Appearing in Ideas, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1998

Pre-Raphaelite Arts: Aesthetic and Social Experiment in the 1860s by Elizabeth Helsinger
Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1868

Elizabeth Helsinger is Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago and Chair of the English Department. This essay is based on a lecture she gave last fall at the National Humanities Center, where she was a 1997-98 Fellow; it will form part of a book she is writing on the Pre-Raphaelite arts of poetry, painting, collecting, and design. (Pictured above, Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1868), courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum)

n the nineteenth century, the desire to own visible, material forms of art, awakened a hundred years before in the British middle classes, escalated into a popular passion. Paintings, prints, and decorative furnishings proliferate in the pages of contemporary novels as they begin to clutter up the interiors of Victorian houses. The hunger of acquisition and the powerful hold of objects over their possessors provide rich material for novelists from Dickens to James. No one understood the power of such objects better than the Pre-Raphaelites. Their experiments in painting, design, and poetry were deeply embedded in the Victorian world of goods.

The emblem of mid-Victorian object-obsessed culture is surely the Crystal Palace: that world of goods enclosed under a translucent skin of glass and iron. In the summer of 1851 the first international exhibition, housed in a single immense, vaulted greenhouse dubbed the Crystal Palace, drew six million visitors to Hyde Park in London. Pages of detailed descriptions and engraved illustrations in the press sought to capture both the dazzling, enormous structure and the overwhelming multiplicity of the exhibits. As one looked down the long halls, it seemed a fairyland of light and rhythmic vistas, disappearing in a blue haze; viewed more closely, it was an overcrowded clutter of the exaggeratedly ornate and the downright bizarre. The crowds were enchanted; William Morris was appalled. In the ensuing decades the memory of the Crystal Palace stimulated consuming desires for decorative objects in bourgeois Victorians, and provoked no less passionate commitments to aesthetic reform among young artists like William Morris.

he Great Exhibition might well be taken to announce the dramatic rise in consumption of luxury goods and leisure activities among the middle classes that marked the second half of the nineteenth century in Britain. The organizers of this display of the "Industry of All Nations" did not intend to celebrate consumption but rather to stimulate production: machines were among the featured exhibits in the British-dominated halls. The arrangement of the exhibits (one wing devoted to the Empire, the other to the rest of the world) vividly asserted the productive power and reach of Britain, although British visitors were impressed with the high aesthetic quality of some of the objects from both a rival European culture, France, and a non-European imperial conquest, India. None of the objects exhibited was for sale in the Palace, but the appetites they aroused were directed by discreet signs to the merchants and manufacturers who provided the goods. Spending was the pervasive if indirect message. In the years after the Crystal Palace was dismantled, public occasions for displaying artful objects proliferated far beyond the annual exhibitions of art at the Royal Academy.
The Crystal Palace, from Recollections of the Great Exhibition, 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851. A glorification of the industrial age, the Great Exhibition was billed as a display of "the Works of Industry of all Nations."
The largest iron and glass structure in the world (above)--housed such exhibits as the one at right, featuring De la Rue's Stationery Stand and Envelope Machine. (From Recollections of the Great Exhibition 1851)The Great Exhibition of 1851

What did the expansion of material consumption mean for the painter and the poet? Neither painting nor literature had been represented at the Crystal Palace, but painting, at least, was quickly recognized to have been a serious omission. For the painter the next decades brought unparalleled opportunities: the second half of the nineteenth century is known as the Golden Age of Living Painters in Britain. The prices for pictures and the incomes of successful artists increased to levels unheard of before or since. (The really high prices at picture auctions today are reserved for dead painters.) Successful painters lived in large studio-houses where their wealth and their taste were displayed in the furnishings. Art and artists were widely covered in the press, both national and local--in reviews of exhibitions, articles on "Artists at Home," and gossip columns in which artists were often more prominent than any other social celebrities. The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy was the major event of the social as well as the artistic season, attended by whole families, often more than once. Depictions of the crowds (and the difficulty of seeing the pictures) suggest it must have been rather like fighting your way into the Met on a Sunday afternoon during a blockbuster exhibition of an Impressionist. But these were living painters--numbering, astonishingly, in the thousands--who exhibited regularly. Not all, of course, grew wealthy and famous, but many made a respectable living. The crowds who came to the exhibitions and read the press accounts were prepared to buy, and artists plentifully produced the small, inexpensive pictures that visitors might actually take home with them. Those who could not afford a painting might purchase engravings from the really popular works, to be mounted in albums or framed and hung on their walls. Painting was suddenly a respected profession and a lucrative business. Art acquired the currency, the publicity, and the popularity of the movies in the glory days of Hollywood, or perhaps of popular music today--with the proviso that the pool of cultural consumers was still considerably smaller. (Though newly expanded to include the extensive Victorian middle classes, it did not reach far into the working classes or touch the really poor.)

Like the stardom of movies or popular music, the celebrity of art and artists stimulated and was in turn promoted by an organized system of marketing. The art business was headed by powerful dealers; they bought and commissioned pictures, encouraged and exhorted painters to produce saleable work, organized commercial exhibition and picture tours, arranged for publicity (good relationships with critics were crucial), negotiated reproduction rights, and frequently were themselves in the print-publishing business. In addition to the dealers and critics and those who made, published or sold prints, many smaller firms specializing in objets d'art or furnishings for interior decoration might either sell pictures as well or act as art consultants to their clients, and private picture agents and taste-advisors of all sorts, both professional and amateur, were ready to find clients for artists and art for clients.

There was a less rosy side to this picture as far as artists were concerned, however. The tastes of the new art market and the pressures exerted on painters were frequently deplored. The success of paintings in an expanding market was based on a close association between pictures and other decorative objects. Insofar as a painting was principally an attractive, well-made object, its value derived largely from materials, workmanship and finish--preferably with a subject that reflected the world of middle-class Victorians in pleasant and slightly sentimental if not directly celebratory terms. Originality--a novel or challenging vision--was not what drew Victorians to admire and covet pictures. Nor did most Victorians assume value to be authentically present only in the first or original object created according to a particular design. Painters in this period were routinely pressed by dealers and buyers to paint replicas of their popular works, which might command prices equal or close to the original. Engraving rights and the opportunity for painted replicas were often far more valuable than the first painted object in what might better be seen as an extendable series, discouraging the production of new and different work. Painting under these conditions edged closer to craft and even to "art-manufacture," the Victorian-coined term for the mass-production of objects with "artistic" designs. For painters, this move of the painting toward the craft or manufactured object could be viewed as reversing the efforts of three centuries to elevate painting from a manual to a liberal or intellectual art, forfeiting claims to the cultural prestige or the mystique of the artist as inspired creator. (It did not, though, affect the successful painter's hard-won rise in social status from artisan to gentleman.)

And what of the poet? Poetry had been the principal model for painting in its long struggle for recognition as a liberal and intellectual art. Poets might be impoverished and (though rarely) from humble backgrounds, but no associations of the medium itself with manual labor stood in the way of the otherwise socially acceptable poet. Yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, poets and poetry, though continuing to command cultural respect in Britain, had lost their pre-eminence in sales and popularity to novels, even though the status of the novelist as artist was far from universally accepted. The sudden rise in the fortunes of painters in the 1860s and 70s could only make more vivid the fall in the fortunes of poets. Even Tennyson's sales could not compare with Dickens', while Millais or Leighton were at least as prestigious and more financially successful than the poet. Gone were the heady days of the early nineteenth century when Byron and Scott--Scott the poet, even before he became Scott the novelist--were the best-selling authors and cultural heroes. After 1850 there was no leap in the demand for poems or books of poetry, nor any evidence that books of poetry were viewed by the new middle-class purchasers of pictures and art-objects as comparably desirable material possessions. Yet poets and poetry were affected by the financially rewarding but problematic movement of painting toward craft or art-manufacture--or so it appeared to the poets who were closest to the worlds of painting and design, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris. Their contrasting but equally critical perspectives on Victorian aesthetic consumption were worked out first in their houses and then in their books.

orris and Rossetti had practical experience with the making and selling of both art and poetry in mid-century Britain. The charismatic Rossetti had been one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters in the late 1840s and early 1850s--a short-lived group of seven young artists who sought to create a distinctive style for English art by recalling what they felt was the greater honesty of European painting before Raphael: the finely detailed, brightly colored, relatively flat and shadow-free work of Angelico, Gozzoli, Orcagna, Memling, and van Eyck. The PRB initially confused and outraged conservative critics with their apparently naive realism, startling visual acuity, and highly psychological and figurative treatment of both religious and secular subjects. The PRB also published four issues of a little-read small illustrated periodical, The Germ, to which Rossetti, who wrote as readily as he drew, contributed a few fine poems.

William Morris, a few years younger than Rossetti, had come under his spell while an undergraduate at Oxford in the mid 1850s; he and his closest friend, Edward Jones (later Burne-Jones) had followed Rossetti to London to dedicate their lives to Art--but not before the energetic Morris and his friends had published their own literary journal. Morris brought out a small but important book of poems, The Defense of Guenevere, and Morris, Burne-Jones, and a crew of other equally inexperienced but enthusiastic artists spent a gloriously carefree summer under Rossetti's leadership painting the walls of the Oxford Union Debating Hall with lovely but soon-to-crumble frescoes of Lancelot and Guinevere and Galahad.

Throughout the 1860s, Morris headed an interior design and furnishings business while Rossetti concentrated on his career as painter, but both men also wrote poems, publishing major collections in 1870. Rossetti's Poems was dominated by a long work in progress, a fifty-sonnet sequence that he called "The House of Life." Morris's four-volume The Earthly Paradise (the first two volumes came out in 1868) set twenty-four verse tales in a lyric and narrative frame. Although strongly linked by common themes and metaphors with each other and with the worlds of Victorian visual culture, this poetry of 1870 has usually been read as escapist--art turning its back on the world of the present to enter dreamy paradises (Morris) or the all-absorbing intimacies of a love affair (Rossetti). The speaker of the opening lyric in The Earthly Paradise indeed insists that his "idle verses" address only "those who in the sleepy region stay,/Lulled by the singer of an empty day." The poets appear to reject the conclusion of Tennyson's poem, "The Palace of Art," published several decades earlier. In that poem the Soul builds herself a dazzling palace, hung with imaginary landscapes and furnished with tapestries and statuary invoking the greatest achievements of literature, mythology, and science--all intended to feed and reflect the movements of her own mind. By the end of the poem she has fallen into a state of spiritual despair that can only be cured by leaving the palace of art for a cottage in the midst of men. "The House of Life" and The Earthly Paradise apparently set aside this moral conclusion and reclaim The Palace of Art.

But such readings ignore the particular historical resonances of palace and house in the 1860s: these provide subjects for troubled reflection, not for uncritical endorsement, in Morris's and Rossetti's poems. To recover the critical thrust of the books, however, we should look first at the houses Morris and Rossetti made for themselves in this decade.

ed House, just outside London, was designed in 1859 for Morris and his new wife Jane Burden by his architect friend, Philip Webb. Closer to the city, the large, early-eighteenth century Tudor House, in then out-of-the-way Chelsea, was leased by Rossetti from 1862 until his death in 1882. Morris, Janey, and their friends designed and made the furnishings for Red House: simply constructed but richly painted settles and cabinets, wall murals, decorated beams and ceilings, and embroidered hangings, interspersed with stained glass and painted tiles, all more or less medieval in inspiration. Rossetti meanwhile filled Tudor House with eclectic combinations of the old and the exotic: eighteenth-century furniture picked up from obscure second hand shops; imported Chinese tables and chairs; a collection of blue and white Chinese and Japanese pots; Oriental lacquer work and bronzes; bamboo and rattan furniture from India; Dutch tiles. Odd pieces of jewelry or Renaissance costumes spilled out of drawers; books, pictures, and prints vied with mirrors of every shape and curious framing on the walls; and a changing menagerie inhabited the large back garden, including, at one time or another, an armadillo, a kangaroo, a marmot, a raccoon, wombats and peacocks. Though the passion with which Morris and Rossetti set out to create and furnish real earthly paradises and the particularities of their tastes may have seemed eccentric in the early 1860s, popular writers by the early 1880s extolled the "Morris look" and the "artistic" negligence of Tudor House as inspiring examples of a new domestic duty: to cultivate Beauty in the Home as "a legitimate art." Red House and Tudor House were the avant-garde of what became a prevailing fashion for the middle-class home with artistic pretensions: the Aesthetic House.

St. Catherine. This image of a fourth-century saint who escaped the martyrdom awaiting her on a spiked wheel was embroidered by Jane Morris for Red House. William Morris was attracted to textiles, realizing that their patterns and textures enhanced the comfort and appeal of one's surroundings. He engaged his wife to create such works for his firm. (Courtesy of Kelmscott Manor, Society of Antiquaries, London) St. Catherine

For Rossetti and Morris, however, their houses had other significance. Morris dreamed of making Red House the combined living and working space not only for himself and Janey but also for Burne-Jones and his new wife, Georgiana Macdonald, and Rossetti and his new wife, Elizabeth Siddal. All six, the women as well as the men, would contribute their artistic skills. The decoration of Red House was the first joint project of the three couples and their friends, and they remembered it as an idyllic experience--half-work, half-play, high spirits in a lovely setting, the combined ties of marriage and friendship affirmed in shared creative activity and expressed through the objects they exchanged as wedding gifts. The interior was exuberantly clad with patterned ornamentation. Unlike many of the despised objects in the Crystal Palace, walls, ceilings, and simple furniture acquired richness without disguising their underlying materials and construction. House and furnishings were intended to give pleasure in use, not to conform to rules of symmetry or display a particular historical style. Rhythm and color were to enliven the activities of making and using ordinary objects, even when the work itself was dull and repetitive. Red House became, however briefly, the concretised form of the aesthetic pleasures and social relations attempted within its walls.

Those social relations might be thought of as an extension of the camaraderie of artists as young men that found its first form in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and its second in the Oxford Union-fresco-painting lark. "Brotherhood" was reconstituted to fit the newly married status of the artists, incorporating their wives in a different form of artistic fellowship. We might also see in the Red House dream an effort to enlarge the single-family focus of the bourgeois Victorian household by multiplying the number of married couples forming a social unit under a single domestic roof. Where the PRB had been focused on production of art, however, and the Victorian bourgeois household increasingly on its consumption, Red House further aimed to integrate the two: working cooperatively and exchanging what they made were to enrich lives in which the professional and the domestic overlapped in the same house, constructing new social ties around a culture of beautiful objects. In this short-lived community, money had no part. At Red House Morris and his friends lived a socialist experiment.

(More, to Part 2 of 3)

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Revised: February 1999