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1851 Ruskin to the Rescue

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The Royal Academy’s Exhibition of 1851 was overshadowed by the phenomenon of the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, which opened with great fanfare on 1 May. The stakes were high—as Bentley’s Miscellany pointed out:

Since the first establishment of the Royal Academy, no one of the annual exhibitions of that institution has, we think, ever been opened on so important an occasion for the fame of British Art, as in this exhibition year of 1851. Among the vast congregation of foreigners assembling in London, by far the greater number have now to learn for the first time what the English School of Painting really is—have now to discover what our English artists really can do.1

As if to counter the vulgar plenitude of material goods laid before the public in South Kensington, reviewers of the Academy’s Exhibition emphasised the strength of British history painting. Daniel Maclise’s busy costume piece, Caxton’s Printing Office, met with wide acclaim. The colourful central group of the young King Edward IV and his family—with three cherubic infants admiring a book held up by a deferential apprentice boy—won plaudits, as did the detailed treatment of the printing press and the atmospheric gothic setting with a distant altarpiece glowing by candlelight.

If the work of established Academicians was welcomed, the paintings exhibited by members and associates of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood reached a nadir of critical opprobrium. Bentley’s Miscellany assessed the group’s pictorial strategies thus: “an almost painful minuteness of finish and detail; a disregard of the ordinary rules of composition and colour; and an evident intention of not appealing to any popular predilections on the subject of grace and beauty.”2 These were indeed the avant-garde gambits of the young painters, who overturned the orthodoxies of their teachers at the Royal Academy Schools, in a search of clarity and truth. The organs of the establishment were duly outraged. The Times conflated its remarks on John Everett Millais (who had submitted The Woodman’s Daughter, The Return of the Dove to the Ark and Mariana), William Holman Hunt (represented by Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus), and their associate Charles Allston Collins (Convent Thoughts, Fig. 1):

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 and Giotto … we can extend no toleration to a mere servile imitation of the cramped style, false perspective and crude colour of remote antiquity … That morbid infatuation which sacrifices truth, beauty and genuine feeling to mere eccentricity, deserves no quarter at the hands of the public.3

Ending with a final swipe at “these monkish follies”, this column was enough to rally mild support for the young painters from other critics. Differing from “the Jupiter Tonans [Thundering Jove] of the daily press,” he pleaded, “the ‘bretheren’ are in earnest and that they mean well.” The critic singled out Convent Thoughts as “a most devoted study of nature, evinced in the marvellous perfection with which every leaf and flower is painted.”4

On 9 May, John Ruskin broke off work on Stones of Venice to write to The Times to refute the criticism published days earlier. Ruskin based his case on the “labour bestowed on these works, and their fidelity to a certain order of truth.”5 Disavowing the nun in Convent Thoughts, Ruskin turned his attention instead to details in the foreground:

I happen to have a special acquaintance with the water plant, Alisma Plantago …; and as I never saw it so thoroughly or so well drawn, I must take leave to remonstrate with you, when you say sweepingly that these men sacrifice truth as well as feeling to eccentricity. For as a mere botanical study of the water lily and Alisma, as well as of the common lily and several other garden flowers, this picture would be invaluable to me, and I heartily wish it were mine.6

Ruskin’s intervention generated a satirical response from Punch, which included a visual parody of the painting (Fig. 2). Baiting Ruskin, it nodded sagely in agreement:

The pictures of the P.R.B. are true, and that is the worst of them. Nothing can be more wonderful than the truth of COLLINS’S representation of the “Alisma Plantago,” except the unattractiveness of the demure lady, whose botanical pursuits he has recorded under the name of Convent Thoughts … By the size of the lady’s head he no doubt meant to imply her vast capacity of brains—while the utter absence of form and limb under the robe, he subtlety conveys that she has given up all thoughts of making a figure in the world.7

Touché. But Ruskin’s point was a larger one. The widely admired critic was able to rescue the Pre-Raphaelites from the charge of merely reviving “primitive” methods. Rather than imitating “anique painting as such,” he explained, they wished to emulate the truthfulness of quattrocento painting by aiming to “draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making.” This move returned them to the time before Raphael, “because all artists did this before Raphael’s time, and after Raphael’s time did not this.” The Renaissance, believed hitherto to have marked an end of the dark ages, was now cast as a catastrophe, after which artist aimed “to paint fair pictures, rather than represent stern facts; of which the consequence has been that, from Raphael’s time to this day, historical art has been in acknowledged decadence.”8 That acknowledgement was, in fact, found only in the works of Ruskin.

The critic’s intervention moved the focus of debate about Pre-Raphaelitism from questioning the religious implications of a revival of “early Christian” art, to applauding the value of painstaking labour in the production of images. By 30 May, Ruskin could write that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood “may, as they gain experience, lay in our England the foundations of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for three hundred years.”9 The ascendancy of Pre-Raphaelitism was assured and in Academy Exhibitions for the next decade Pre-Raphaelite works garnered more attention, and often more praise, than any others To this day, Pre-Raphaelitism is considered the paradigmatic Victorian art movement. Though the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood came into being as an anti-academic avant-garde, it revitalised the Academy, gaining celebrity largely through the prominence of works in the Summer Exhibitions. One of its members, John Everett Millais, eventually became President.

  1. [Anon], “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, Bentley’s Miscellany (January 1851): 617.↩︎

  2. [Anon], “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, Bentley’s Miscellany (January 1851): 617.↩︎

  3. [Anon], “Exhibition of the Royal Academy: Second Notice”, The Times, 7 May 1851, 8.↩︎

  4. [Anon], “The Royal Academy”, Literary Gazette, 7 June 1851, 396.↩︎

  5. “To the Editor of the ‘Times’”, The Times, 13 May 1851, quoted in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin (London: George Allen, 1904), Vol. 12, 319; for the narrative of the letter’s composition and publication, see also Vol. 12, xlvi.↩︎

  6. Ruskin, “To the Editor of the ‘Times’”, The Times, 30 May 1851, quoted in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin, Vol. 12, 321.↩︎

  7. [Anon], “Punch among the Painters”, Punch, 17 May 1851.↩︎

  8. Ruskin, “To the Editor of the ‘Times’”, The Times, 30 May 1851, quoted in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin, Vol. 12, 322.↩︎

  9. Ruskin, “To the Editor of the ‘Times’”, The Times, 30 May 1851, quoted in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin, Vol. 12, 327.↩︎

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Explore the 1851 catalogue