by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Study of Two Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, 1895

Looks great on paper

By Roderick Conway Morris
OXFORD 3 April 2021


Although the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in London in 1848, two of its most prominent recruits, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, met at Oxford in 1853 and were introduced to the movement there.

The ideas of John Ruskin advocating 'truth to nature', published in the first volume of his 'Modern Painters' while he was still an undergraduate at the University a decade before, had been a primary stimulus in the formation of the Brotherhood and the critic became one of their leading champions. A local town girl Jane Burden, who was later to marry Morris and become in the words of Henry James 'a grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made', was first recruited as a model having been spotted at an Oxford theatre by Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has not only important Pre-Raphaelite paintings but also an exceptional depository of their richly revealing graphic works in a wide range of media, from pencil and silverpoint to watercolour and pastels.

This is substantially thanks to Thomas and Martha Combes. The former was the Superintendent of the Oxford Clarendon Press and an early admirer of the leading founders of the Brotherhood: William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Combes welcomed undergraduates and young artists to their house at the Clarendon Press, entertaining them, inviting them to stay and buying their pictures. Burne-Jones and Morris first encountered the Brotherhood's works in Thomas Combes's collection.

William Collins's 'Convent Thoughts' (one of the early pictures that roused Ruskin to defend the movement) was painted in the Combes' garden. In 1857 Burne-Jones, Morris and Rossetti headed a team of young painters commissioned to decorate the new debating chamber of the Oxford Union (now the library) with murals on Arthurian themes.

Unfortunately the artists' inexperience led to the rapid deterioration of the wall paintings, but the glory of their former colours can be judged by some surviving watercolour studies at the Ashmolean. Upon her death in 1893, Martha Combes left the family art collection to the Museum. This has since encouraged further donations and acquisitions, one of the latest being a cache of Burne-Jones's entertainingly illustrated letters to May Gaskell. Given the delicacy of these works on paper, the Ashmolean graphic collection cannot be displayed permanently, but happily is now the subject of an enlightening book and exhibition, 'Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours', curated by Christiana Payne.

One of the most striking aspects of the collection is the extraordinary range of media the artists employed. The Pre-Raphaelites represented a reaction against classical academic art and were enthusiasts for all things medieval. They were inspired by watercolours in illuminated manuscripts and researched pre- and early-Renaissance techniques through such works as Cennino Cennini's 'Libro dell'Arte'. Burne-Jones experimented with pen and ink on vellum, producing such impressive works as 'The Knight's Farewell', hailed by Rossetti as 'marvels of finish and imaginative detail, unequalled by anything except perhaps Albrecht Dürer's finest works.'

But the artists were also living in an industrial age in which an almost bewildering range of new pigments, paints, pastels, pencils, brushes and other graphic tools were constantly coming on the market, which they eagerly embraced. These are the subject of a fascinating essay in the book by Fiona Mann, who has made excellent use of a wide range of contemporary sources, including the ledgers of Charles Roberson, the prominent art suppliers of Long Acre in London, where Burne-Jones, Rossetti and other members of the group had accounts.

Watercolours in toothpaste-like tubes made them quicker and more flexible to handle (notably when painting en plein air) and some of the confraternity's watercolours became so thickly textured that they were later mistaken for oils. Burne-Jones especially experimented with Roberson's varied metallic paints, the use of which he once described as 'an art in itself', enabling him to achieve glittering medieval effects employing the latest synthetic products.

Jan Marsh's memorable exhibition in 2019 at the National Portrait Gallery, 'The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood', explored the often underestimated extent of the role that women played in the movement. The Ashmolean's collection of informal graphic works further illustrates the evolution of the Pre-Raphaelite idea of female beauty as well as the talents of Rossetti's first muse Elizabeth Siddal as an artist in her own right.

Siddal already had aspirations to become an artist when she was recruited by the Brotherhood as a model in 1859 or 1860. She was unconventional in her looks, with her slim build, unfashionable red hair and a pronounced overbite but her 'brilliant loveliness and grace', as Burne-Jones's wife Georgiana observed, 'brought an unearthly character to her beauty'. As an artist she was self-taught, but having become Rossetti's primary model and lover, he declared that 'her fecundity of invention & facility are quite wonderful, much greater than mine'.

In 1854-55 Ruskin bought all Siddal's drawings to date and gave her a stipend of £50 in exchange for her subsequent works. Her drawings at the Ashmolean bear witness to her artistic skills and wit. One skit, 'Two Men in a Boat and a Woman Punting', an evident parody of Rossetti's mythological drawing 'Boatmen and Siren', depicts an outraged Siddal furiously using her punt pole to repel the skiff of two importunate young men, one of them clearly identifiable as Rossetti.

While Rossetti immortalized Siddal's beauty in numerous works in the 1850s, before her tragically premature death of an overdose of laundanum in 1862 following a miscarriage, during the same period he also began to develop another, more voluptuous, Titianesque ideal, of models with bee-stung lips, long rounded necks and luxuriant cascades of thick wavy hair.

These looks were especially inspired by Fanny Cornford who, after the death of Siddal, became Rossetti's housekeeper, later lover; the celebrated actress Louisa Ruth Herbert; and Jane Morris, his last great muse and love. Georgiana Burne-Jones had the opportunity to compare Rossetti's first and last muses, recording: 'The difference between the two women may be typified broadly as that between sculpture and painting. Mrs Morris being the statue and Mrs Rossetti the painting.'

Determined to put Ruskin's dictum of 'truth to nature' into effect, In the summer of 1851 Millais and Holman Hunt went down to Ewell in Surrey to paint the landscape backgrounds for 'Ophelia' and the latter's 'The Hireling Shepherd'. Elizabeth Siddal later spent long hours lying motionless in a bath in Millais' studio in London while he completed 'Ophelia'. The bath was heated from below with lamps but one day, unnoticed by the artist, they went out, Lizzie caught a severe chill, and her father threatened to sue him.

Yet it was some of the now lesser-known names in the Brotherhood's circle that were to devote themselves most whole heartedly to landscape, producing some outstanding works now in the Ashmolean collection. Among these are pieces by Millais' older brother, William Henry Millais, George Price Boyce, John William Inchbold and Thomas Seddon.

Both Ruskin's recommendations and contemporary photography (which found focusing on broader views technically challenging) inspired artists to create close-ups of plants and trees. An extraordinarily accomplished hyper-real example of this sub-genre is represented by Albert Moore's watercolour and gouache 'Study of an Ash Trunk' (1857), painted when the artist was only 16. Thomas Seddon put photography to unusual use in his watercolour version of 'View of Jerusalem' and the 'Valley of Jehoshaphat', which was meticulously painted over a black and white photograph of the original oil version publicly exhibited in London in 1855.

George Pryce Boyce first trained in architecture but became a pioneering en plein air painter. He provided his friend Rossetti, who disliked painting outdoors, with landscape details for some of his canvases and took over his studio at Blackfriars when Rossetti moved to Chelsea after Siddal's death.

Boyce took to the Thames between London and Oxford in a rowing boat on extended excursions to scout locations for rural scenes, being particularly fascinated by old agricultural buildings. One of the fruits of his expeditions was 'Old Barn at Whitchurch' (1863), which was highly praised by a reviewer when it was exhibited the following year, who wrote: 'No commonplace painter could have invested the barn and farmyard… with so much of the dignity of a magnificent building, nor could such a one have given to stable-litter and pigs the charm of admirable colour.'

However, these rustic excursions were not without hazards. By the 1850s suppliers of art materials such as Roberson were also offering folding 'Sketching Umbrellas', and both Boyce and Burne-Jones purchased them. But, while painting on the Thames at Wargrave, Boyce returned one day to collect some equipment he had left behind and found 'a cow had been devouring my sketching umbrella and had eaten ¾ of it.'

Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours by Christiana Payne Ashmolean Museum (£25)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023