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Pre-Raphaelites: A group of rebellious, Victorian artists became the art market’s hottest commodity

A tight-knit fraternity

Few movements have left such a lasting impact on British art and culture as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Since the 1980s the art world has witnessed a “steady, growing interest in Pre-Raphaelite works from a small number of collectors” (Emma Crichton-Miller), who have essentially monopolised the market by buying a large number of the brotherhoods output, only adding to the collective fervour surrounding the works of these celebrated artists.

But the PRBs paintings were not always held in such high regard, in the early part of the 20th century the movement largely fell out of favour, dismissed by critics for being overly sentimental. Their renewed popularity was fuelled by a major retrospective exhibition staged by the Tate Gallery in 1984.

The Brotherhood, founded in 1848 comprised primarily of William Hollman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais was the “nucleus of a circle of young anti-establishment artists” who had become increasingly disenchanted with the antiquated values of the Royal Academy (RA). The PRB’s main aims were to develop a style that was more faithful to realism in light of the scientific advancements of the 19th Century and could speak “meaningfully to all men” (David B. Brown).

The painting that caused a stir

John Everett Millais’ 1850 painting Christ in the House of His Parents perfectly embodies these two main aims. The painting catapulted the movement into the public eye with its realistic depictions of divinity. The scene shows a young Christ in the foreground presenting his bloodstained hands to Mary while Joseph whittles away in the background, clearly sunburnt as pronounced veins map his forearms. To his right Saint Anne looks on, her arthritic hands swollen and her expression tired. The image does not attempt to disguise the harsh realities of destitution and instead highlights the taxing monotony of hard labour. One of the paintings harshest critics was Victorian Author Charles Dickens who was horrified by Millais’ interpretation of Christ as a “hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a nightgown” (Dickens, Household Words, June 1850). While perhaps not the desired reception to his painting, Millais would have surely been elated that his work had caused such a stir. It almost seems silly now to accuse the Pre-Raphaelites of being “too realistic” given how effortlessly beautiful many of their subjects appear but at the time these paintings broke the established conventions of genre painting.

A crisis of faith, the pre-Raphaelites and spirituality

The highly religious subject matter of Millais’ controversial painting represents a hugely important part of the movement’s identity and why their works continue to fetch sky-high prices at auction. People often assume that the Pre-Raphaelites were estranged from religion given the scientific advancements of the time but this is not entirely true. In fact, historians have long pointed out the similarities between the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the Oxford Movement, both rejected the status quo and looked to the past for inspiration. In the case of the Tractarians of the Oxford movement they wanted to see the return of medieval liturgy following a hierarchical restructuring of the Anglican church meanwhile the pre-Raphaelites resisted the antiquated practices of the RA and sought to emulate the style of Quattrocentro artists from the middle ages.

Clearly medievalism and more specifically medieval morality was a point of interest for both movements. In an age of growing scepticism, the Pre-Raphaelites found that theological dogmatism was off-putting and settled instead for images that could be profoundly spiritual without endorsing any specific religion.

Perhaps the best example is Hunt’s painting The Light of the World (1853). In this picture Hunt imagines Jesus holding a lantern knocking on an overgrown door, in the background the full moon illuminates his silhouette and the ominous candlelight projects a skull-like shadow on the doorframe.

The image is a reference to Revelation 3:20 “I stand at the door and knock, if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”. In other words, Hunt is trying to argue that the role of religion should not be to coerce people but to simply welcome those who seek guidance and salvation. In many ways this biblical verse is emblematic of the PRB’s approach to religion, they were not interested in presenting Christianity as a set of uncontested theological truths but rather a series of questions that asked the viewer to examine their own relationship with spirituality. What do you believe? What does this all mean to you? This delicate approach to religion has ensured that the PR’s works have remained highly sought after by art buyers even today. While the ecclesial grandeur of Marian art like Diego Velazquez’ Coronation of the Virgin communicate the awe-inspiring power of divinity, these images can feel alienating while the PRB’s depictions of biblical scenes seek to humanise these religious figures and focus on the commonality of love, spirituality and suffering.

Vive la revolution! How the Industrial Revolution changed everything

Perhaps people’s continued fascination with the Pre-Raphaelites can be explained by the unique set of circumstances that surrounded the movement. Their innovative style was “the distinctive product of a particular place and time” (Tim Barringer & Jason Rosenfeld, Victorian Avant-Garde). The mid 19th Century was an extraordinary period of change, it is no coincidence that the PRB formed in 1848 during one of the most widespread revolutionary waves in European history.

Amidst this political upheaval Britain was becoming a global superpower having already undergone an industrial revolution. The Great Exhibition of 1850 celebrated with great fanfare the triumph of British engineering in this new automated age.

But most importantly, this industrial boom created a new middle class who preferred paintings that depicted ordinary life rather than the hyper idealism of the RA. The Pre-Raphaelites innovative style was precisely the kind of work that appealed to this blossoming mercantile class, some of their most important patrons were ambitious industrialists like the printer and publisher Thomas Combe or the ship builder Thomas Fairbairn. It could be argued that without the newfound wealth generated by the expanding industrial economy the Pre-Raphaelite movement would have never reached the same stratospheric levels of success.

‘The pre-Raphaelite sisterhood’

Another reason the Pre-Raphaelites have remained some of the most prized artists among collectors is the unique role of women within the movement. As Tim Barringer and Jason Rosenfeld explain the notion of an artistic fraternity might appear to be “premised on the exclusion of women [but] there were many influential female figures in the wider Pre-Raphaelite circle”. The story is of the PRB is one littered with scandalous affairs, mistresses, and tragic love-triangles.

To get an idea of just how messy the brotherhoods’ romantic conquests were, I have created a diagram below that details many of their most famous mistresses, this guide is not comprehensive nor definitive but highlights how important the role of women was in the PRB.

This issue has attracted a lot of discussion in recent years. In fact, the Tate Gallery hosted its first exhibition devoted solely to the so-called ‘Pre-Raphaelite sisters’ in October of 2019. The exhibition dealt with the societal stigma experienced by many of the Pre-Raphaelites’ models as modelling was often associated with sexual impropriety. It was considered scandalous for a woman to be unchaperoned in the company of men and these anxieties were only amplified by the Pre-Raphaelites’ interest in painting disgraced heroines from literary history. The strict societal taboos of the Victorian era are most clearly expressed in Rossetti’s Found and William Hollman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience.

In Rosetti’s Found he directly engages with the gendered hypocrisy of Victorian morality; a man is shown having discovered his former sweetheart working as a prostitute and resolves to take her under his care. But upon closer inspection the scene is far more sinister than one might first suspect. Her former lover does not appear to handle her with tentative hands but rather clasps her wrists like a guard placing her under arrest, in the background the drover’s cart sits abandoned in the street and a white calf struggles under webbed netting. The bound calf anxiously anticipates the cattle market, doomed to either suffer a lifetime in captivity or certain slaughter. The calf’s troubling fate mirrors the prospects of the young prostitute. She will either return to the streets or marry her lover and be condemned to a different kind of servitude. This painting perfectly encapsulates the suffocating expectations placed on women at this time and how easily they could be socially ostracised if they did not satisfy the rigid standards feminine modesty, as historian Sarah Kuhl explains “to be respectable meant everything [in Victorian society]”.

Many of the Pre-Raphaelite models were gifted artists themselves but were reduced to pretty faces on a canvas because it was considered “improper for women to be openly ambitious about their career [or] show talent publicly” (Marielle Ekkelenkamp).

To make matters worse, it wasn’t just their reputations that many of the ‘Pre-Raphaelite sister’s’ jeopardised through their close relationship with the brotherhood, for instance Lizzie Siddal who famously posed for Millais’ Ophelia developed a serious case of pneumonia after sitting in icy bathwater for hours on end. She would continue to suffer from bouts of ill health for the rest of her life and eventually passed away at the age of just 32 from an overdose having developed an addiction to opioids to manage her pain.

According to Natalie Hegert, it is precisely these stories of love, addiction and tragedy “behind the canvases [that] enhance the desire and demand for Pre-Raphaelite works”. Only now have the artistic accomplishments of these women been acknowledged by critics and historians, inflating the price of Pre-Raphaelite art.

Ultimately, even those who profess little interest in art will be familiar with the brotherhoods’ most popular paintings whether it’s Millais’ tragic depiction of Ophelia in her final moments or Waterhouses’ lovesick Lady of Shalott. These images have become synonymous with the Arthurian legends of old. This is no accident, in fact Rosetti, Millais and Hunt approached Alfred Tennyson and agreed to design a set of illustrations to accompany an anthology of his poems, the final product containing 30 woodcut illustrations was published in 1857. The Pre-Raphaelites were able to capitalise on an increasingly literate middle class as well as advancements in print media. While not a huge commercial success at the time, this joint venture between the PRB and Tennyson ushered in what is often considered the Golden Age of Illustration and their works thereafter became the definitive visual guide to the fantastical world of children’s fairy tales.

Today the market for pre-Raphaelite paintings is “strictly polarised between a handful of names at the top (Rossetti, Burne-Jones etc.) and the rest…” (Emma Crichton-Miller), in other words, the small size of the brotherhood has created a degree of scarcity, if you want an authentic Pre-Raphaelite painting your options are somewhat limited and you might have to wait a while before an excellent example becomes available on the market. In recent years, art buyers appear to have become increasingly disenchanted with Victorian genre painting, these landscapes and stoic portraits have seemingly been consigned to the dustbin of history. Pre-Raphaelite works however have remained desirable. In a 2017 article published by the Antiques Trade Gazette, Gabriel Burner noted that the buyer’s market for Victorian art is unique for its “selectivity and sensitivity”, buyers know what they are looking for and aren’t willing to settle for any less. But when it comes to Pre-Raphaelite paintings, buyers are willing to pay astronomical prices, for instance an auction hosted by Christie’s in 2017 made a total of £2.97m in sales of which over £1m alone came from 5 Pre-Raphaelite oil paintings.

So why do these paintings continue to outperform others belonging to the same period? Well, the Pre-Raphaelites represented a crucial turning point in British art history and their paintings have continued to resonate with people because of their sensitive approach to religious subject matter, the role of the “strong and sensuous women” (Natalie Hergert) who inspired the brotherhood and their enchanting reimagining’s of classical stories which breathed new life into beloved, childhood fairy tales. Regardless, it’s unlikely that the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood today would’ve cared about the commercial performance of their works at auction but rather the reception to their works amongst contemporary audiences. As the art critic and prominent supporter of the PRB John Ruskin once said, “the highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it”. In the case of the PRB, they have become legendary figures in their own right having cemented their place in art history for centuries to come.

Mia Warren

Vice President

Cambridge University Fashion & Luxury Business Society

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