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1849 The Arrival of the "PRB"

The press widely agreed that the standard of the 1849 Exhibition was high, even though there were some notable absences on the part of Britain’s leading painters. It was much commented on that there were no works shown by the Irish artist Daniel Maclise. William Etty, who only had a few more months to live, exhibited a few sketchy oils which clearly lacked the force and scale of his earlier Royal Academy submissions. Leslie sent two works, “neither of them equal to his reputation”, the critic of The Standard complained.1 Turner, that Titan of the Annual Exhibition, who only had two years left to live, submitted just one painting. In many ways, this represented a generational shift and the end of an era for British painting. While the passing of the “greats” was viewed mournfully, it was also seen as potentially beneficial for younger artists since, as The Standard put it, “more room is left for aspirants to attract attention.”2

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In many ways, the situation could not have been better for the young painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to make their debut at the Academy. Isabella was John Everett Millais’ first Pre-Raphaelite painting and it was the only painting he submitted to the Academy that year (Fig. 1). An enigmatic monogram in the lower right corner containing the initials “PRB” followed Millais’ signature, perhaps parodying the practice among members of the Academy to add “ARA” or “RA” to denote their rank within the institution’s hierarchies. If, as Elizabeth Prettejohn has noted, “critics kept silent about the P.R.B. initials, they did not fail to notice the pictures.”3 When the Academy’s Exhibition opened in May 1849, Millais and his friend and fellow “Pre-Raphaelite Brother”, William Holman Hunt, would no doubt have been pleased with the decision of the Hanging Committee. Hanging near Isabella in the Middle Room of the Academy Exhibition—a prime spot in the Exhibition—was Hunt’s Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Younger Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions (Fig. 2). Another Exhibition painting bearing the “PRB” monogram was the much less well-known James Collinson’s Italian Image-Boys at a Roadside Alehouse. Hunt’s and Millais’ works were hung in close proximity to one another and well displayed with their frames “on the line”—the all-important 8 feet (2.4 metre)-high moulding deemed to be the optimum height for viewing a work. The proximity of their display not only allowed for the easy comparison of these two works, but also, and perhaps more significantly, helped them stand out from the neighbouring mass of pictures.

The visual cacophony of a crowded wall could drown out a painting, but in 1849, Millais and Hunt both succeeded in making their works speak loudly, capturing the attention of the press and public alike. The critic of The Art-Journal noted of Isabella that it was “the most remarkable of the whole collection; it cannot fail to establish the fame of the young painter.”4 Those features which made it “remarkable” included the subject matter, drawn from a literary source—inspired by a poem by John Keats who took his subject from a story by the fourteenth-century Italian poet, Boccaccio—but also the sense that this painting offered a radical new pictorial style and emotional tone distinctive from the contemporary British painting also on display at the Academy’s Annual Exhibition. For the author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1835 novel of the same name had inspired Hunt, Rienzi was a work “full of genius and high promise”.5 Put simply, Millais’ and Hunt’s paintings looked very different, with their bright, jewel-like colours and powerful, emotionally charged topics of love and justice. In the words of William Michael Rossetti, they “stood out conspicuously from their surroundings.”6 The strongly delineated forms and highly individualised faces of each of their protagonists (both used friends and family as sitters, including Dante and William Michael Rossetti) were painted with small, fine brushes, and arranged in a rectangular, flattened format. The lack of depth in both pictures compresses the complex action and narrative, and pushes the figures forwards towards the viewer. Theirs was a crisp, clear new aesthetic language—one that both impressed and puzzled many reviewers. The art critic of The Standard wrote: “Mr Millais has a picture of considerable merit … Though perhaps a little stiff and mediaeval in style, it is remarkable for its spirited manipulation, and also for individuality of character.”7

Hunt’s and Millais’ choice to unveil their allegiance to the Brotherhood by including the enigmatic “PRB” monogram on the paintings they sent to the Academy in 1849 was certainly premeditated and highlighted their strong sense of personal and professional connections among this group of young artists. It was a badge of collaboration. They had met studying at the Royal Academy Schools and were well versed in the rites and rituals of the institution. The Academy Annual Exhibition’s history as a site of critique, challenge, and contestation had been underscored on numerous occasions in the recent past and these young artists (Millais and Hunt, who were aged just nineteen and twenty-two respectively) certainly knew all about the need to catch the visitor’s eye. They would have seen that complete silence or inattention had been the fate of many of the pictures afforded space in the dense hang of the walls of the Academy’s Annual Exhibition; and they would have known that, in contrast, a dramatic form of pictorial intervention into the display could generate a great deal of critical and public interest in the artists concerned. The Academy’s annual shows were still very much one of the great highlights of the cultural calendar in the mid-nineteenth century and certainly the biggest artistic event of its kind in Britain. To exhibit at the Academy in the mid-nineteenth century was to exhibit on a world stage in a very public way.

The Pre-Raphaelites’ opening gambit at the Academy paid off. The works they submitted to the 1849 Exhibition were generally well received—Millais and Hunt, were picked out as future stars, although some, such as the Academician Solomon Hart, were perplexed by Hunt’s and Millais’ historicist style and subject matter, the sort found, he wrote in The Athenaeum, “in the medieval illumination of the chronicle or the romance.”8

Things, famously, were soon to change. In the exhibitions of the early 1850s, Millais and his Pre-Raphaelite peers would receive a mauling in the press for a style and subject matter which art critics increasingly viewed to be perversely archaic. In 1849, however, even in the earliest days of the display at the Trafalgar Square, the Pre-Raphaelites would have known that they had made a satisfyingly dramatic and generally well-received entrance into the London art world. Their works had intrigued viewers, had generated critical comment, and—thanks to the carefully inserted monograms on each of their works—had announced the arrival of a new community of young practitioners, whose works signalled their ambition to make a mark not only on the Annual Exhibition itself, but on the wider art world. Most importantly of all, they had not been ignored.

  1. “Royal Academy”, The Standard, 7 May 1849, 1.↩︎

  2. “Royal Academy”, The Standard, 7 May 1849, 1.↩︎

  3. Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate Publishing, 2000), 35.↩︎

  4. The Art-Journal (June 1849): 171.↩︎

  5. Cited in Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings, Vol. 1 (London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies, 2000), 132.↩︎

  6. William Michael Rossetti, “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”, The Magazine of Art (1881): 436.↩︎

  7. “Royal Academy”, The Standard, 7 May 1849, 1.↩︎

  8. The Athenaeum, 2 June 1849, 575.↩︎

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