Heroes, Sages and Visionaries

We are considering the public image of Hunt, Millais and Rossetti. If we look at just the first few pages of Hunt’s autobiography we get a feel for the tone of the document. He is creating his own self-image by a process of constructing anecdotes from his childhood onwards. He claims the autobiography is based on evidence, documents and conversations and avoids the romance, poetry and gossip of other histories of the PRB. However, it is unlikely that he could remember conversations word for word that took place 50 years previously. Hunt’ autobiography is incredibly detailed and self-justify. Overall, the book, like his paintings appears contrived and contrived to appear natural.

The model of an artist based on the personality of life of the artist is known as a Vasarian model based on Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574).

If we examine the portraits and self-portraits of the PRB founders we see self-fashioned high foreheads, swept back tousled hair, a broad upper lip, dishevelled clothes, altogether the image of a Romantic artistic genius.

Rossetti Self-Portrait, 1847
Rossetti Self-Portrait, 1847

There is an anxiety and a variety of public images. For example:

Hunt Self-Portrait
Hunt Self-Portrait

Millais Self-Portrait

Millais Self-Portrait

Always remember to ask yourself the purpose of each image and remember if it is an engraving it was made for public consumption.

We, the undersigned, declare that the following list of Immortals constitutes the whole of our Creed, and that there exists no other Immortality than what is centred in their names and in the names of their contemporaries, in whom this list is reflected’

Jesus Christ****

The Author of Job***


Leonardo da Vinci**
Fra Angelico*
Mrs. Browning*
Author of Stories after Nature*
Early Gothic Architects
Cavalier Pugliesi
Joan of Arc
Michael Angelo
Early English Balladists
Giovanni Bellini
Leigh Hunt

(I assume “Cavalier Pugliesi” is the early Italian poet “Giacomino Pugliesi”)

Horace believed, after the the Epicureans, that the only thing capable of surviving death and possessing immortality is fame.

Thomas Carlyle’s 1841, On Heroes And Hero Worship And The Heroic In History assigned a key function to heroes and great men in history. Carlyle centred history on the biography of a few central individuals such as Oliver Cromwell or Frederick the Great. His heroes were political and military figures, the founders or overthrowers of states. But is history made up by and consist of the biographies of great men? This idea may have influenced the PRB is drawing up their list of immortals but let us consider further their own persona.

Max Beerbohm wrote about ‘Rossetti and His Cirle’ in 1922. This is the introduction:
Anxious to avoid all occasion of offence, I do hope this book will not be taken as a slight to men of the moment. Throughout the past quarter of a century I have been proclaiming by pencil my great interest in such men; and the only fault I have found in them is that (numerous though they always are) they are not numerous enough to satisfy my interest in mankind. They would suffice me if I were properly keen on metaphysics, Chippendale, the beauties of Nature, the latest discoveries in science, the shortest cut to Utopia, etc. I don’t agree that the proper study of mankind is Man. I do but confess that Man is the study that has been most congenial to me — so congenial that the current specimens of him have always whetted my appetite for other ones. Lack of imagination debars me from the pleasure of gazing much at the great Jones who is to leave so deep an impress on the late twentieth century, and the even greater Robinson who is to loom so tremendously, for good or evil, over the thirtieth. It is to the Past that I have ever had recourse from the Present. Years ago there was a book entitled ‘The Poet’s Corner’, in which some of my adventures into the Past were recorded by me. But in that volume there was a slight admixture of the (then) Present. In this latest volume there is nothing of anything that wasn’t the Past when I was a child. Hence the apologetic (but not, I hope, abject) tone of these prefatory words.

Perhaps I ought also to beg your pardon for having here confined myself to one little bit of the Past. In ‘The Poet’s Corner’ I ranged back as far as Homer. Here I haven’t so much as shown Rossetti before he passed out of baby-clothes into breeches. Perhaps you have never heard of Rossetti. In this case, I must apologise still more profusely. But even you, flushed though you are with the pride of youth, must have heard of the Victorian Era. Rossetti belonged to that — though he was indeed born nine years before it began, and died of it nineteen years before it was over. For him the eighteen-fifties-and-sixties had no romance at all. For me, I confess, they are very romantic — partly because I wasn’t alive in them, and partly because Rossetti was.

Byron, Disraeli, and Rossetti — these seem to me the three most interesting men that England had in the nineteenth century. England had plenty of greater men. Shelley, for example, was a far finer poet than Byron. But he was not in himself interesting: he was just a crystal-clear crank. To be interesting, a man must be complex and elusive. And I rather fancy it must be a great advantage for him to have been born outside his proper time and place. Disraeli, as Grand Vizir to some Sultan, in a bygone age, mightn’t have seemed so very remarkable after all. Nor might Rossetti in the Quattrocentro and by the Arno. But in London, in the great days of a deep, smug, thick, rich, drab, industrial complacency, Rossetti shone, for the men and women who knew him, with the ambiguous light of a red torch somewhere in a dense fog. And so he still shines for me.

It does not appear that the men and women who knew him well were many. But the men atoned for their fewness by a great deal of genius, and the women by a great deal of beauty. Rossetti had invented a type of beauty; otherwise perhaps we should not be regarding these ladies as beautiful. And certainly the genius of the younger men would not but for him have expressed itself just as it did. Holman Hunt, Millais, Swinburne, Morris, were among those whose early work bore his stamp. Burne-Jones’ work bore it always. Even Whistler’s had it for a time. These men, with a sprinkling of remarkable elder and younger persons who at one time and another entered or at any rate impinged on the magic Circle, you will find in the pages of this book. Rather a ribald book? Well, on se moque de ce qu’on aime. And besides, there is no lack of antidotes. I refer you to William Rossetti’s biography of his brother — a very thorough piece of work, full of well-ordered facts, and very pleasant in tone. Holman Hunt’s autobiography is a finely solid and (between the lines) delightful production. Professor Mackail’s book about Morris is a penetrating work of art. Nor could a husband and his friends be portrayed more vividly and prettily than Burne-Jones and his friends were portrayed by his widow. And if, albeit earnest, you are in a great hurry, there is always the Dictionary of National Biography, you know.

I must warn you, before parting, not to regard as perfectly authentic any of the portraits that I here present to you. Rossetti ‘to my gaze was ne’er vouchsafed.’ Nor did I ever set eyes on Coventry Patmore or Ford Madox Brown or John Ruskin or Robert Browning. Nor did I see any one of the others until he had long passed the age at which he knew Rossetti. Old drawings and
paintings, early photographs, and the accounts ot eye-witnesses, have not, however, been my only aids. I have had another and surer aid, of the most curious kind imaginable. And some day I will tell you all about it, if you would care to hear.

Max Beerbohm, A Momentary Vision Once Befell Young Millais, 1922

Max Beerbohm, A Momentary Vision Once Befell Young Millais, 1922

The young Millais meeting the old Millais, the young artist is struggling to combine fantasy and naturalism and is suddenly confronted by his older self as a comfortable country gentleman. The young girl refers to what Beerbohm sees as Millais pandering to public taste with pictures of young girls, such as ‘My First Sermon’.

Max Beerbohm, Spring Cottage Hampstead 1860, 1922
Max Beerbohm, Spring Cottage Hampstead 1860, 1922

Coventry Patmore (now famous for the expression “Angel in the House”) is the person who asked Ruskin to come to the defence of the Pre-Raphaelites which caused him to write two letters to the Times in May 1852 and publish a pamphlet later that year. He is shown here explaining that a tea-pot should not be worshipped for its form and colour but as a sublime symbol of domesticity.

The Pre-Raphaelite Team as ‘Pop Group’

If we examine each artist as a brand within a group as a brand we find that, like a modern pop group, they each have personalities that are radically different yet mesh together. We even have a blond, brunette and red-haired member. Does this suggest that their personalities have been created?

Millais Hunt Rossetti
‘Never read a book’
English country gentleman
Loved the country live
A ‘good sort’
A natural artist
Loved by everyone
HonestBrand: Successful Artist
‘Mad’ (his nickname)
Nervous breakdowns
Sense of humourBrand: Serious Artist
PoeticBrand: Romantic Artist

Of course, their patrons, largely the middle-class themselves form different groups and each member of the PRB appealed to different types of buyers but together they created a stronger brand. In fact, they were less like a pop group as they created works and were bought independently. Each created an individual brand that convinced the buyer they were making a wise investment. Millais could be trusted as he was a born artist, an honest Englishman and made an ARA in 1853 and later RA (and President just before he died). Hunt could be trusted as an investment as he was serious, had religious convictions and worked hard at everything he did. Rossetti was a typical unreliable Romantic image of the artist so buying one of his paintings was a wise investment as you were buying the work of a ‘real artist’.

Do we collude in this story because we like the story. Do you find it difficult to believe anything else about them? Is it possible to discover anything else about them as they constructed their own persona so well and we want to believe it?

We should consider Roland Barthes Death of the Artist, see The History of Art after the Death of the “Death of the Subject”

What persona do the Brotherhood wear? Brother, monk, knight, lover, matyr, evolutionary, bohemian, labourer, patriarch, adventurer, priest…

Consider a multivalent (‘having many values or meanings’) approach to public persona.

The PRB’s List of Immortals is unstable and performative (a part of speech describing an utterance that creates something by being uttered, e.g. ‘I now create you man and wife’). That is it makes them ‘immortal’ by listing them and the list reflects on the knowledge and discernment of the creator, the list is therefore also enhancing the status of its creator and helping to make them ‘immortal’ through its creation.

It raises the question of the nature of identity itself. Do we have a stable, time independent persona that is invariant across social and personal circumstances or are we a reflection of our own creation modified by the situation we find ourselves in?

(These are notes of a course given at Birkbeck College by Carol Jacobi in 2006/2007)

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