Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Stephen, Frederic George

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STEPHENS, FREDERIC GEORGE (1828–1907), art critic, born on 10 Oct. 1828, was the son of Septimus Stephens and his wife, who were for a time during Frederic's youth master and mistress of the Strand Union Workhouse in Cleveland Street. He was lamed for life through an accident at the age of nine. He entered as a student in the Royal Academy on 13 Jan. 1844, on the nomination of Sir William Ross [q. v.], who lived in Fitzroy Square hard by. Here he made the acquaintance of Holman Hunt, of Millais, and subsequently of Rossetti and of Madox Brown. When in process of time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by Millais and Hohnan Hunt, Stephens was nominated a member by the latter. In 1849 he made some progress with a picture of King Arthur and Sir Bedivere, and in 1850 acted as an assistant to Holman Hunt in the restoration of Rigaud's ceiling decoration at Trinity House. He painted small whole-length portraits of his father and mother, both of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy, the latter in 1852 and the former in 1854. But it soon became evident that Stephens had mistaken his vocation, and he became an art-critic. He contributed some papers on Italian painting to 'The Germ,' the Pre-Raphaehte organ. He was soon writing notices for the ’Critic,' the 'London Review,' 'Dublin University Magazine,' 'Macmillan's Magazine,' 'Weldon's Register,' 'Ttian,' and some American and French periodicals. In 1861 he was introduced by David Masson [q. v. Suppl. II] to Hepworth Dixon, the editor of the 'Athenæum,' and from that time till January 1901 he was the art-critic of that periodical, contributing to every number but two for forty years. His series of articles on 'The Private Collections of England,' correcting and supplementing van Waagen, were invaluable at the time, and are even now often the sole sources of the information they supply. As a critic he was industrious, learned, and careful, accumulating and testing facts most laboriously and conscientiously; but he was out of sympathy with modern developments of his art. He was for many years teacher of art at University College School, where he taught with much seriousness drawing from the antique. He was also secretary of the Hogarth Club. Besides his contributions to periodicals Stephens was a voluminous writer of books. His best-known works are the unfinished 'Catalogue of Prints and Drawings (Personal and Political Satire) in the British Museum' (4 vols. 1870–83), a massive collection of minute detail, and his 'Portfolio' sketch of the work and life of D. G. Rossetti (1894; new edit. 1908), which, though not free from inaccuracies, is of great value as written from personal knowledge. Stephens's anonymous pamphlet, 'William Holman Hunt and his Work' (1860) (on Holman Hunt's 'Christ in the Temple') gives a good idea of the inspiration and methods of the Pre-Raphaelites, and he remained for many years a personal friend of Holman Hunt. But he was more in sympathy with the aims and teaching of Rossetti, whose champion he constituted himself, than with those of the Pre-Raphaelite school. A rupture between him and Holman Hunt took place in their old age, and after the publication of Holman Hunt's 'Pre-Raphaelitism' in 1905 some controversy took place in the press between them over the respective parts that Holman Hunt and Rossetti played in the initiation of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Stephens contended that Rossetti was the moving spirit and Holman Hunt the disciple (cf. The Times, 16 Feb. 1906).

Other of Stephens's more important publications were: 1. 'Masterpieces of Mulready,' 1867, much of which appeared in 'Memorials of William Mulready' in 'Great Artists' series, 1890. 2. 'The Early Works of Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A.,' anon. 1869; re-issued as 'Memoirs of Landseer,' 1874; revised in a volume in 'Great Artists' series, 1880. 3. 'A Memoir of George Cruikshank ' (including an essay by W. M. Thackeray), 1891. He also wrote two works on Norman and Flemish art (1865). He contributed letterpress to illustrations of Reynolds (1866), J. C. Hook (1884), and Alma Tadema (1895), and notes to the catalogues of exhibitions at the Grosvenor Gallery of the works of Reynolds (1884), Gainsborough (1885), Millais (1886), and Van Dyck (1887). He also penned a prefatory essay to Ernest Rhys's 'Sir Frederic Leighton' (folio, 1895).

In the course of his career Stephens brought together a large collection of prints and drawings at his house in Hammersmith Terrace, where he died of heart disease on 9 March 1907. He married early in 1866. His widow survives with one son, Holman Stephens, a civil engineer, born on 31 Oct. 1868.

Stephens was in his youth remarkably handsome. He was the model for the head of Christ in Ford Madox Brown's 'Christ washing Peter's Feet,' the Ferdinand in Millais's 'Ferdinand and Ariel,' and the servant in the same artist's 'Lorenzo and Isabella.'

[Athenæum, 16 March 1907; Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, passim; W. M. Rossetti, P.R.B. Journal; Esther Wood, Dante Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, 1894; Letters to William Ailingham, 1911; Francis, Notes by the Way, xxxiii–iv; MS. note supplied by Mr. Denis Eden, a pupil at University College School; private information.]

R. S.