In 1927, Evelyn Waugh was fired from his teaching job and wrote in his diary that “the time has arrived for me to set about being a man of letters.” Apart from their artistic achievements, the Pre-Raphaelites deserve our gratitude for supplying the subject of Waugh’s first book, Rossetti: His Life and Works. His father doubted he would finish the book after he enrolled in an Arts & Crafts furniture-making class. He completed both the manuscript and a mahogany bedside table, but “not very well.”

In William Holman Hunt’s 1882–83 portrait of Rossetti, you can meet Waugh’s subject face to face. The two friends often posed for each other. In this portrait, they lock eyes as Rossetti looks up from his own canvas. The picture adorned the cover of Waugh’s book and is on display at the Yale Center for British Art during “Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement,” running until May 10, 2020. With over two hundred works, including significant loans from the Birmingham Museums Trust, the exhibition presents Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings from Rossetti, Hunt, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, and more alongside Arts & Crafts enamels, ceramics, stained glass, textiles, printmaking, and metalwork.

The building that houses Yale’s Center for British Art was the brainchild of the architect Louis Kahn. It and many of his other concrete and steel monoliths could have just as easily been designed by Waugh’s fictitious Professor Otto Silenus. Appearing as a modernist architect in Decline and Fall, he is one of the author’s perfect minor creations:

“I suppose there ought to be a staircase,” he said gloomily. “Why can’t the creatures stay in one place? Up and down, in and out, round and round! Why can’t they sit still and work? Do dynamos require staircases?”

Visitors ascend the Center’s missile-silo staircase in trepidation, only to be relieved by the first flashes of color: a gleaming Arts & Crafts copper tea set by William Arthur “Mr. Brass” Benson and a jeweled gold monstrance designed in an eclectic mix of Byzantine, Gothic and Romanesque styles by John Francis Bentley, the architect of Westminster Cathedral.

When the Pre-Raphaelites took up their paints, it was a difficult time to begin an artistic career in England. “There were no masters,” writes Waugh. “Turner was seventy one years old, sinking like one of his own tremendous sunsets in clouds of obscured glory.” While studying at the Academy Antique School of the British Museum, Rossetti met Millais, who had enrolled years earlier at the precocious age of ten. The two shared grand ambitions but disagreed on how best to achieve them. Millais was skeptical of adding new members to their nascent Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: “Are you recruiting a regiment to take the Academy by storm?” But Rossetti was fascinated by medieval guilds and the potential of the prb’s “mystic initials with the enchantment of secrecy and the thrill of betrayal; the monastic sense of novitiate and initiation; the very number of the brothers, seven, like his seven cypresses in the Girlhood of the Virgin, typifying the seven sorrowful mysteries.”

Waugh writes that Rossetti was a “mystic without a creed; a Catholic without the discipline or consolation of the Church.” Not all Pre-Raphaelites were without such consolation. James Collinson’s Catholicism ruined his courtship of Christina Rossetti, and he left the prb to become a Jesuit. While the Pre-Raphaelites are known best for oil painting, the exhibition includes Collinson’s black- and brown-ink study of An Incident in the Life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1850). Underneath Gothic tracery, Arthurian squires hear Mass while the young queen lays down her crown to kiss the Crucifix. With porcelain faces, her ladies-in-waiting strike poses of piety and worry.

James Collinson, An Incident in the Life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, 1850, Black and brown ink over pencil on paper. Birmingham Museums Trust.

The Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England and the revived medievalism in the Catholic Church created new opportunities for craftsmen. On view next to an enameled chalice by A. W. N. Pugin is an altar flagon by the London silversmith John James Keith. Keith upholds the cardinal rule of design that the properties of an object should make obvious and elegant its intended use. An S-shaped tubular spout and F-clef handle join a slender pear-shaped body anchored by a quatrefoil base. If it could speak, it would say “tip me over and pour me out.”

The exhibit’s collected objects reflect Rossetti’s own habit. In friendly competition with a small group of collectors to find the most impressive hidden treasure, he delighted in making his rounds at all the pawnbrokers and secondhand shops. Prices were low; quality was high. “When one of this elect little circle had made a particular ‘find,’ invitations were sent out and a dinner party would be given,” writes Waugh. “Then the new pot would be uncovered and its owner would be triumphant until the next discovery.” His Chelsea landlord preferred his tenant’s china collection to his menagerie of live animals, which included owls, hedgehogs, kangaroos, salamanders, an armadillo, and a peacock.

Unlike Hillaire Belloc, Waugh had only partial sympathy for Merrie Olde England nostalgia. He snarked that the modern spirit of Arts & Crafts was “the vicar’s daughter—plucky little thing—teach[ing] basket making to the Mothers’ Union.” But he admitted that the “immediate aim” of William Morris and Company, for instance, “was to produce beautiful and expensive things for people who appreciated them and could get them nowhere else.” By placing large swaths of Morris & Co. fabrics and wallpapers alongside painted works, the exhibition shows how the Pre-Raphaelite turn towards nature was matched in the decorative arts by patterns inspired by English gardens. Morris & Co. prints like “Wallflower,” “Jasmine,” and “Honeysuckle” could bloom and climb fences on the Cotswolds if they were not instead designed for dresses and dining rooms.

When Willa Cather traveled to England, she was shocked by the “awful color” of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. She judged them qualified only for engraving and hoped their canvases would be quarantined within art schools. To Cather’s eye, they must have mixed “a little mud in their paint” to create “awful greens and ladies—pure Virgins with mouldy complexions.”

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, with coworkers at the Kelmscott Press (London), The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted, 1896, Bound book with eighty-seven woodcut illustrations on handmade Perch paper. Birmingham Museums Trust.

Waugh thought Rossetti’s 1866 Monna Vanna (now in the Tate) “on the whole more than a little absurd. It is all sleeve; face, hair, hands, ‘floral adjuncts,’ and jewels, including the inevitable wheel of pearls, are all there, and painted with the utmost elaboration, but all one can see is sleeve.” Her body was “like the partially deflated envelope of an airship designed by some tipsy maharajah.” In this exhibition is an unfinished portrait begun in a similar style. Rossetti’s La Donna della Finestra (1881) is Dante’s lady at the window, catching his eye as he mourns the loss of Beatrice. Left incomplete after Rossetti’s death, her fair face and chocolate hair float disconnected above her spidered hands in a field of gold, the color of the still-exposed gesso used to prepare the canvas. The effect is reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907).

William Holman Hunt escaped the mud and mold of England for the sun and color of the Holy Land. He spent two years in Jerusalem painting scenes from the life of Christ. On display is his large oil painting of The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1854–55). It is an almost overwhelming array of colorful fabrics and rugs, tiled floors, gilt woodwork, and metal lattices. With a knowing stare, the young Christ meets the viewer’s eye. Even in a color-saturated scene, his royal purple garment captures attention. Rather than a Raphaelite aureole, Christ is set apart from the temple crowd by his glowing hair, like a gold-lined cloud. A smaller, more focused work is The Pipe Bearer (1856) by John Frederick Lewis. Painted during his trip to Egypt, it features the same complex color and patterned layering of stucco, tilework, rugs, lattice screens, and hand-embroidered garments.

The Blind Girl (1856) by Millais is another sunlit canvas on exhibit, which echoes Christina Rossetti’s poem “Today and Tomorrow”:

All the world is out in leaf,
Half the world in flower,
Earth has waited weeks and weeks
For this special hour
Faint the rainbow comes and goes
On a sunny shower.

Two young girls rest alongside a country road. The older sister is blind and draped in a russet red shawl with a note pinned to her chest—“Pity the Blind.” Feeling the warmth of the sun on her face, the blind girl sits still as a butterfly rests on her shoulder. She cannot see the double rainbow behind her. She has the pale complexion and heavy eyelids of Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52) sinking to her muddy death in a pitiable pose. But his blind girl is not depressed and dying; her red lips are full and alive. She has dignity and strength as she shelters her younger sister under her shawl.

John Everett Millais, The Blind Girl, 1856, Oil on canvas. Birmingham Museums Trust.

Charles Dickens loathed Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50) and with tongue in cheek called for the formation of new brotherhoods to join the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Newtonian Brotherhood could return civil engineering to an age before gravity. The Pre-Chaucer Brotherhood could restore “the ancient English style of spelling, and the weeding out from all libraries, public and private, of those and all later pretenders, particularly a person of loose character named shakespeare.” The Pre-Agincourt Brotherhood could be “nobly devoted to consign to oblivion Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, and every other such ridiculous reputation.” The Pre-Raphaelites sought a return to art as it was before Raphael. But descending from the summit does not repudiate the mountain.

If the prb put Raphael on trial, then others defended him. The American artist John La Farge studied the Pre-Raphaelites and met Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and Ford Madox Brown as a young man. He beat Louis Comfort Tiffany to the patent office with his new opalescent stained glass. Although he was at the forefront of the American Arts & Crafts movement, La Farge saw that “for centuries Raphael has influenced others and told them secrets they did not understand. His imitators have never perceived that he had been set apart and had received a divine commission.” La Farge felt in Raphael’s masterpieces “the movements of a mind that has floated easily through most of the spaces of art, marking its limits as if with the brush of a wing.”

Their love of nature won the Pre-Raphaelites the support of John Ruskin. It also won them the blessing, according to Waugh, of “a long series of wealthy and undiscriminating purchasers.” That benefaction made this excellent exhibition possible. But Raphael fulfilled his divine commission and is now immortalized in the Pantheon as the artist of whom it is said: “Living, great Nature feared he might outvie Her works; and, dying, fears herself may die.”

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.