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‘The line, the mark, the blot and the scribble’: exploring Pre-Raphaelite drawing

2011 June 21
by lisa hager

The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies & Watercolours, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, 29 January–15 May 2011; The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 17 June–4 September 2011. http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=1038

Pre-Raphaelite Drawing [Catalogue], by Colin Cruise, London: Thames & Hudson, 2011, 248 pp., illustrated, £29.95 (hardback), ISBN 9780500238813, £19.95 (paperback), ISBN 9780709302643

The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies & Watercolours, on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), provides the most comprehensive survey of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper to date. Following the invaluable Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource, unveiled in 2009, this exhibition continues BMAG’s efforts to widen access to its impressive collections, while important loans are also included along with many works on show for the first time. The Poetry of Drawing is the latest in a recent series to focus on previously unexplored areas of Pre-Raphaelite art; the Ashmolean Museum’s The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy (2010) and Objects of Affection: Pre-Raphaelite Portraits by John Brett at the Barber Institute (2010) both attempted to offer new arguments about Pre-Raphaelite art and artists. BMAG’s exhibition is much broader in scope, however, and puts drawing and design, in all their variety, at the forefront of the development of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers. The magnificent display includes drawings in pencil, chalk, pen and ink and watercolours alongside etchings, and includes a wide range of objects; in addition to works on paper there are examples of stained glass, manuscripts and applied art. Curated by Colin Cruise and organised by Victoria Osborne at BMAG, the exhibition will travel to Sydney later in the year and is accompanied by an excellent and beautifully-illustrated book, Pre-Raphaelite Drawing.

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In the latter, Cruise makes the vital point that drawing has usually only been examined in terms of its technical aspects, arguing that ‘the materials and techniques have been given too great an importance because the drawing is regarded as in some way unfinished or too unstable for more considered discussion’ (13-14); as the exhibition makes clear, the unfinished drawing offers much more. While the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and, perhaps most notoriously, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, were often criticised for their poor draughtsmanship, Cruise argues for ‘the central importance of drawing in the history of Pre-Raphaelitism, both in the foundation of the Brotherhood and in the development of its members’ art’ (12).

The importance of Rossetti as a draughtsman is emphasised throughout. Working in media other than oil through most of his career, ‘he neither adopted the academic convention for the representation of the human figure nor graduated immediately into painting as his central practice’ (27), preferring instead to concentrate on drawing and watercolours which allowed him to partner the visual with his other passion, the written word. Millais’ youthful ‘experimental draughtsmanship’ (16) matured into virtuoso displays of delicacy, spectacularly demonstrated by Study of the Head of Elizabeth Siddal for ‘Ophelia’ (1852, BMAG): ‘intimate and probing, yet sensitive, it acts as both an imaginary and a real portrait’ (58). William Holman Hunt used drawing ‘in the least experimental way’, preferring to express his ideas in more permanent forms (19). For Hunt, drawing increasingly became documentary, as opposed to a means of expression. Unlike Millais, the Birmingham-born Edward Burne-Jones was never interested in contemporary subjects and his ‘visual repertoire was narrow’ (18), but his style of drawing constantly changed throughout his career and his use of different media could be described as the most experimental. Clearly, there was no single type of Pre-Raphaelite drawing.

The idea of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a gang of fiery young rebels is a well-established one and the opening section of the exhibition, ‘Challenging Academic Drawing’, adheres to this narrative, but while the argument is familiar, the chosen examples are astounding, with revealing juxtapositions intelligently displayed. In the late 1840s, association with the Royal Academy was the only way an artist could advance professionally, and while painting held the highest status, artists had to first prove themselves as proficient draughtsmen in order to gain entry to the Royal Academy Schools. The conventions of the Schools were caricatured by the Brotherhood but not all Academicians were to be rebelled against; an exhibition of William Mulready’s work in 1848, the first retrospective of a living artist to have been held in Britain, provided examples of ‘compositional sketches and informal drawings . . . being exhibited in their own right’ (28). Mulready’s realism is demonstrated by Seated Male Nude (mid-1850s, Royal Academy of Arts, London), a beautifully-executed chalk drawing, displayed here alongside Rossetti’s anti-academic linear drawing Study of a Male Nude for ‘Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante’ (c.1852, BMAG). The influence of medieval manuscripts and early Renaissance art is explored in the section ‘Outline and After: the Beginnings of Pre-Raphaelite Drawing’. While Elizabeth Siddal features regularly as a model and muse, her own drawings have been included, notably her illustration for the Scottish ballad Clerk Saunders (1857, Fitzwilliam Museum), demonstrating the impact Rossetti had upon her work. Calligraphic drawings completed by Hunt, Rossetti and Millais as members of the Cyclographic Society, a precursor to the Brotherhood where each member submitted a drawing to be circulated amongst the group, demonstrate their taste for extreme linearity in describing the world, and the ‘outline style’ perfectly suited the illustration of literary sources.

John Ruskin’s influence in moving the Brotherhood away from linear drawing is examined in the following section, ‘Rejecting Nothing: Ruskin and the Close Study of Nature’. Ruskin’s encounter with nature, particularly ‘a bit of ivy round a thorn stem’, ‘marked a change from the mastering of techniques of drawing to the vital encounter with nature that characterises his mature work’ (67). The study of ivy provides inspiration for much of this section, which includes Frederick Sandys’ Study of Ivy on a Tree Stump (1858, BMAG) and Albert Moore’s Study of an Ash Trunk (1857, Ashmolean Museum). Francesca Alexander, an American artist based in Italy, was one of many female artists who corresponded with Ruskin, although he saw her as a genius in her own right. Her work focused on the direct study of nature in pen and ink, and the exhibition includes examples from her illustrated translations of Tuscan peasant songs, Rispetti (1868-82, BMAG), which, like the earlier Cyclographic work of Rossetti, Millais and Hunt, seamlessly unites word and image.

‘Drawing the Circle: Portrait Drawings, Self Portraits, Caricatures’ includes a number of the portrait drawings the Brotherhood sent to Thomas Woolner (one of the original members) after he emigrated to Australia in 1852. Cruise provides an interesting analysis of the Woolner set, which he suggests are surprising in that they ‘present us with serious, somewhat sober presences’ (103), challenging the commonly-held image of rebellious young men. In the drawings there are no indicators of profession and hands tend not to be included, indeed, in each the ‘field of vision is small and the subject fills the space’ (105). Completed during one of the last times they met as a group, each drawing contains a ‘growing strangeness . . . at odds with the acts of recording the appearance of each other for a friend’ (105). In comic contrast to the finished portraits of Christina Rossetti illustrated in the book, Rossetti depicts his sister in an ink drawing from 1862, Christina Rossetti in a Tantrum (National Trust, Wightwick Manor and Gardens), hammer held high as she trashes her desk in response to bad reviews. Also notable is the poignant Self Portrait Aged Seventeen of Charles Fairfax Murray (1866, private collection), a major benefactor of Pre-Raphaelite work on paper to BMAG (over a thousand works were purchased from his collection between 1903 and 1906), although the drawing is much darker and brooding in the flesh than in the catalogue reproduction.

The inspiration of both historical and contemporary sources is explored in ‘Drawing History, Drawing Modernity, High Pre-Raphaelitism’. It is striking in this section just how many of the exhibits have been drawn from BMAG’s rich collection and the inclusion of finished oils alongside compositional drawings gives the viewer a real insight into the workings of the artistic mind. Included are Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England (1852-55), Millais’ The Proscribed Royalist, 1651 (c.1852-53), and Holman Hunt’s The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1854-55, 1859-60). Alongside Arthur Hughes’ The Long Engagement (1859) are Two Studies in pencil (c.1858, BMAG), illustrating how far the finished work differed from early sketches, in which the bowed heads of the protagonists are arguably more moving. The Pre-Raphaelite interest in subjects from contemporary life progressed to periodical illustration and the dissemination of images to a wider audience forms the subject of a following section, ‘Pre-Raphaelite Drawings for Illustration’. The Brotherhood published a periodical, The Germ, which included an etched frontispiece with each issue. Pre-Raphaelite artists went on to contribute illustrations for Edward Moxon’s publication of Tennyson’s poetry. As Cruise points out, reviews ‘set a pattern of response to the individual members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Rossetti the obscure allegorizer, Millais the naturalist and Holman Hunt somewhere in between’ (149). Later Pre-Raphaelite artists, most notably Simeon Solomon, completed drawings for the Dalziel brothers’ Bible Gallery (1881). Pre-Raphaelite illustration continued to influence younger artists, particularly Aubrey Beardsley, and examples of his work are included in a later section of the exhibition.

The review of training for designers during the 1850s, which resulted in the establishment of Schools of Design, including one in Birmingham, is explored in ‘Drawings for Applied Art’. Ruskin’s ideas about craft, design and society were, of course, far more radical while Cruise argues that the practices of those Pre-Raphaelite artists designing for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. acted as a counterbalance to the teaching available at the Schools (169). The concern for decoration over function is reflected in the choice of exhibits, ranging from a pair of designs for pocket watches by Rossetti (1863, BMAG) to illuminated examples of stained glass by Burne-Jones. A revival of stained-glass design emerged in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers from the mid-1850s; Burne-Jones was especially fascinated with the medium, the practice of which ‘challenged an artist’s preconception of the function of drawing’ (173).

The final section, ‘Conclusions Drawn: The Influence of Pre-Raphaelite Drawing’, argues that drawing underwent reassessment later in the century, as it began to be considered the primary indicator of creativity; Swinburne’s discussion of Blake and Pater’s belief that drawing was much more than a compositional endeavour, along with the importance of modern technologies (photographic reproductions by Frederick Hollyer allowed artists to access works that might otherwise be restricted), all led to drawing being seen as artistic expression in its own right (188). Hollyer’s reproductions of Old Master drawings and a number of exhibitions at the Grosvenor Gallery in the late 1870s, especially of work by Botticelli, influenced later Pre-Raphaelite artists, particularly Sandys; his wonderfully grotesque and green-tinged Medusa (c.1875, Victoria & Albert Museum) is both alarming and fascinating. The greenish pallor and androgyny are continued by Burne-Jones’s Phyllis and Demophöon (1870, BMAG), epitomising the sickly bodies for which he was vilified. Another highlight is Rossetti’s previously unseen pastel, Study of Jane Morris for Mnemosyne (1876, private collection), a stunningly exaggerated depiction of his feminine ideal, indeed, the repetitive quality of his images of women, and particularly Jane Morris, remains one of their chief fascinations (193).

Cruise’s concluding remarks in Pre-Raphaelite Drawing, that the attention of the viewer is captured ‘with the line, the mark, the blot and the scribble’ (205), is given full embodiment by The Poetry of Drawing. Every impression on the paper, however small, however subtle, is fascinating and tells us more about the artist while encouraging us to look closely and fully explore the drawing. The Pre-Raphaelites and their followers used drawing and media in different, often contradictory and often rebellious ways. This excellent exhibition turns the spotlight on this, providing visitors with an intense examination of what the Pre-Raphaelites drew, how they drew and why. While drawing is an often neglected area of art history, The Poetry of Drawing and Cruise’s accompanying publication successfully casts it, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in a new light. Both exhibition and publication are highly-recommended and are valuable additions to the field of Victorian studies, enlivening the subject and contributing fresh and original ideas.

Nicola Gauld

Nicola Gauld is currently working at Birmingham Archives & Heritage for The National Archives training programme, Opening up Archives, focusing on a project titled ‘Children’s Lives’.

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