The famous son
One of the most celebrated Pre-Raphaelites was born a year after the creation of the Brotherhood With crowds of art fans poring over the masterpieces on every wall of the Pre-Raphaelite rooms in Tate Britain, chances are you’ll have to wait to get a good look at John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot. Its postcard is one of the museum’s bestsellers, but there’s nothing like the 200x246cm painting.
Inspiring artists for more than a century, including this issue’s cover artist Corrado Vanelli, Waterhouse was born a year after Hunt, Millais and Rossetti founded the Brotherhood. And yet he has come to epitomise the movement that he helped revitalise. Waterhouse’s art is filled with magnetic, tragic and beautiful women. Taking familiar Pre-Raphaelite themes from poems and legend – he created his own Ophelia in 1888 – stylistically Waterhouse was anything but a Pre-Raphaelite poster boy. Gone is the photo-realistic attention to fauna and flora, replaced by a looser brushstroke and more blocks of colour on the canvas.
The Brotherhood had slipped in and out of fashion by the time Waterhouse was exhibiting. Yet his psychologically charged art from literature and Greek mythology remained popular until the 20th century brought new trends and tastes.
Pre-Raphaelites painted women, all springing from a real-life mixture of doomed desire and disaster.
Unlike its bright colours, the story behind Millais’ painting Isabella is a lot darker. While Isabella’s brothers crack nuts at the dining table, her lover Lorenzo stares at her, revealing their secret love. Unimpressed, the brothers conspire to kill Lorenzo, burying him in a nearby forest. When Isabella is visited by a ghost that takes her to Lorenzo’s grave, the lovers are reunited, but only once she digs up his body. The tale has a chilling echo in one of the Pre-Raphaelite’s life.
Rossetti probably met Lizzie Siddal in 1849. She became his muse, modelling for hundreds of his sketches. A poet and artist herself, she featured in pieces by all the PRB, becoming immortalised in Millais’s Ophelia – famously catching a cold as she lay in a
Lizzie famously caught a cold as she lay in a bathtub that an engrossed Millais had forgotten to keep warm…
bathtub that an engrossed Millais had forgotten to keep warm with fresh candles.
In 1860 Rossetti and Siddal were married. But within two years she was dead from an overdose of laudanum, an opiate she’d been taking for post-natal depression. Having viewed her face for so long in life, Rossetti laid Lizzie’s corpse out for seven days to study her for a final time. He then buried her with the only copy of his complete poetry, entwined in her long red hair. Seven years later, he had her coffin dug up to retrieve his writings. His eerie painting Beata Beatrix (above), which he started the year after her death, is an ode to Siddal that was finally finished in 1870.
Tragedy does well in art. Collectors love a story behind an image, and money follows trends. Such is the case with Rossetti’s Pandora, estimated to auction for £7 million this year. But the PRB’s selfassured call to arms, and its brief yet bright life is hard to resist for artists, too. At its core, it was an art movement conceived by artists, backed up by the greatest art critic of the time. They may be more popular than ever with a fresh run of high-profile exhibitions at London’s Tate Britain and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in recent years, but it’s the simple adoration of nature and women, and their passion for depicting a good story that assures their legacy.
The lady of Shalott (1888) Inspired by Tennyson’s Arthurian ballad, this is one of three paintings on the subject.
The Awakening Conscience Hunt’s 1853 painting shows a ‘kept’ woman remembering her lost innocence as she stares out into a garden.