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Drawn to truth: The illustrations of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

— June 2012

Article read level: Art lover

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Edward Burne-Jones, Phyllis and Demophoon, 1870 © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Pre-Raphaelite Drawing

By Colin Cruise

Oscar Wilde hated Pre-Raphaelite drawing. Pulling no punches in his lecture The English Renaissance and Art (1882), the poet quipped, ‘if you enquire about the Pre-Raphaelites you hear something about an eccentric lot of young men for whom a sort of divine crookedness and holy awkwardness in drawing were the chief objects of art’.  But their drawings enjoyed broad appeal among those bored with the clichéd output of the Royal Academy, and by the end of the century movements such as Aestheticism and Art Nouveau were much indebted to the influence of Pre-Raphaelite illustration.  Occasioned by a recent show at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Pre-Raphaelite Drawing is a beautifully illustrated catalogue that examines the influence that drawing had upon the Brotherhood and that the Brotherhood had upon drawing.      

Members of the Royal Academy learned drawing by copying the works of the Old Masters.  One small group of disenchanted young students felt suffocated by the rigidity of copying plaster casts of statues, and famously considered the works of the Old Masters to be ‘slosh’.  Calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they emphatically emulated the style of the ‘Primitives’ (those Italian artists that preceded the High Renaissance) and artists of Northern Europe.  The Brotherhood preferred art that more truthfully captured the natural world and its flaws than did any of the canonical artists revered at the Academy. 

John Ruskin heavily influenced the Brotherhood, and his instructional methods were very different from those of the Academy.  When the designer William Bell Scott visited Ruskin’s drawing class at the Working Man’s College, he was incensed to find that Ruskin’s students, rather than drawing from ‘beautiful ornamental objects or human figures’ were copying ‘pieces of rough stick crusted with dry lichens’. Ruskin forcefully argued that nature was a far superior teacher than all the paintings of Raphael. The nature drawings and watercolours by Ruskin and the Brotherhood replicated the surface detail of the natural world with scrupulous clarity, as in Ruskin’s Study of Ivy and Holman-Hunt’s Bird’s Nest, Apple Blossom and Primroses.  In Luccombe Chine, Isle of Wright, Henry Bowler lovingly renders every leaf and blade of grass in a small wooded area teeming with abundant undergrowth.  Little wonder that the poet Coventry Patmore referred to the Brotherhood’s eyes as ‘photographic lenses’.

In portraiture, these drawings offer an arrestingly intimate look at the lives and loves of the Brotherhood.  Rather than hire models, as was done at the Academy, the Brotherhood preferred to draw each other and their immediate families.  Readers will recognize the familiar faces of favourite Brotherhood bombshells Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris.  Rossetti’s tightly rendered Study of Jane Morris for ‘Mnemosyne’ demonstrates admirable skill for an artist who was insecure about his draughtmanship (by his own account, he was more poet than painter).  

Lesser known are their many sketches and caricatures, as Rossetti’s comical Christina Rossetti in a Tantrum, in which the artist’s livid sister wields a hammer with devastating effect upon a domestic interior (the drawing was an inside joke; Rossetti knew Christina would never have done such a thing).  The portraits the Brotherhood drew of each other were intimate and rich with personality, their confrontational gazes meeting the viewer eye-to-eye, as in Hunt’s portrait of  Walter Deverell, who seems to have been captured, as if by Polaroid camera, mid-sentence in conversation with the artist.   

Half a century after its birth, the Brotherhood remained relevant, and the second generation even enjoyed a newfound public enthusiasm for their illustrations.  Frederick Sandys’ illustrations were so popular that they would often be cut from books and magazines; the discriminating book buyer had to ensure that ‘the “Sandys” [were] all there before completing the purchase’.   The scandalously erotic and androgynous figures of Edward Burne-Jones faced mixed reviews, but they helped keep the Brotherhood in the public eye and even influenced Art Nouveau illustration.  Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley worked in a style heavily indebted to Burne-Jones, and he indirectly helped carry the baton of Pre-Raphaelite illustration into the 20th century.

Oscar Wilde may have been right in saying that there was a certain ‘awkwardness’ about Pre-Raphaelite drawing.  But their drawings undeniably had their charms.  They contain a spontaneity and honesty that is often lost in a finished painting.  In this respect, these drawings ultimately succeed in remaining true to nature. 

Colin Cruise’s style is academic and occasionally demanding.  But the book is beautifully furnished with over 300 illustrations, which make the content accessible to the general reader.  Although an exhibition catalogue, the book’s arrangement and narrative style make it work wonderfully as a self-contained celebration of Pre-Raphaelite drawing.

Pre-Raphaelite Drawing  by Colin Cruise is published by Thames & Hudson, 2011. 248 pp., 313 colour and mono illus.  ISBN: 978-0-500-23881-3


Jonathan Rinck
Spring Arbor University
Instructor of Art History

Media credit: © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

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