Poetic and unflinching: "Lady Lilith", 1866-68, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
In 1848, "the year of revolutions", the authorities of Europe were living on their nerves. France, Germany, Russia, Italy and the Habsburg empire were all shaken and Britain prepared for upheaval. In September three young men met in a house on Gower Street in London to plot a revolution of their own. The agitators were not after political change, however, but an artistic convulsion. The conspirators were all students at the Royal Academy: William Holman Hunt, aged 21; John Everett Millais, aged 19; and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, aged 20. At the end of their meeting the three had come up with a name for their secret society: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB).
Four other members were quickly co-opted: the painter James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and two art critics, Rossetti's brother William Michael and F.G. Stephens. The PRB laid out their aims in a manifesto: "1. To have genuine ideas to express. 2. To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them. 3. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote. 4. Most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues." These were young British artists with both talent and moral seriousness.
What was radical about the PRB was their dismissal of the artistic hierarchy: Raphael, the lodestar of academic art, was declared to be inferior to pre-Renaissance Italian and Netherlandish painters; Sir Joshua Reynolds, the panjandrum of art teaching, was mocked as "Sir Sloshua"; the Middle Ages were held to have been the most spiritual and creative of eras. The PRB was forward-thinking because (like earlier Romantics) it looked backwards.
Tate Britain's new exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, includes some 175 pieces and sets out to present the Brotherhood as Britain's first modern art movement. It also emphasises the PRB's deep engagement with high Anglicanism, the role of women, the working poor and wider social issues — Holman Hunt and Millais, for example, both attended the huge Chartist gathering on Kennington Common in April 1848. The group itself lasted for a mere five years but its influence was only then gathering pace. The PRB was the direct source for the airy medievalism of Burne-Jones and the guild ethos of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement; it nurtured both the Aesthetic movement and the Symbolists too.
The full scope of the group's reach will be on display not just through a near full-hand of its most significant paintings, from Millais's "Ophelia" to Holman Hunt's "The Scapegoat", but also its applied arts, from Morris & Co tapestries to Burne-Jones stained glass designs and Philip Webb furniture.
So familiar is the Pre-Raphaelite look that it is easy to forget just what consternation their first productions caused. Critics were initially mystified by the PRB monogram that appeared on each painting and startled by the pictures themselves. When Charles Dickens saw Millais's "Christ in the House of His Parents" he wrote that the figure of Mary was "so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England."