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The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites (Cambridge Companions to Literature) Paperback – October 4, 2012
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"Ambitious and challenging, The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites achieves the impossible task of a somewhat comprehensive view of Pre-Raphaelite poetry and painting, thus making a solid contribution to Pre-Raphaelite studies and art history."
Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies
"... offers eighteen distinct chapters and an introduction by major scholars in the field, the variety of authorship allowing for an unusually full treatment of individual issues and artists. In the case of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, there is one chapter on the verse and another on the plastic arts. What emerges is an unusually textured account of a movement and its sources and ramifications."
Jonah Siegal, Victorian Studies
This is the first book to provide a general introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite movement that integrates its literary and visual art forms and explains what made the Pre-Raphaelite style unique in painting, poetry, drawing and prose.
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An introductory chapter (Armstrong) surveys some of the literature that formed the background for the Pre-Raphaelites and an Appendix conveniently gives the list of `Immortals' that the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood provocatively chose as their `Creed'. The list includes many writers as well as artists. Armstrong suggests that in its use of contemporary literary materials the Brotherhood splits into three: symbol (Hunt), narrative (Millais) and the icon that fuses meaning and materiality (Rossetti). An interesting chapter by Cruise on the outline drawing style of the Pre-Raphaelites points out that Rossetti's use of drawing reflects the intimate relationship between poetic and pictorial composition, since the drawings act as drafts just as do revisions of a poem. Although Elizabeth Siddall did not have the formal training of her male colleagues, her pictures were based mainly upon imaginative compositions dealing with subjects derived from poetry. We are reminded that the all the Pre-Raphaelites used their talents to illustrate many books, often in innovative ways. There is a chapter (Stauffer) on the short-lived magazine `The Germ' that the Pre-Raphaelites published in 1850 after the foundation of the Brotherhood; the contents of the only 4 issues are given in Appendix, with identification of the authors where these were not given in the original. The remarkable prose allegory by D.G. Rossetti in the first issue (Hand and Soul) reveals what the Rossetti meant by `truth to nature'. As Hough pointed out "This is a new kind of Pre-Raphaelite creed - not fidelity to external nature but fidelity to one's own inner experience..".
The second and major part of the book has chapters on individual Pre-Raphaelites that vary somewhat in their quality and difficulty. McGunn's chapter on Rossetti's poetry is insightful, but not an easy read. Prettejohn's on Rossetti's painting is perceptive in the way it delves into the different levels of meaning in his art. She suggests, "for the art historian, Rossetti's most radical move was to overthrow the tyranny of the perspectival system, with its privileged spectator, that had dominated Western painting since Brunelleschi." As a result, Rossetti's "influence on modern artistic practice may have been far more significant than current art-historical orthodoxies acknowledge.". There is a superb chapter (Jacobi) on Holman Hunt, who among other things pioneered the use of white ground and the addition of varnish to his pigments, so that the paint layer was partly transparent; the result is a brilliant intensity in his paintings. In his excellent chapter on Millais, Barlow points out "Millais's paintwork differs subtly from Hunt's... While Hunt juxtaposes clashing colours, creating an acidic sharpness, Millais always retains a pre-occupation with underlying tonal transitions, while allowing his colours to appear in spots of intense purity.". In Barringer's fine chapter on Madox Brown, he points out that Brown's exercises in the observation of nature are consummate examples of the genre and goes so far as to write that `An English Autumn Afternoon' is "one of the masterpieces of nineteenth-century painting". This painting "completely eschews inherited conventions such as repoussoir trees at one side of the composition, which so often frame a central vista with low horizon.". As we know, Ruskin did not like it: although Ruskin had advised the Pre-Raphaelites to `go to nature... rejecting nothing, selecting nothing', he was horrified when Ford Madox Brown did just that.
Chapters on Christina Rossetti, Swinburne and the writing of William Morris do a good job in making the reader want to study these writings more. One of the best chapters in the book is that by Cherry on Elizabeth Siddall, where we learn why her art is so moving. She "developed a distinctive style characterised by compositional layering, enclosed space, attenuated figures and jewel-like colours..." Unlike her male colleagues, narrative and dramatic encounters were significant for Siddall. Her "watercolours have neither intricate detail nor surface decoration. She uses vivid blocks of strong colour... The intense emotional charge of her work comes from bold colour fields, striking colour contrasts and an alertness to colour's emotional and symbolic resonance." Siddall, who also wrote poetry, exemplified the vision of the Pre-Raphaelites in which "the practice of art was equated with inner genius, and construed as the outpouring of an innate poetic imagination.".
The chapter on Burne-Jones (Arscott) is tough going and certainly not an introduction. You have to grapple with "the unique quality of Burne-Jones's work lies in [a] summoning up of a hyperbolically storiated landscape that buoys up the perplexingly vacant characters." The final contributed chapter (Thirlwell) is an beautifully written account of the role of William Michael Rossetti, of whom Fredeman said "without him there would have been no Brotherhood... and no movement to leave its mark on the history of English art.".
The book, as befits a Cambridge Companion, is well documented and contains a good bibliography. But the black and white illustrations of paintings are pathetic - don't expect to see anything! Best to buy one of the many properly illustrated books, or better still visit the galleries where Pre-Raphaelite art can be seen - the book lists these from around the world, but strangely omits the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) which has an outstanding collection.
Prettejohn concludes the book by pointing out that literary scholars have had more success in tracing the legacy of Pre-Raphaelite writings than art historians have in placing their art in the development of modern art. She thinks it is safe to predict "that the view of Pre-Raphaelitism as an English insular movement will appear quaintly old-fashioned in a few years' time.". This valuable, though imperfect, book will take us along this road and is warmly recommended to the enthusiast although not to the beginner.