By the mid-nineteenth century British society had reached a crossroads. The Industrial Revolution had changed everything, and not always for the better. Mass production allowed for multiple copies of the same item to be produced over and over again, with questionable results in terms of quality. Social upheaval was rampant as more and more people crowded into the cities looking for work. It was into this environment that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born.
John Everett Millais, "Ophelia," Oil on canvas 1851
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of artists, poets, and critics founded in 1848 by James Collinson, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner. As defined by William Michael Rossetti the group’s aims were the creation of art based in sincerity and emotion, with genuine ideas behind each creative work produced. In addition to signing their own name, each member added the initials “PRB” to their works. Two years into its founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood established a monthly periodical entitled The Germ to disseminate its ideas; it lasted only four issues.
In 1850 the Brotherhood courted controversy for John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, which depicted Jesus and His family dressed in rags in the middle of a filthy, debris-strewn workshop. Critics savaged the piece, with Charles Dickens remarking that Millais had made the Holy Family look like “alcoholics and slum dwellers.” The controversy led to James Collinson leaving the Brotherhood.
By 1860 the only original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood left was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who retained the name and recruited other artists such as William Dyce, Joseph Noel Paton, and Ford Madox Brown. Among Rossetti’s most well-known followers were the painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the designer William Morris, who in 1891 with Burne-Jones and others founded the Kelmscott Press. Morris’s influence resulted in the sprouting of a new branch of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, known as the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1896 the Kelmscott Press would print on Morris’s own handmade paper and featuring eighty-seven original woodcuts by Burne-Jones The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, considered to be the most beautiful book ever printed.
With the death of Rossetti in 1882 followed by Morris’s in 1896 and Burne-Jones’s in 1900, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood effectively ceased to exist. Its influence would continue to be felt, however. Aubrey Beardsley was said to have been influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. J.R.R. Tolkien spent many hours as a child pouring over the Pre-Raphaelite collection at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, which is believed to have influenced in part The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In 2020 Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley said when discussing his portrait of President Barack Obama that his body of work would not exist “without an interest in the William Morris style,” a statement which signifies the ways in which a brotherhood of seven founded over a century and a half ago continues to influence art today.
"The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” Encyclopedia Britannica Accessed 29 January 2020.
Litchfield, Iona. “10 Things You Never Knew About the Pre-Raphaelite Movement” The Culture Trip Accessed 29 January 2020.
Dickens, Charles. “Old Lamps for New Ones” Household Words 12 (15 June 1850), 10-12. Accessed 29 January 2020.
Finch, Mariko. “The Pre-Raphaelites’ Influence: From Tolkien to Led Zeppelin” Accessed 29 January 2020.
Wrathall, Claire. “Kehinde Wiley: ‘I Took the DNA of William Morris and Created Hybrids’” The Guardian Accessed 29 January 2020.