Littell's Living Age/Volume 169/Issue 2184/The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: a Fight for Art - Part I
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Volume 169, Issue 2184 : The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: a Fight for Art - Part I
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The following pages tell without evasion or disguise the story of my connection with an association (founded in the year 1848 by three young painters) which has since become famous under the name of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and tell it for the first time. For all that has been written on this subject during the last thirty years has come from without, from more or less partial or prejudiced sources, and it is time this should be remedied. Several causes have combined to make me think that the present time is a fitting one to break the long silence of nearly forty years; to say plainly what was the share I took in the origin and development of this movement. Amongst these causes, the most powerful perhaps is, that owing to the collection of Millais's works which is now at the Grosvenor Gallery, and the collection of my own paintings which is being exhibited at the Fine Art Society, our early (and late) pictures are now before the public at the same time. The third member of our little company, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poet and painter, died two years since, and after his death his pictures were exhibited at the Royal Academy. The public, therefore, has now before it all the results of our work, and it seems desirable it should also learn something of the manner in which that work came to be done; the motives which prompted, the obstacles which hindered, and the friends who encouraged it.
I will endeavor to tell this story quite plainly and simply, without rhetoric or exaggeration, hoping that it may perhaps not only serve the cause of truth, but in some small measure encourage young students who are striving to-day, amidst many hindrances, after true forms of art, and seeking them amidst the exhaustless treasures of nature, and the ever-changing conditions of life and knowledge. It is mainly in this hope that I have set down the record which follows.
My father was from the first strongly opposed to my becoming an artist; he had had reason to see the ill effects of a loafing, idle life, and he believed, in accordance with the general opinion of those days, that artists were necessarily of a reckless, frivolous character, and led a useless, unstable life. So, finding that at school I scribbled more designs than exercises in my copybooks, he removed me from school when I was about twelve and a half years old, with the intention of placing me in so me City office. Owing to a fortunate accident, I was placed with an auctioneer and estate agent as a sort of probationary clerk, and one day my master, coming into the office hurriedly, caught me putting away something in my desk, and, insisting upon seeing it, discovered that I could draw. This led to inquiries on his part as to whether I had painted, and it turned out that he was himself fond of art, and, whenever he could get a chance, practised painting. "One day," he said to me, "when there's nothing much to be done, you and I will shut ourselves in here and have a day's painting together;" and so it happened. Here were the tables turned upon my father with a vengeance! I was getting artistic encouragement from the very employer who should have been instilling into me commercial principles. This lasted about a year and a half, when, owing to my employer's retirement from business, I obtained another situation in the City at a Manchester warehouse in Cateaton Street, managed by a London agent of Richard Cobden. Here I sat by myself in a little room looking out on three blank walls, and made entries in a ledger, and seemed farther than ever from my desire of becoming an artist. But here too, curiously enough, another artistic friend turned up in the person of an occasional clerk whose business it was to design patterns for the firm's calicoes, etc., etc. Surreptitiously I also used to try my hand at designing, and attained sufficient proficiency to enable my friend to make use of my designs on various occasions. I remember an amusing incident of this period, which gave me great delight at the time. The window of my room was made of ground glass, and, having but little to do, I passed my time drawing with both pen and pencil flies upon its roughened surface. A good blot of ink sufficed for the body, and some delicate strokes with a hard pencil for the wings, and at a short distance the deception was perfect. Day by day the number of flies in that room increased, till one day, my employer coming in, stopped suddenly in front of the window and said, "I can't make out how it is; every day I come into this room there seem to be more flies in it," and he took out his handkerchief to brush them away.
So the time went on slowly till I had been nearly a year and a half in the City, and disliked it more day by day. My father allowed me to spend my little salary in taking lessons of a city portrait-painter, for it was only as a profession that he disapproved of artistic employment. The lessons I received from this artist ingrained certain habits and traditional practices of which in after years I had much trouble to be rid. My master was in his faults as well as his virtues a follower of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The incident which put an end to my City life was at the outset apparently a very trivial one. When my employer had been out of town for some days and there was little to do in the office, an old orange-woman, well enough known at that time about the City warehouses, entered, and complaining bitterly of her lack of custom, entreated me to buy something" just for a hansel." "I tell you what I'll do," said I; "I won't buy any oranges, but, if you've really got nothing to do, sit down here, and I'll paint your portrait." Old Hannah was delighted with the idea, and then and there I painted her on a bit of sized paper, "in her habit as she lived," her basket on her head and an orange in her hand. To make a long story short, this led to my retirement; my master happened to come in and see the portrait where it was pinned up to dry behind the door; he showed it to several people, and the knowledge of it came to my father's ears. And my determination to be a painter having been increased by this little success, I told him so frankly. I would be an artist, and nothing but an artist, and if he kept me in the City till I was twenty-one, he would only be taking away so much of my chance of doing anything in the profession. I was then sixteen. After many objections, my father yielded so far as to allow me to try at my own risk. He was at this time hampered by a desperate lawsuit which took away half his savings.
I just managed to pay my expenses by painting portraits three days per week, whilst on the others I drew at the British Museum, in the Sculpture Gallery, and the Print Room. It was a hard fight. Sometimes I copied pictures, sometimes acted as journeyman to other copyists, but the most curious part of my work was that of altering existing portraits to suit the fancy of their owners. My first commission of this kind was, I remember, from a Mr. Godfrey. He had a portrait of which he did not like the expression or dress, so he employed me to put another coat on the figure, and alter his expression. All this I faithfully executed to his satisfaction, and was duly paid. Still, these windfalls were rare; and though many people had told me at the time of old Hannah's portrait that they would give me commissions if I would set up as an artist, when I did so they thought — naturally enough, I suppose — that they would wait till I had gained more experience. A year went by. I had tried to gain admission as a student at the Academy, and been rejected, and again I tried with a like result. Then my father spoke very seriously. I was wasting my time and energy; I should do no good as a painter. My drawings were clever enough for friends to admire, but between them and the professional there was a great gulf, and so on; winding up with, that he would allow me to try once more, but, if that failed, I must "go back to the City." To this I reluctantly consented, and, a year and a half after I left my high stool in the warehouse, sent in my third drawing to the Academy, and was at last successful. I had, however, despite all my energy, a long way to make up with fellow-students who had begun years before myself. Millais (then about fifteen) though two years younger than myself, had already won the principal medal in the Antique School before I had gained admission to the Academy. Indeed, I was, in fact, slow in proving my ability in such exercises as were set for us in the Antique School, and many dunces at first distanced me in the Academicians' favor. I had, however, already made the acquaintance of Millais over a drawing in the British Museum. And here, before I begin to describe our associateship, let us pause for a minute and see what chance of instruction in the highest art there was at this time for a young student.
There was indeed no systematic education then to be obtained amongst the leaders of art, of whom the principal had had a hard struggle to keep their art themselves alive during all the days of poverty which followed the Napoleonic wars. Of these perhaps the greatest, as he was certainly the most unfortunate, was Haydon, who had striven for years, with light purse and heavy debts, to do justice to his powers. His later works bore increasing evidence of haste, of pinched means, and ill-lit studios, of want of the living model, and perhaps, too, of exhausted faith and soured spirit. He committed suicide about one year after I had embarked as an artist (1844), and the gloom of his failure increased my father's anxiety on my behalf for many years. This artist was the last who had attempted to have a school for painters in England, and those who had become famous under his instruction had done so in ways as different from his own as could well be conceived. Was there any living man whom I could choose as a model? I could not think so. Though I looked upon many with boundless wonder and admiration, I could see none who stood directly on the road which seemed the only one for me. In my admiration of Landseer I had been one of the public, but as an artist my feeling towards him was very different. He did works of real point and poetry, but the pomatum-y texture of his painting, and absence of firm bone beneath his skins, and the general melting away of every form into shapeless cloud, was most uninteresting to me. Beginning with a life of twenty years' failure and heroic effort, Etty had become the rage. His "Syrens," the "Holofernes," and the diploma picture, will always justify a great reputation, but he had lost a degree of robustness he once had, and at last was painting classic subjects with the taste of a Parisian paper-hanger. He retained a consummate mastery of the brush and of paint, with a richness of tints and tones that made it quite his due to rank among the great colorists of the world, but his current paintings were cloysome in their richness and sweetness, and his forms were muddled, and even indelicate in the evidence they bore of being servilely copied from stripped models, who had been distorted by the modiste's art. It was natural at first to look to Mulready as the master who would be a safe guide, for he was most painstaking and student-like to the last, and single-handed had striven to reach an unattained perfection; but his drawing was without any bold line, and he was injured by his taste for prettiness. Maclise was a wonderful draughtsman, and had a sterling power of invention, but the Milesian instinct for glamor and melodramatic vulgarities seldom allowed him freedom to appear at his best, as he did so triumphantly later in the "Waterloo." Leslie, in the front rank of figure-painters, was to me the most thoroughly inspired with sweet simplicity, the taste for healthy color, and the power of giving unaffected expression to his characters; but his was essentially a miniature style. One cannot imagine any painting of his of life-size, and the two scales of workmanship need independent apprenticeship. William Collins at the last did some admirable figure pictures with rustic but Crabbe-like sentiment; but he, too, could not be considered as a master for ideal work. William Dyce was the most profoundly trained and cultured of all the painters, but his reward had been to be driven from the profession altogether for several years, and then he had to be searched for by the advice of the German painter Cornelius, given when he himself declined the honor — offered with true British prejudice to a foreigner — to paint the Houses of Parliament. Dyce, when too late to find a fair field for his genius, had thus recommenced his career. Had he had a better chance, he might have influenced the English school very strongly. Excepting others who have sunk into deserved oblivion, the above comprise the men in the front rank who painted figures. Turner was rapidly disappearing in a gorgeous sunset. The younger men gave evidence of the want of a leader by their diversity. Many were painters of great faculty. Ward, being dead, may be noted as having then already painted some interesting pictures illustrating the lives of the poets. Some who had distinguished themselves at 'Westminster Hall for a time had disappeared. I had no acquaintance with any of the greater or the lesser men, except in contact, occurring late in my studentship in the Life School, with the full Academicians.
The majority of my compeers and immediate elders were worshippers of Etty, and inquired not at all of the beginning of his greatness, but strove to display at least equal mastery in execution to that which he had. Some followed other masters, but it amused me to observe that all alike adduced the Greeks and Raphael as the prophets to sanctify their courses, and all took fire at the suggestion that the solid ground beneath their feet alone was the foundation on which the greatest could stand. There was no discrimination then with artists, more than with the public, that Guido, Parmegiano and Le Brun, Murillo, Sasso Ferrato, and such crew, were birds of a different feather from their great idols, so that the name of the princely Urbinite was made to cover all conventional art. We knew less of Michael Angelo in England then, with the Sistine Chapel and the Medici tombs unphotographed; and Tintoretto was not known in his might at all. In the painting-schools, sober discussion seemed very unprofitable. When I put down my brush — which was not often — I preferred to joke, and I accepted the railing description of "flat blasphemy" until my outspoken denunciation of the gods became a password, though the students had no great faith in my sincerity. How could it be credited that one was in earnest, saying that Murillo's large "Holy Family" in the National Gallery was rubbish? Altogether it was evident that I had to be my own master, getting dumb direction from the great of other ages, and correction of defects in my daily tasks from intelligent elder fellow students and the well-intentioned keeper at the Academy, Mr. George Jones, who was eager to be of use.
Such was the state of art instruction in England, at the date when I entered the Academy and first became acquainted with Millais Rossetti was also a student there at that time, of which I shall have occasion to speak presently. The first bit of genuine instruction which I received, and one, moreover, which in some ways perhaps determined the whole of the course of my artistic life, came about in this wise. While engaged in copying "The Blind Fiddler" a visitor looking over me said that Wilkie painted it without any dead coloring, but finished each bit as fresco was done. The speaker had been the painter's pupil, and had been taught the same practice, which he kindly proved later by showing his own work. I looked at all paintings now with the question whether it had been so with them. It was a revelation to me, and I began to trace the purity of work in the quattrocentists to this drilling of undeviating manipulation which fresco-painting had furnished to them, and I tried to put aside the loose, irresponsible handling to which I had been trained, and which was universal at the time, and to adopt the plan of painting which allowed no excuse for a false touch. I was not able to succeed completely in all parts of my work, but the taste for clean work, for clear forms and tints, grew in me, and the quattrocentist work, as I saw it in the Francias, the Garafola, the Van Eyck, and the others, became dearer to me as I progressed in my attempt to purify my style. I attempted humble subject-pictures during my earliest student days, and sent them to the exhibitions, and was favored by admittance; they were honest, though sometimes bungling, examples of my advancing aims. Careful observation and the reading of "Lanzi" convinced me that all the great Italian artists, including the cinquecentists, had grown from a training of patient self-restraint, imposed by masters who had never indulged their hands in uncertainty and dash, and that the wise and enthusiastic pupils had delighted. In the devotion of humility till far on in their maturity. The dandelion clock in the "St. Catherine" by Raphael, and the flowers — notably the purple flag blossoms — in the "Bacchus and Ariadne" by Titian, were edifying examples of this spirit in the highest masters, altogether, as it seemed, overlooked by modern students.
Dulwich Gallery was one of my haunts. There I observed that an early portrait of his mother by Rubens had unexpectedly this characteristic of care and humility; and a portrait by Holbein there fascinated me with its delicate painting. It was of a man possessing a stubby white beard. It is now forty-two years since I have seen these, but more notable examples of early practice have confirmed the conclusions they forced upon me, that in art, as in other pursuits, it is a loss in the end both for schools and for individuals to begin as masters. My business was, however, only for myself. I had to find out a path for my own feet, and for mine only. I had no temptation to think of founding a school. By nature, and by the encouragement of my City painting-master, I was slovenly, and impatient for result. Once having decided this to be my besetting sin, I had pursuing proofs of the need of self-restraint. What might be profitable as a course for other students was shut out to me, and, as I sought in every direction for the guidance of my own steps, so it seemed to me it was necessary for others to do, since there was no systematic instruction to be had.
This was my state of mind in those first days of studentship, in which, be it remembered, I had somehow or other to support myself by my brush in the intervals of regular study. Millais and myself used to talk about painting and our tasks at home much to the effect of the foregoing pages, and I at this time raised his opinion of me by showing him a picture of mine on its way to the British Institution. In return, his power dazzled me both in a painting of "Elgiva" and in the large picture of "The Widow's Mite," which I saw in his studio before it was sent to the Westminster Hall competition. I remember with pleasure still his impulsive introduction of me to his parents as "the student who drew so well." After this he came to my studio and saw a picture of mine (never finished), and later "The Escape of Madeleine and Porphyro," from "The Eve of St. Agnes."
But before I had begun to paint either of these pictures an event of no little importance occurred to me; a fellow-student, one Telfer, spoke to me of Ruskin's "Modern Painters," and ended by lending it for a few days.
Up to that time I had thought that the world regarded art as a sort of vagabondish cleverness; that it was almost a disgrace to have a passion for art in modern times, and that it was useless to hope that modern intellect would profess its enthusiasm for it. I name this with fall knowledge that it reveals a one-sided acquaintance with the society of the day. To get through the book I had to sit up most of the night more than once, and I returned it before I had got half the good there was in it; but, of all readers, none so strongly as myself could have felt that it was written expressly for him. When it had gone, the echo of its words stayed with me and pealed a further meaning and value in their inspiration whenever my more solemn feelings were touched in any way.
At this time I was neglecting my chances as a portrait-painter, somewhat unintelligibly to my household, and I am afraid my course seemed altogether negligent and thoughtless. I had sold a picture from " Woodstock," in the previous exhibition, for £20 to a prizeholder in the Art Union. This I spent on a picture never completed. I commenced "The Eve of St. Agnes" picture on the 6th of February. A double portrait taxed my daylight very much, so that I had to paint much of this Keats picture by candle-light. One single visitor, when I was at home in the daytime, came during this period. He had been brought by a fellow-student, and was an idle man then, and used to sit by the fire while I worked, discoursing mainly of the country, and of churches there, and their architectural features, of brasses, and other antiquarian matters of some moment to me. It seemed unaccountable to me that he should have any interest in coming. Mark what was in reserve! I sent my painting in about the 6th of April, and I put the price of £70 upon it. Soon after the Art Union list was published, and Mr. Bridger, my visitor, was shown to have a £70 prize. I could not resist the temptation to write to him, pointing out that the amount of his prize was the exact price of my work, as he would see in the Academy list, and that I hoped it would please him to buy it. His reply was, curtly, that he should look at all the pictures for sale; that, if mine was the best, he should choose it; if not, he should take another. But after looking for a month or more, he came at last to mine, and bought it. 'The picture was finished in Millais's studio; we worked together late through the night for company. His picture was "Cymon and Iphigenia," and once, in return for some drapery I did in his picture, he painted a hand of one of the revellers in mine, which I can now distinguish by its precise touching, noticed by me at the time. It is the left hand of the man throwing his head back towards the spectator.
On the first day of the exhibition I had a repetition of an experience of the previous year, for Rossetti came up boisterously, and in loud tongue made me feel very confused by declaring that mine was the best picture of the year. The fact that it was from Keats made him extra enthusiastic, for I think no painter had ever before painted from this wonderful poet, who then, it may scarcely be credited, was little known. I had never seen any but the original edition of his work (alas! since lost by lending). Rossetti frankly asked me to let him call upon me; before, I had only been on nodding terms with him in the school. He had always a following of noisy students there, and these had kept me from approaching him with more than a nod, except when once I found him perched on some steps drawing Ghiberte, whom I also studied; that nobody else did so had given us subject for ten minutes' talk. It was thus "The Eve of St. Agnes" which first brought the three future Pre-Raphaelite brethren into intimate relations.
In a few days more he was in my studio, talking about his position, his work, and his prospects. He was then greatly disheartened about his studies from still life, which his master, Madox Brown, had insisted upon his doing. I had been content to see F. Madox Brown's works at 'Westminster Hall with great silent recognition of the genius in the picture of "The Body of Harold brought before William the Conqueror," but Rossetti, with more leisure, had taken the pains to find him out and induce the painter to take him as pupil, which he had done on the terms of a friend. In this way Rossetti had been set, according to all sound rule, to paint still life and to copy a picture. The repetition he had achieved, but the bottles, which he dwelt upon to me, tormented his soul beyond power of endurance; and he had turned to Leigh Hunt by letter, asking him to be good enough to read some of his poems, and tell him whether he would do well or not to rely upon poetry for his bread. My namesake had replied in the most polite and complimentary manner about the verses, but he had implored him for his own sake, if he had any prospect whatever as a painter, on no account to give it up, for the life of a poet was too pitiable to be chosen in cool blood, and thus he had been sent back again to consider painting as his main means of support. Was it necessary, he asked, to go again to the "bottles"? I assured him of my great deference to the high judgment of his master, but ventured to say that, although in all but extraordinary cases I should prescribe the same course to any pupil, for him I should decide that the object might be gained by choosing one of his recent designs (seen and admired by Millais and myself, as they had come round in a folio belonging to a designing club of which we were members), that this composition should be put upon canvas, that the work-should be taken up first with the still life, that, thus invested with vital interest as a link in an idea to be developed, it would furnish him with the exercise needful to prepare his spirit for the essential core of the poem he had to paint. This opinion he accepted as a suggestion to be at once adopted, and, that I might explain it in detail, he applied to me for half of the studio which I was just taking. I agreed to this, and, after a visit together to Rochester and Blackheath (reading Monckton Milnes's "Life and Letters of Keats" on the way), we took possession of our roughly prepared painting-room (1848).
This was my first actual departure from the paternal roof, and, to begin the world, I had the £70 from the Art Union and about £7 from portraits. The first picture I had determined to paint was a scene from "Rienzi," an expensive one in models of men and horses; with which last my good friend Mr. John Blount Price helped me. He had previously lent me his bloodhound for the "St. Agnes Eve." The armor had to be borrowed, and journeys for landscape background and foreground made; so that the sum in hand did not go as far as it would have done with many paintings making greater display.
I gained many advantages by our partnership. Rossetti had then, perhaps, a greater acquaintance with the poetical literature of Europe than any living man. His storehouse of treasures seemed inexhaustible. If he read twice or thrice a long poem, it was literally at his tongue's end; and he had a voice rarely equalled for simple recitations. Another gain was in the occasional visits of F. M. Brown, the painter of the historical frescoes in the Manchester Town Hall, who kindly gave me advice when he had ended his counsel to Rossetti, and always explained his judgment by careful reasoning and anecdote.
The companionship of Rossetti and myself soon brought about a meeting with Millais, at whose house one night we found a book of engravings of the frescoes in the Campo Santo at Pisa. It was probably the finding of this book at this special time which caused the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Millais, Rossetti, and myself were all seeking for some sure ground, some starting-point for our art which would be secure, if it were ever so humble. As we searched through this book of engravings, we found in them, or thought we found, that freedom from corruption, pride, and disease for which we sought. Here there was at least no trace of decline, no conventionality, no arrogance. Whatever the imperfection, the whole spirit of the art was simple and sincere — was, as Ruskin afterwards said, "eternally and unalterably true." Think what a revelation it was to find such work at such a moment, and to recognize it with the triple enthusiasm of our three spirits, if Newton could say of his theory of gravitation, that his conviction of its truth increased tenfold from the moment in which he got one other person to believe in it, was it wonderful that, when we three saw, as it were, in a flash of lightning, this truth of art, it appealed to us almost with the force of a revolution? Neither then nor afterwards did we affirm that there was not much healthy and good art after the time of Raphael; but it appeared to us that afterwards art was so frequently tainted with this canker of corruption that it was only in the earlier work we could find with certainty absolute health. Up to a definite point the tree was healthy; above it disease began; side by side with life there appeared death. Think how different were the three temperaments which saw this clearly. I may say plainly of myself, that I was a steady and even enthusiastic worker, trained by the long course of early difficulties and opposition of which I have told the story, and determined to find the right path for my art. Rossetti, with his spirit alike subtle and fiery, was essentially a proselytizer, sometimes to an almost absurd degree, but possessed, alike in his poetry and painting, with an appreciation of beauty of the most intense quality. Millais, again, stood in some respects midway between us, showing a rare combination of extraordinary artistic faculty with an amount of sterling English common sense. And, moreover, he was in these early days, beyond almost any one with whom I have been acquainted, full of a generous, quick enthusiasm; a spirit on fire with eagerness to seize whatever he saw to be good, which shone out in every line of his face, and made it, as Rossetti once said, look sometimes like the face of an angel. All of us had our qualities, though it does not come within the scope of this paper to analyze them fully. They were such as rather helped than embarrassed us in working together.
"Pre-Raphaelite" was adopted, after some discussion, as a distinctive prefix, though the word had first been used as a term of contempt by our enemies. And as we bound ourselves together, the word "Brotherhood" was suggested by Rossetti as preferable to clique or association. It was in a little spirit of fun that we thus agreed that Raphael, the prince of painters, was the inspiring influence of the art of the day; for we saw that the practice of contemporary painters was as different from that of the master whose example they quoted, as established interest or in. difference had ever made the conduct of disciples. It was instinctive prudence, however, which suggested to us that we should use the letters P.R.B., unexplained, on our pictures (after the signature) as the one mark of our union.
The first work that we agreed to do after this was a series of designs for Keats's "Isabella." These were to be executed entirely on our new principles, and subsequently etched for publication. Millais chose as his subject the household of Lorenzo's brothers at meals. Rossetti at first made excuses for procrastination. I did one of Lorenzo at his desk in the warehouse, in order that thus (with Millais's design) the lover's position in the house should be made clear to the spectator from the outset. Though Millais had much oil work on hand which had to be finished in the old style, he was impatient to begin in the new manner, and he announced his determination to paint his design. But his old work still hung about, until we were almost doubtful of the time before the sending in day being sufficient for the task, when suddenly, about November, the whole atmosphere of his studio was changed, and the new white canvas was installed on the easel. Day by day advanced, at a pace beyond all calculation, the picture now known to the whole of England, which I venture to say is the most wonderful painting that any youth still under twenty years of age ever did in the world.
In my studio Rossetti's plan of work promised to do all that was desired. The picture was "The Education of Mary Virgin," and he had advanced it considerably, but, from his unchecked impatience at difficulties, the interruptions to our work, to mine as much as to his, were so serious that once I had to go out walking with him to argue that, without more self-restraint on his part, we should certainly lose our chances of appearing in the same season, in a band with Millais. He took this remonstrance in the best part, and applied himself with new patience to his work, which ultimately possessed in the important parts the most exquisite beauty and grace; he exhibited it subsequently in a gallery in Portland Place. Millais's picture was seen with wonder when finished, and he sold it before his "show" day. My "private view" was without any visitors, but the picture was delivered by myself in the evening, still wet, at the Academy. Before we were admitted to varnish our pictures we learned that they had been hung as pendants to one another in fair places just above the line, and in the Times I remember the notice of the exhibition began with two columns of comment upon our pictures as the remarkable feature of the collection. The fact itself was an unexpectedly gratifying testimony to the impression the works had made. On going to the Academy at seven in the morning (to get the longest opportunity, if necessary, for work before the public were admitted at twelve), we were received by many of the members with cordial compliments — some introducing themselves to me for this purpose — but there was an opposing spirit of indignation expressing itself loudly by some artists. The day went by without inquiry from any one of the price of my "Rienzi." Rossetti had already gained great honor by his sweet picture, and had sold it. I asked £100 for mine, and had great need of the money, for my store was well-nigh exhausted. With the little remaining, however, I began "The Christian Missionary" picture, and became part proprietor and co-operator as illustrator of the Germ, which was started soon after this without stock of either matter or capital — of nothing but faith, in short. As weeks and months went by, the indignation of our opponents became fiercer, and made itself heard through the press. By the end of July 1 had well-nigh come to my last penny, some work that I had been commissioned to do, and on which I had spent time and money, coming to nothing from the change of feeling about our school. The picture from the Academy came back to my dreary studio, and I was at my wits' end to know what else to do, when Mr. Egg called without formal introduction, saying that he had felt the greatest interest in the picture, and he wished to know whether it was sold. On a repetition of his visit, he said that a friend of his — an invalid — had been extremely disappointed not to have seen it in the Exhibition, and he asked me to send it to his house that he might show it to his friend, who was going to call upon him in two days. In the evening, knowing that my landlord had his eye upon the picture as the best guarantee for the quarter's rent, then due, I took it out quietly myself, and so delivered it at Bayswater. In the morning the landlord threatened me with an execution, and I had to give up to him my few articles of furniture, books, and sketches, and go back to my father's house; he received me very kindly. My vacation was not a cheering one, but in two days a note came from Egg asking me to call. I went, and he was not in but on calling the second time, the servant asked my name, and produced a letter which told me that the friend was Mr. Gibbons, the well-known collector, and that he had bought the picture, generously making the cheque for £5 extra to pay for the frame. When I presented the cheque I asked for some one in authority, and requested to be allowed to leave the money on account, and have a chequebook, which was granted, as great testimony to my apparent trustworthiness, and I went with grand air and paid off the landlord, who was persuaded that I had been shamming poverty. I then departed to the Lea marshes for a month, and painted the background and foreground of my "Missionary" picture, finding a model there also for the hut and its appendages. I had no studio, and thus, because I was very fagged with my long, hard, and anxious work, it seemed a good opportunity to go to Paris for a holiday with Rossetti, as we had long planned. We came back with greater food for reflection, but without change of purpose. Ary Scheffer was a god whom we could not adore. De la Croix was to me only a very far removed old master of poor capacity; even De la Roche's "Hemicycle" seemed fast gyrating round simple truth to get at the opposite extreme of Academical precision. On my return I took a studio with southern aspect, to gain sunlight for my picture, and at this I worked solely and steadily throughout the winter and spring, until the sending-in day came round again, with one or two points in my complicated groups scarcely completed.
In the mean time, Millais had painted his "Christ in the Home of his Parents," and my picture was again hung as a pendant to his. While we had been quietly working the hostile feeling against us had shown itself to be wilder and more extended. A newspaper had in its gossiping column revealed the meaning of P.R.B., which had been disclosed, through the weakness of Rossetti, to a rank gossiper, and far and near it seemed as if the honor of Raphael was the feeling dearest of all to the bosom of England, and that this we had impiously assailed. The leading journals denounced our work as iniquitous and infamous, and, to make our enormity more shameful in extra artistic circles, the great Charles Dickens wrote a leading article against Millais's picture in Household Words. This was an attack upon the whole of us, and though my picture was not mentioned, for the prejudice excited was more practically damaging to me, since Millais had sold his work, while mine had still the duty to perform of tempting one hundred and fifty guineas out of the pockets of some admirer or approver, before I could go on with a new work. Sometimes I went to the Exhibition stealthily, hoping to hear some opinion expressed, but as soon as the public arrived at my picture they invariably said, "Oh, this is one of those preposterous pre-Raphaelite works," and went on to the next without looking again upon the canvas. One fellow-student, some years my senior, told me that he regretted to see me mixed up with this charlatanism; that he perfectly understood that our object was to attract great attention to ourselves by our extravagant work; and that when we had succeeded in making ourselves notorious (which, being undeniably clever fellows, we should soon do), we should paint pictures of real merit. I thereupon wickedly said that he had divined our purpose, and besought him to respect the secret, at which he led me to his contribution for the year, telling me that, through the course we had taken, his work, being of modest aspect — and it was this — was entirely overlooked. One gain my picture brought was a note from Mr. Dyce, asking me to call upon him; when I went, he welcomed me with recognition as the student in the life school whose drawings he had noticed, and he congratulated me greatly on "The Christian Missionary." His proposition was — since he had learned that I had not sold my picture — that I should make a copy for him, about sixteen by twelve inches, of his picture, then in the Royal Academy, of "Jacob and Rachel." The work had to be undertaken between six and eight in the morning; the price to be paid was £15, which I gladly agreed to. And so forthwith I set myself to this task; but the porters were not up when I arrived, and I was left ringing at the bell sometimes for more than half an hour, with no remedy, because the keeper and Mr. Dyce had had a quarrel about the plan, and the latter had forced Mr. Jones's hand to get me admittance at all. Usually, when I had been working an hour, there was the signal for clearing out made, and I had to continue my painting on a staircase throughout the day, going from time to time to the picture to collect further facts. The money was already bespoken for pressing debts, and I was driven to my wits' end to know what to do to escape from my hopeless prospect. There was the post of draughtsman to the Mosul expedition under Layard inviting applicants. I wanted still to continue the fight in England, but without money how could I get a picture ready for next year? My two companions were using the summer profitably; I was losing mine. Perhaps it would be better at once to go to the East, as I had already intended to do some day. I should have some leisure from the drudgery of servile draughtsmanship, and I would paint some subjects which might be executed there more truly than else. where. The gift was in the hands of Sir R. Westmacott, who had been kind to me in giving letters for studentship, and I applied to him, but the appointment had been made the previous day. Thrown thus again on my narrower fate, I had to trust to one other chance. When the "Rienzi" first appeared, one of the artists who complimented me most told me that he could not afford £100 or he would buy the picture at once, but he should be glad if I would some day paint him a picture of one or two figures (something like a picture of Hook's there was in that Exhibition) from Shakespeare or Tennyson. At my leisure I was to do a design for the commission, and let him see it. I had not liked to remind him of this and to ask for an advance; but at last I resolved upon doing so, for it seemed my only chance of being able to work. Among the subjects which I was eager to paint, should my patron be satisfied, three presented themselves as most suitable — one of "The Lady of Shalot," with the web breaking about her; one of "Claudio and Isabella;" and the last, an idea of which I have never yet made use. I worked at these designs almost unceasingly for some few days, and at last, pressed by impatience to see the result, and to hear my encouraging superiors's approval, as well as to get the means to pay pressing small debts, I sat up all night to complete the drawings, refreshing myself at daylight with a swim in the Thames, and walking to my friend's house in time to catch him as he rose from breakfast. I had not then seen him for many months. When I apologized, with an explanation of reasons, for my delay in having the designs ready for submission to him, and announced that I had at last brought them, to my surprise he declared that he had never proposed anything of the kind, and that he disliked my work too much ever to have thought of such a request, but as I had the drawings with me he would look at them. I was but little disposed to show these, but did so at last, to escape any suspicion of resentment. Abruptly, as before, he declared that, had he ever intended it, the sight of my designs, with their hideous affectation, would have cured him of the desire to possess any work of mine. I record this, acknowledging that the man at bottom was not bad-hearted. He had got warped by general prejudice, so that he could scarcely see what he was doing. I went away, and stayed in the street for a few minutes, too giddy and bewildered to decide upon my course. My good friend Egg lived near. Had he also gone over to our enemies? It would be well, I thought, to see him. I found him still at the breakfast-table. I told him my tale, and I said that it was no affectation for me to declare that for me to judge of the designs I had with me was impossible; that I was tired and disheartened for the time; that perhaps the inventions I had been busy upon lacked the spirit which my reading of the author's meaning had made me desire to give them. Would he therefore tell me quite candidly his exact opinion? I should trust to him to do this. He had been more critical recently, but I had the best reason to believe in his sincerity. His qualifications otherwise were balanced thus in my mind. He was a pictorial dramatist of true power, and he was a keen reader and renderer of human expression to the very realm of poetic inspiration, if not of imaginative interpretation. He was, too, of eminently temperate judgment. He turned the drawings over silently as to words, but humming ambiguously, and broke silence by asking questions about the designs from Tennyson and the Shakespeare subject, which showed what in them struck him most. He said finally to the "Claudio and Isabella," "And DID —— say that he had never given you a commission? And DID he say that these designs were hideous and affected? DID you offer to paint any of these for fifty pounds?" And then he added, "I think them admirable;" and, with the "Claudio and Isabella" prison scene in hand, he emphatically proceeded, "This delights me. Well, I have been thinking that you must be very hard up — you have not sold your picture, and I suppose you've not got any paying work in hand. I can't afford fifty guineas, but will you do a small picture of a single figure for twenty-five guineas? Think of a subject, and let me see the design; and in the mean time I will write you a cheque for a few pounds." My reply was, "I am always losing my summer. If I don't get to work now, other hindrances will come, and next year I shall not put in an appearance, and thus there will be permanent defeat. I have a panel at home, well seasoned, of right proportions; you like the 'Claudio and Isabella;' let me begin the picture for your commission." He objected that it was far too much in work, but added, "I wish to see it in hand. Take my money on account for a future picture, and commence the 'Claudjo and Isabella' at once; we will settle about its ownership afterwards, and you shall do the little picture when it's convenient.
I was rejoiced to commence the picture. Before putting it on the panel, which was from a superannuated coach, and prepared by myself, I considered my opportunities. I gained permission to paint the inside of the prison from the Lollard prison at Lambeth Palace, and there I went for a few days, very much outdone in smartness by a man whom I had engaged for two shillings to carry some of my traps, so that he was taken for the master and I the servant. Several important parts I did there; the lute I hung up in the little window recess to get the true light upon it, and I made my assistant stand to make sure of the true tones. At home I advanced the work sufficiently to make a well-established beginning.
About this time my "Christian Missionary "came back unsold and uninquired for. It is in the gallery now, to be seen with the others, in perfect preservation, though it left my hand thirty-six years ago. I can look at it now dispassionately, as though the young man who did it had been some other. I can see its shortcomings and its faults; some the young man saw himself without having time and means to correct them; and I can see its merits, and I can see them more clearly than the youthful workman could when he was as then tired with his night-and-day devotion to expressing his meaning; tired, although the labor was the fascination of his life, and dispirited when the world gave him not one word of encouragement or commendation. And I wonder at the little originality of taste there was among our fathers and mothers when it was offered to them, and they, dealers and rich men of taste, turned away from it with contempt. When I was arranging to send it to some provincial exhibition, Millais wrote from Oxford, where he was with Charley Collins, telling me that the lady and gentleman with whom they were staying had liked my picture in the exhibition, and that he believed if I sent it they would buy it. And so it went to Oxford, and a check from Mr. Combe came back in its place. This put me on my (financial) legs again, and I determined to paint a new picture for the next year's Exhibition, although it was already late in the autumn to begin the background of the design, which I most cared for. But I felt that, if possible, I should appear with an important work next May, lest the enemy should triumph over our cause, as far as I could represent it, as having permanently defeated us, and I determined to attempt the subject I have mentioned — one from "The Two Gentlemen of Verona."
I went at once to Sevenoaks with Rossetti, who wished to paint a sylvan background to one of the many fine designs which at this time he did not bring to a conclusion as oil pictures. A month's pleasant and busy stay enabled us to return to town. Then the work of drawing from models and collecting materials had to be promptly undertaken. Mr. Frith, RA, kindly lent me a suit of armor, which the servant at my lodgings announced as a tin suit of clothes. James Hannay, (the present magistrate) sat for the head of Valentine, and a young barrister, already well known among journalists, and since greatly distinguished as a Cabinet minister at the antipodes, was good enough to let me paint the Proteus from his posing. At the last the completion of the picture was imperilled by unexpected events, so that I scarcely completed it on the day fixed by the Academy. This year I had a less good place in the Exhibition than before, and I should say that all of our works suffered greatly by the absence of support for their key of color and effect. The treatment by the press was more fierce than before. Our strongest enemy advised that the Academy, having shown our works so far, to prove how atrocious they were, could now, with the approval of the public, depart from their usual rule of leaving each picture on the walls until the end of the season, and take ours down and return them to us. In the schools (as we were told) a professor referred to our works in such terms that the wavering students resorted to the very extreme course of hissing us. The critic before mentioned, finding the pictures still left on the walls, then wrote that, although the Academy was dead to the feeling of self-respect which should prompt the council to act on his advice, there was cause for congratulation in the thought that no gentleman of taste who valued his reputation would purchase such pictures; and, as far as I was concerned, so it seemed, since the post never brought me letters without their containing anonymous insults. There was, indeed, only one paper in London which did not join in the general cry; this was the Spectator, the editor of which from the first permitted William Rossetti (the brother of the painter) to defend our cause in his journal. With this exception, the public condemnation of our principle of work was universal, and at this time our cause seemed hopeless.
|This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.|
- 148 New Bond Street.
- This studio was at 7 Gower Street. Millais was in his father's house at 87 in the same street.
- "Lorenzo and Isabella," now being exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery.
- The purchase of this picture was an act of generosity, for the gentleman never valued the work, but hid it away in a closet, and at his death, the family sold it alone.
- This picture, with the "Claudio and Isabella," is now in the Fine Art Society's Rooms, 148 New Bond Street.