On the Pre–Raphaelites and Writers of Fantasy

by Terri Windling

"I made a new religion," wrote the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, "of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters. I wished for a world where I could discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and poems only, but in tiles round the chimney piece and in the hangings that kept out the draft."

In 19th–century England, a group of idealistic men and women dreamed of creating such an ideal world — spinning their bright, richly colored dreams against the drab, smoky background of the Industrial Revolution. Although they came from different walks of life and different artistic disciplines, today we know them collectively as The Pre-Raphaelites. Some years ago Steven Brust asked me to give a talk about Pre-Raphaelite art at the 4th Street Fantasy Convention, held annually in Minneapolis. He explained that he wanted me to speak not only about the history of this art, but why it is that one encounters so many Pre–Raphaelite fans among writers of fantasy fiction.This article is drawn from the 4th Street talk, and many conversations that followed it — about the lasting power of Pre–Raphaelite art to engage, enchant, and inspire modern writers and artists.

For those unfamiliar with Pre–Raphaelitism, it is important to understand that this was not an artistic movement solely concerned with canvas and paint. It was a movement of artists whose paintings and designs were thoroughly entwined with stories: with ancient myths and medieval romance, with 18th– and 19th–century poetry, with the great heroic epics of the past and humble folk tales from the fireside. (Two of the most important artists of the movement — Rossetti and Morris — were equally famed as writers.) Furthermore, these artists were positively revolutionary in Victorian times for bringing their rich aesthetic ideals out of the painting galleriesand into every aspect of daily life — from the clothes one wore, to the chairs one sat on, to the gorgeous hand–bound books from which one read Chaucer and Malory. It is this aesthetic, along with the paintings and prose, that has survived for over one hundred years, as compelling to some of us today as it was during Queen Victoria’s reign.

I sit here now at my desk in a 16th–century English cottage with Morris patterns on the wallpaper, the curtains, and the cloth of my skirt; with Burne–Jones prints framed on the walls and Kelmscott facsimile editions on the shelves&nbsp. . .hence I must plead guilty to a certain Pre–Raphaelite obsession. But let me quickly point out that it’s one that I share with many others in the fantasy field: Thomas Canty, Brian and Wendy Froud, Alan Lee, Charles Vess, Michael Moorcock, Elizabeth Hand, Emma Bull, Jane Yolen, Lisa Goldstein, Robert Holdstock, and Delia Sherman, to name just a few.It seems that those of us drawn to this art are often drawn as well to its encompassing vision: the idea that art is not just something to look at, or to find in a book, but that art is (or can be) a way life — a religion of Beauty, of Romanticism, that surrounds one (as Yeats would say) right down to the tiles round the chimney piece.

The Pre–Raphaelite movement was officially begun in the middle of the last century by seven young artists, barely into their twenties at the time. Painting, as it was taught back then (at London’s Royal Academy), was bound by a strict series of rules, formulas, and conventions which determined what these artists could paint and exactly how they could paint it. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Millais were at the core of this group of friends who defied the art establishment by exhibiting subversive, scandalous paintings signed with the mysterious letters "PRB". The initials stood for the group’s nom de guerre: the Pre–Raphaelite Brotherhood.They chose this name because they worshipped early Italian and Flemish art — the art before Raphael. The Brotherhood never set out to mimic the style of this early art, but rather they sought to evoke a similar spirit of freedom and simplicity: primarily by the radical concepts of painting directly from nature, out–of–doors; and by painting with bright, translucent colors straight onto a white background (rather than with the subdued Academy palette, painted light on dark).

This hardly seems radical to us today, but when the group began to exhibit such work, the paintings deeply appalled Academy officials and the viewing public. Looking at these paintings today, what we see are quaintly historic images dripping with romanticism — but what viewers saw a century ago was something rather different. To them, the colors were of a shocking and vulgar brightness, rather like hanging Peter Max posters on the gallery walls. (The colors have since faded with age; we can only imagine their impact now.) Furthermore, the Brotherhood ignored the prescribed list of respectable Academic subjects; instead, they painted images drawn from Celtic legends and English folklore; from Romantic poetslike Shelley and Keats and modern writers like Tennyson — or else they treated traditional subjects in shockingly untraditional ways. Millais’ luminous painting of Christ’s childhood, for instance, horrified Victorian viewers because it placed a barefoot Christ–child in a common carpenter’s workshop.

The following review from the London Times was typical of the notice they received: "We cannot censor at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do that strange disorder of the mind or eyes that continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves the PRB. These young artists have unfortunately become notorious by addicting themselves to an antiquated style and an affected simplicity in painting which is to genuine art what the medieval ballads and designs in Punch are to Chaucer." Though taken aback by the fury of these attacks, the Brotherhood then received a stroke of luck. The influential critic John Ruskin, who admired the young painters’ fidelityto nature, wrote to the Times in their defense, concluding that "with all their faults, their pictures are since Turner’s death the best, the incomparably best, on the walls of the Royal Academy." Now the tide began to turn. With John Ruskin’s invaluable (and often meddlesome) patronage, the Pre–Raphaelite style of painting proceeded to change Victorian ideas about art and to buck the old establishment. Over time, these artists grew famous, wealthy, and became the art establishment against which the next generation of students (the Modernists) would rebel.

Although the name "Pre–Raphaelite" is now applied to a broad spectrum of artists, the original Brotherhood itself lasted only a few years before its querulous members went their separate ways. Johnny Millais, the most accomplished painter of the group, became a highly fashionable Society artist; the frothy, sentimental canvases of his later years were widely viewed as a betrayal of the cause — but earned him the money needed to support the enormous number of children he had after running away with Ruskin’s wife in a widely publicized scandal. "Holy" Hunt became obsessed with Palestine, traveling to the Holy Lands to paint his religious subjects from life. In this he stayed true to the PRB ideals,painting long hours in the hot desert sun — and carrying a pistol in his belt (he claimed) to discourage the local bandits. Gabriel Rossetti’s work largely abandoned the early PRB ideals: his palette grew darker, his compositions more formal, and he rarely painted out–of–doors as he focused, almost exclusively, on feminine face and form. These lush allegorical portraits scandalized, yet mesmerized, the Victorian public. Indeed, so popular were Rossetti’s ladies, with their wistful gazes and cascades of crinkly hair, that this is the image most of us now associate with Pre–Raphaelitism — rather than the plein air paintings of the original Brotherhood.

Rossetti was an eccentric, passionate man with great personal charisma, and he drew around him an extraordinary circle of artists, poets, and acolytes whom he fired with Romantic ideals. The big brick riverside house he rented in London’s Chelsea neighborhood was shared with the poet Algernon Swinburne, the novelist George Meredith, Rossetti’s patient brother Michael (who often ended up paying all the bills), and a menagerie of pets including peacocks, marmots, deer, armadillos, hedgehogs, a vicious kangaroo, and some rather disgruntled wombats. This was the London of Oscar Wilde’s day, when Whistler, or Browning, or shy Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) might drop in for tea and the latest gossip, and Thomas Carlyle’s rather shabbyfigure could be seen strolling along the Thames. In one famous story, the inspiration for the dormouse in the teapot in Alice in Wonderland is said to have come from a pet rodent fast asleep in Rossetti’s soup tureen; in other stories, visitors to the house related how Swinburne would go into fits, throwing off his clothes and dancing naked while reciting his poetry.

This was a lavishly Bohemian household, at odds with our usual tight–laced, repressive image of the Victorians. It is true that respectable women — like Rossetti’s sister, the poet Christina Rossetti — would not have been allowed to frequent the house or take part in the creative camaraderie; but these rules did not pertain to working class girls, considered little better than whores anyway — particularly if they modeled for painters, whether they kept their clothes on or not. One of these models was Elizabeth Siddal, a cutler’s daughter from the wrong side of the river with artistic ambitions of her own. "Lizzie," as she was known, is the tall woman with long straight golden hair who sits, sleeps, dreams, and combs her locksin so many of Rossetti’s early drawings; she was his Muse, companion, painting partner  . . .and eventually his wife, much to the horror of Rossetti’s middle–class family. Growing up poor and female, Lizzie would have had no access to artistic training — yet she blossomed in Bohemian company, producing Romantic drawings and paintings which won Ruskin’s praise and patronage. To Rossetti’s credit, at a time when women’s art was severely marginalized he had genuine faith in Lizzie’s work and took great pains to promote it. Yet she died before her work matured, and little of it survives today. Always physically frail, depressive, and never certain of Rossetti’s constancy, she died of an overdose of laudanum (an opium tincture)after the stillborn birth of their child. Officially listed as an "accidental death," rumors of suicide were spread — and to this day no one really knows. Distraught with grief, Rossetti buried his unpublished poems in his wife’s coffin, wrapped up in her long gold hair. Years later, in an incident now famous in literary history, he reconsidered this romantic gesture and dug the coffin back up again, retrieving the poems and publishing them. Legend has it that Lizzie’s famous hair was just as bright as always.

By this time, Rossetti had a new Muse — Jane Morris, another working class girl, and the wife of one of his closest friends. "Topsy" Morris and "Ned" Jones had been students together at Oxford; Rossetti was older, already famous, and the younger men idolized his work. They wrote him a letter and were invited to come and visit him in his London digs. William Morris, rather a bearish young man, was blessed with an inherited income and a prodigious amount of energy. Unlike Ned, Morris was never much of an oil painter, but there was very little else the man couldn’t do. Turning his talents to decorative arts, he sought to create a world around them as romantic as any Pre–Raphaelite painting, filling their houses with medieval–lookingfurniture (hand–painted by Ned and Rossetti), designing tapestries, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, silver–work, stained glass, and anything else that caught his fancy. He was the force behind Morris and Co., a firm dedicated to making and marketing objects of Pre–Raphaelite design. It was Morris’s dream to thus bring art into the daily life of the common man; it was his belief that filling a man’s soul with beauty was as important as filling his belly with food. Appalled by the cheap ugliness produced by the new methods of mass production, Morris championed the beauty of handcraft methods based on medieval craft societies. So strong was this vision that Morris is still a force in British design over one hundred years later: his furniture is stillin use (particularly the famous "Morris chair"), his wallpaper designs are still found in houses all over England and America; his unique wool dye recipes are still followed; his beautiful type designs are classics; and the hand–printed books of his Kelmscott Press sit in museum collections around the world. In addition, Morris was one of the fathers of modern British socialism; and many fine old English houses still exist thanks to the Society for the Preservation of Antique Buildings which Morris founded. This tireless man also wrote popular books of poetry and prose — including translations of old Icelandic sagas, and magical tales such as Well at the World’s End (considered by some literary historians to be the first modern fantasy novels).

Morris’ boundless creative energy disguised a tragic private life; his wife, Jane, and Rossetti had fallen passionately in love. Although famous for his temper, in this regard he seems to have shown an extraordinary patience. He rented Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire along with Rossetti; thus the lovers were able to be together without actually breaking up Jane’s marriage. It was about this time that he wrote his poem cycle The Defense of Guenevere — the only clue we have of Morris’s feelings about this painful period of his life. His patience paid off some years later when two tragedies drew the couple back together: one of their daughters was diagnosed with epilepsy (untreatable and devastating), and Rossetti’s mental health (always a bit unstable) began to collapse.Convinced he was stalked by enemies, and haunted by his dead wife’s ghost, Rossetti retreated to his Chelsea house where he took great quantities of laudanum and wrote plaintive letters to Jane. His other mistress, Fanny Cornforth, looked after him there until the end of his life. A former model and prostitute, Fanny was considered so vulgar by the Rossetti circle that she was not invited to his funeral, although she was probably the steadiest, truest friend the painter had. With Rossetti’s departure, Kelmscott Manor became a true home for Morris, Jane and their two children; Jane eventually bought the house after Morris’ death. This beautiful stone manor house in the gentle hills of Oxfordshire has since been restored and is open to the public during the summer months.In Kelmscott churchyard, Morris and Jane are buried in a single, simple grave.

Topsy and Ned remained fast friends from their Oxford days to the end of their lives. Ned became Sir Edward Burne–Jones, a celebrated Pre–Raphaelite painter of mystical, dream–like imagery. It was Burne–Jones’s distinctive work which largely inspired the next generation of Pre–Raphaelites — painters such as J.W. Waterhouse, Evelyn de Morgan, Joseph Southall, Byam Shaw, and the artists of the Arts & Crafts movement. Burne–Jones had his own flamboyant mid–life love affair, with the fiery Greek sculptor Maria Zambaco — her striking face and long dark hair can be seen in many of his best paintings. In the end, Burne–Jones reneged on his vow to leave his marriage and returned to his wife, while the angry, heart–broken Mariawas left threatening to drown herself. There is evidence to suggest that his wife, Georgiana, was herself in love with William Morris (and Morris with her) — but these two, despite Bohemianism lives, had been raised with high Victorian ideals. Faithful Georgie remained at her husband’s side, enduring Zambaco and her husband’s penchant for pretty young women during his later years; Morris remained with Jane, bound by convention, their children, and a mutual affection that had survived many years of trial.

Perhaps it is the drama of these entwined lives, as much as the art itself, that now attracts so many of us; writers love a good story after all. But I think it is also significant that late–20th–century fantasists and late–19th–century Pre–Raphaelites tend to hold certain things in common: a love for myth and mysticism, for Celtic legends and epic romance, and a taste for magic. There is magic in the Arthurian paintings of Burne–Jones, and the works of his "Briar Rose" series (based on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale). There is magic in Rossetti’s pensive women, in Waterhouse’s mad Ophelia, in Hunt’s entrapped Lady of Shalott. There is magic in Morris’ utopian fantasy novels, now classics of our field.

In fantasy, as in Pre–Raphaelite art, we find a deep nostalgia for the landscapes of the rural past — in the rolling Shires of Middle Earth, the island villages of Earthsea, the unspoiled forests of Narnia, Islandia, and Mythago Wood. As editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden has pointed out, it is probably no accident that the explosive popularity of Tolkien’s books and the subsequent birth of the modern fantasy genre occurred at the same time as the growth of the modern ecology movement. In an age of urban expansion and aggressive suburban development, many of us long for simple green fields, clear waters, and the timeless beauty of winding woodland trails — a hunger fed by journeys through the untamed woods of fantasy. One hundred years ago, William Morriswatched as his beloved English countryside disappeared under rapid industrialization; his art and politics express an impassioned appeal for a rural way of life — for a return to an idyllic, chivalric medieval past that had never been.

With mythic and magical imagery evident in so much Pre–Raphaelite art, it should come as no surprise that a number of Victorian fantasy writers were connected to the circle. Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book and Puck of Pook’s Hill, was Georgiana Burne–Jones’s nephew; Ford Maddox Ford, grandson of Pre–Raphaelite painter Ford Maddox Brown, began his career writing fairy tales. E. Nesbit, author of The Enchanted Castle and other ground–breaking children’s fantasies, was niece to Dante Gabriel Rossetti — and to Christina Rossetti, whose fantasy poem "Goblin Market" is a Victorian classic. Lewis Carroll, William Allingham, Lawrence Houseman, and many other writers of magical poetry and prose were part ofthe wider Pre–Raphaelite circle  . . .and even John Ruskin tried his hand at fairy tales (King of the Golden River).

One final link joins modern fantasists with the unconventional painters and poets who lived and loved and worked and dreamed one hundred years before us. Like the early Pre–Raphaelite Brotherhood (before the tides of fashion turned in their favor), fantasists must work outside the approval of the art establishment. Fantasists use themes that are once again considered beneath the notice of serious artists: myth, magic, fairy tales, and stories unabashedly Romantic. The Pre–Raphaelite artists worked in forms derided as craft or decoration, not high art: ceramics, weaving, embroidery, jewelry–making, furniture, and book design — just as today we work in forms that are also rarely considered high art: genre fiction, children’s fiction, book illustration, and comics.The Pre–Raphaelites ignored the conventions of their day, and the critics quick to dismiss them. They refused to change their vision to suit the times — they changed the world around them instead. Perhaps those "tiles around the chimney piece and hangings that keep out the draft" may seem like small, inconsequential ways of going about changing the world  . . .and yet these things still influence the art, the dreams, the daily lives of men and women over one hundred years later. The Pre–Raphaelite vision is still alive to inspire many of us today.

Perhaps some day we’ll be able to say the same about the best of the mythical art and fiction created in our own century. In the meantime, we can take heart from the beautiful work of the Pre–Raphaelites — from those seven original rebellious young men, from the men and women who followed them, and all steadfast, visionary souls who have walked this road before us.