T he Pre-Raphaelites have long been a rich source of inspiration for generations of artists and creatives, who have been drawn to the art movement that has it all: drama, tragedy, myths, legends and religious fables. Ahead of works by John William Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones being offered for sale in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art, we look at the lasting influence these artists have over the image makers of today, from fashion and music to literature and film.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by artists including William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The movement was born out of a reaction to the Royal Academy's stance on realism and genre painting, and a frustration that an artificial approach to painting was being favoured by the establishment. Their name came from the idea that artists working before Raphael (who was born in 1483) were the true innovators of committing the world around them to a flat surface. They adopted the techniques and style of artists working in the Renaissance, and this sentiment sat at the heart of this particular branch of narrative painting.
Works by the Pre-Raphaelites were frequently loaded with symbolism and told stories from the Bible, as well as myths and legends — and most were produced to deliver a moral message. The core group of artists was later joined by John William Waterhouse, Edward Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon and the textile designer William Morris. They were devoted to the writings of John Ruskin, whose controversial volume of essays Modern Painters, sought to challenge the status quo of traditional painters working in Europe in the late 19th century.
Volume II of Ruskin’s thesis was of particular significance to the Pre-Raphaelites, who referred to themselves as a 'Brotherhood', or the PRB, which further reinforced their deep emotional attachment to each other. The works of these artists was to have a lasting influence on British art, influencing artists such as John William Waterhouse, Edward Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon and the textile designer William Morris.
Arthurian legends were central to the subject matter of the PRB. Perhaps the most famous work of the movement is John Everett Millais' Ophelia, which hangs in Tate Britain, and is one of the gallery's most famous attractions. Another, John William Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallott, which illustrates Tennyson’s poem of the same name, about a cursed woman who lives in a tower on the river that flows from King Arthur’s castle at Camelot.
J.R.R Tolkien was fascinated by the mythology celebrated in the works, and his novels bore many of the same hallmarks as that of the medieval fables adopted by the Pre-Raphaelites.
Alan Lee’s illustrations for The Lord of The Rings books won him the role of concept artist on Peter Jackson’s trilogy and subsequently The Hobbit, directed by Guillermo del Toro. Lee spoke of his debt to the early 19th Century forebears: “I've been strongly influenced, in technique as well as subject matter, by some of the early 20th-century book illustrators — Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac in particular, Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites, and the Arts-&-Crafts movement they engendered.”
This trickle through can be seen in the sets and costumes of Tolkien franchise; from Liv Tyler’s flowing locks as Arwen through to the swords, armour and crowns wielded by Legolas and Aragorn.
In turn, Led Zeppelin, who drew on many references to Tolkien’s imagery in their 1971 songs – Misty Mountain Hop and The Battle of Evermore. The lyrics of both refer to locations and characters in The Lord of the Rings. It comes as little surprise, Jimmy Page has amassed a sizeable collection that includes a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and an impressive tapestry by Edward Burne Jones’ — The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival — that was included in the major exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain in 2012.
Speaking of his passion for the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, Page said: “What enthralled me was the majesty of their drawing and of the execution of the tapestries by those unbelievably skilled craftsmen. The attention to detail of the subject matter and even the background of verdure and flora is still quite astonishing to me. At the time I found it overwhelming.”
Many stylistic elements from the Lord of the Rings film franchise could have been lifted directly from Jimmy Page’s beloved Burne-Jones tapestry, the humbled knights kneeling as the angels look on.
The words 'Pre-Raphaelite' call to mind a very particular aesthetic: sumptuous, intricately-patterned fabrics; long, flowing red hair, eyes closed, each tableaux imbued with a dreamlike quality. There is one woman in particular that is in part reponsible for the red-haired aesthetic for which the Pre-Raphaelites are so well known; Elizabeth Siddal, whose face became the most recognised image of the movement.
An artist herself, London-born Siddal took up life modelling to fund her own creative endeavours, sitting for many artists, and assuming the role of history’s most famous figures; she became Millais’ Ophelia, and appeared in numerous works by her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who on their marriage, forbade her from modelling for the other members of the brotherhood. His Beata Beatrix, was painted soon after Siddal’s death, and sees his late wife in the character of Beatrice from Dante Alighieri’s poem Vita Nuova.
Though Siddal was perhaps the most famous of the models, there were many others who possessed a similar allure, Jane Morris, Alexa Wilding and Effie Gray. Tragic heroines, pale of complexion and delicately posed to bring famous stories to life. The women in these paintings became the celebrities of their day in cultured circles, and the ethereal aesthetic they popularised became fashionable in intellectual circles.
By its very nature, fashion photography absorbs influences and visual references to meet the needs of designers, aficionados and consumers. It is telling, then, that a very modern mode of expression frequently looks to the past in order to convey new ideas. Fashion houses such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano during his days at Dior and more recently, Susie Cave’s label The Vampire’s Wife have all delved in to the Pre-Raphaelite archives to source inspiration for collections.
Photographer Jamie Hawkesworth has shot campaigns for Miu Miu, J.W. Anderson and Alexander McQueen. Hawkesworth bathes his subjects in a golden light and through his compositional framing invokes the spirit of works such as Ford Madox Brown’s The Irish Girl (1860) or Millais’ The Bridesmaid (1851). The skin tone of the models in Hawkesworth’s photographs are rendered on film with a painterly quality and the atmosphere he conjures alludes to the technical experimentations of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
It is an appearance that continues to entice and endure: the trademark looks of Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, Lily Cole and model-turned-singer, Karen Elson owe a great debt to these romantic figures, and the artists who immortalised them on canvas.
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