it is an essay on visual representation; and it is as much the painter’s exploration as it is ours, the viewers.

Similarly we might look at:

Collins, Charles Allston, 1828-1873; Convent Thoughts

Convent Thoughts (1851)
Charles Allston Collins (1828–1873)
The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

It’s another deliciously complex enquiry into looking, seeing and visual representation: the nun holds an illuminated book in her hand, an example of ‘old’ art, but she has let it drop to her side; instead she studies the flower – nature – itself, directly. This seems to ascribe to the Brotherhood’s manifesto of course. However, if we compare the colours on the book’s pages, we see how they echo in the garden itself, suggesting how much closer the ancient arts were to the reality of nature. As Prettejohn writes: “The picture asks us, with the nun, to compare the medieval artist’s work with the natural beauty of the garden” (p.63). That the water of the pond gives another reflection is also suggestive, underlining the parallel.

Questions of seeing, the very act of looking, are essential to understanding the early works of the Brotherhood, and they concern both the artist and the viewer within the visual discussion. But this dynamic goes further than the walls of the exhibition; seeing has a social, moral dimension too.

Hunt - Awakening

The Awakening Conscience (1853)William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) [Tate Britain]

“With his typical thoroughness, Hunt hired a room at Woodbine Villa, 7 Alpha Place, St John’s Wood, a ‘maison de convenance’, to use as the setting. A gentleman has installed his mistress (known to be such because of her absence of a wedding ring) in a house for their meetings. As they play and sing to Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night, she has a sudden spiritual revelation…” (Tate website)

The moral of the tale here is precisely the act of seeing. Through all the domestic clutter of this love-making next, the young woman seems about to rise from sitting on her lover’s lap. The ‘revelation’ noted by the Tate seems to be that there is more to life than this. But what stirs this emancipation?

Behind the couple, a mirror on the wall reflects the window that the woman is facing: sunlight, a breeze in the trees perhaps, the garden and its flowers. In contrast to the claustrophobic room – the claustrophobic relationship, the claustrophobic role of mistress – the open window reveals the brilliance and liberty, the truth of nature. Hunt has depicted the moment when the young woman sees – for the very first time – the truth of her situation and the possibility of her own freedom.

That ‘moment’ of seeing and its implications for women, is a theme to which we’ll return.

But we should note the extraordinary detail Hunt deploys in this painting of the room – nothing is ignored from the elaborate wallpaper to the patterned carpet, the music on the piano and the man’s dropped glove. And there are symbolic hints as to the moral too: the cat looking up, one paw on a captured bat, and the clock (time) trapped in a glass bell.

We can also see the loose threads of the woman’s embroidery dangling and muddled, an echo of which – again – we might find in a moment.

In terms of the detail, however, we should turn briefly to the art critic John Ruskin. He was one of the teachers at the Working Men’s College in London, his students were furniture-makers, jewellers, bookbinders – men in practical work. But Ruskin refused to teach them (useful?) commercial skills. He forced them to look closely, minutely, at objects and scenes, shapes and colours by using a piece of white board with a tiny hole cut in the middle and they would have to paint the subject before them bit by bit, mixing colour to match exactly what they could see.

It’s an exercise in what we might call the ‘hard-edged’ Pre-Raphaelitism of Holman Hunt – from the intricate interior details of “The Awakening Conscience” to:

Hunt - Sheep.png

Our English Coasts, 1852 (‘Strayed Sheep’) William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) [Tate Britain] in which every blade of grass, leaf – even the soft nostrils of the sheep seem outrageously ‘present’ in their ‘truth to nature’.

It’s a feat achieved also by John Everett Millais in perhaps one of the most famous PRB paintings: “Ophelia” (1851-2; Tate):

Millais - Ophelia.png

Talk about natural and historical (literary) exactitude. If we divide the paintings into two and look first at the ‘landscape’ element, the background and river were studied and painted in situ by Millais; in fact the exact spot has been ‘discovered’ on the banks of the Hogsmill River (Old Malden) by biologist Barbara Webb who recognised not only the plants and flowers, but even the flow of the water. This level of details would have been shocking in 1851 – compare it with Constable’s looser representations of Suffolk, or Turner’s late increasingly abstract landscape scenes.

But the effect of such detail relates again to the act of seeing. One could not just stand six feet away from Millais’ painting – one came up close to look inch by inch at its exquisite detail. Again, this is no pretty painting. The Brotherhood expected the work of the artist to be taken seriously, forcing the viewer to come up close and regard the skill of the painting.

The subject is of course from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and, although this is a literary text, it doesn’t mean Millais uses his imagination to depict Ophelia’s suicide. Instead the model had to pose in a bath tub in Millais’ studio. This being early Victorian London, there was no hot water, so she lay in cold water, candles lit around the bath (which all went out, unnoticed by Millais) for hours, resulting in pneumonia.

Less dramatically in his pursuit of literature’s truth , we might note the flowers held in Ophelia’s hand and strewn across her dress:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance

Pray you love, remember

And there is pansies: that’s for thoughts.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines.

There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.

We may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays.

You may wear rue with a difference.

There’s a daisy.

I would give you violets,

But they withered all when my father died.


Keeping, however, with our discussion of sight and seeing as contemporary viewers of this painting, there is something – someone – else to focus our attention here.

Let us take a side-step.

“The Lady of Shalott” is a ballad by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), recounting The Lady’s imprisonment in a tower, her escape and her eventual death. Like his other early poems – “Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere“, and “Galahad” – the poem recasts Arthurian subject matter loosely based on medieval sources. Tennyson wrote two versions of the poem, one published in 1833, of 20 stanzas, the other in 1842, of 19 stanzas. One of the poet’s best-known works, its vivid medieval romanticism and enigmatic symbolism inspired many painters, especially the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers. [Wikipedia]

Part of its fascination is that the Lady is locked in a tower outside the city of Camelot for an unknown reason, as in a mysterious fairytale. She is removed from any social context; unseen by the field workers, market girls or anyone else who passes by – her singing in the moonlit night is though to be that of a fairy. In turn she is unable to look out at anyone else directly. She may weave pictures at her loom, but any outside inspiration must be viewed only by way of a mirror through “the shadows of the world”.

The earliest Pre-Raphaelite representation of the poem is Holman Hunt’s study, a drawing of 1850 (at the National Gallery of Victoria; c/o

Hunt - Shalott

The story is told through the roundels on the wall, in clockwise fashion. At the top is a view of the Arthurian city of Camelot, the next shows the Lady working at her loom with the large round mirror before her – she is looking at its reflected image in the third to get inspiration for her weaving. Should she look directly out through the window, a curse will befall her. The fourth roundel reveals the reflected vision of Sir Lancelot, the romantic knight. And then we can’t see the next roundel. Instead we see before us, in the main image – that something has gone very wrong, the mirror has cracked and the web of the Lady’s weaving has flown loose, the threads entangling her (remember the threads in “The Awakening Conscience”?).

The following three roundels tell the rest of the story: the Lady goes out and prepares a boat, she can be seen floating down the river, but by the time she reaches Camelot she is dead, a figure bends over her – Sir Lancelot – contemplating her unknown body.

At first it seems a (melo)dramatic romantic morality tale of women’s virginity; innocence is lost when she breaks the moral code and, in her desire for Sir Lancelot, turns to look out of the window.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

And it is that moment, that looking out of the window as the Lady takes an active role in her own life, follows her own desires that would be shown in Holman Hunt’s missing roundel: we see the lead up and the fall-out, but never that moment when she takes actual control of her destiny.

It is exactly that ‘missing moment’ that Elizabeth Siddal chose to draw

Siddal - Shalott

[drawn 15th December, 1853; c/o

Here too the mirror cracks, the weaving flies, the cupboard door bursts open. But, for Elizabeth Siddal, the necessity is to show her Lady looking, actively regarding; rebelling against the unknown curse, and seeing for herself. No longer passive victim, she is an active heroine.

Moreover, she has taken up the pre-requisites of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s manifesto:

1. to have a genuine idea to express
2. to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express it
3. to sympathise with what was direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what was conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote

And that is important because Elizabeth Siddal – who we all know as Ophelia in Millais’ famous painting – was determined to become an artist herself; and if she were to do that which was “most indispensable of all, [and] produce thoroughly good pictures” she, like the Lady of Shalott, and other women who wanted to be artists at the time, would have to break every rule and every convention in the book. She did; they did. 


Excellent resources:


“Art of the Pre-Raphaelites” by Elizabeth Prettejohn is (like all her books) absolutely fantastic, detailed, thorough and very readable, published by Tate.

“Wives and Stunners” which, despite its flamboyant title, is actually a very good telling of both the men and the women in the Pre-Raphaelite story by Henrietta Garnett.

and, to be published in September is “The Illustrated Letters and Diaries of the Pre-Raphaelites”, edited by another brilliant scholar of Victorian art Jan Marsh.


Also in September 2018 there is going to be a new exhibition at the Tate:



About TheCommonViewer

Researching "British Art Groups since 1830s"; special focus: The Surrealist Art of John Banting; Isolation Project: "Rambling with Rothenstein" Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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