LONDON – In its second edition, fashion magazine Porter – the new publication from Net-a-Porter – commissioned photographer Jeff Bark and model Karen Elson to recreate the sensual reverie of the paintings of that most charismatic member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose work Pandora is in our sale of British & Irish Art on 22 May.

The resulting story – entitled Art of Fantasy – gives not only a preview of the new show The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but also an insight into how the Pre-Raphaelite ‘look’ can still inspire popular culture after almost a century and a half. On a more personal note it also gives an art historian such as myself a diverting – slightly nerdy perhaps – opportunity to try and work out which actual pictures inspired the shoot.

Courtesy of Porter Magazine / Photography Jeff Bark / Model Karen Elson.

Straight off, I was struck how two Porter photographs were inspired by Rossetti’s paintings of his most famous muse, Jane Morris – who is also the model for our own Pandora. In one, the pose recalls Rossetti’s tragic picture of Pia de' Tolomei imprisoned in a malarial marsh by a cruel husband.

Rossetti’s Pia de' Tolomei, now in the Spencer Museum of Art in Kansas.

However, it is the other shot of Elson looking melancholic and introspective that is closest in mood to the paintings of Rossetti. Her face recalls the expression of Rossetti’s unhappy Proserpine, a chalk drawing that was sold at Sotheby’s last year for over £3,200,000.

Courtesy of Porter Magazine / Photography Jeff Bark / Model Karen Elson.

In his masterpiece The Beloved from 1863, Rossetti celebrated the contrasts between the professional models he employed for this picture. At the centre of the composition, based upon the shape of an opening flower with radiating petals, Rossetti placed fair-skinned and red-haired model Marie Ford – the supreme ‘Pre-Raphaelite Type.’

Rossetti’s The Beloved, in the collection of the Tate, but currently on display in Turin's Palazzo Chiablese, which is the final calling point for the hugely successful exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. Entitled The Utopia of Beauty, the exhibition runs until 13 July.

In Porter, Karen Elson is posed in a similar way to how Rossetti painted Ford in The Beloved, drawing her veil from her face to reveal the porcelain glow of her rosy skin and glossy auburn hair which emphasises the red of her pouting lips – made even more intense by the contrast with the surrounding green (foliage in the photograph and gown in the painting). 

Courtesy of Porter Magazine / Photography Jeff Bark / Model Karen Elson.

Elson was the perfect choice of model for these photographs, an incarnation of the Pre-Raphaelite ‘Stunner’ (as the group called beautiful women) of the type that made Rossetti dash after women in the street. She has the high-arched bows, Cupids-bow mouth, the deep-green dreamy eyes, elegant, expressive hands and long limbs that Rossetti favoured in his models – but foremost, of course, she has the kind of red hair that Rossetti saw as a women’s greatest gift.

Courtesy of Porter Magazine / Photography Jeff Bark / Model Karen Elson.

When introduced to one of his models, Fanny Cornforth, in a restaurant he immediately let down her hair and painted her several times brushing her it, most memorably in the version of Lady Lilith, which is included in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Henry Treffry Dunn, Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor, bodycolor and gum, 20 3/16 x 17 5/16 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1908 (08.162.1). Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Porter has Karen Elson lifting her hair in a manner that recalls the pose of Lilith brushing out her red hair to make a net in which to ensnare men.

Courtesy of Porter Magazine / Photography Jeff Bark / Model Karen Elson.

The appeal of the Pre-Raphaelites lives on then – the subject of exhibitions, auctions and fashion shoots Rossetti and his fellow artists had an idea of beauty that continues to enthral and inspire, captivating couturiers and art historians alike.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Pandora, 1871. To be offered in the Sotheby's London sale of British & Irish Art on 22 May.

Simon Toll is a specialist in the British & Irish Art department.