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1868 The "Pure Art" of Rossetti and Swinburne

“I authorise you to withdraw my name from the list of candidates for Associateship,” wrote William Holman Hunt to John Everett Millais, in February 1868.1 In his memoirs, Hunt claimed that denying the Royal Academy was matter of honour, and described an informal pact among the younger generation that all should “resist” until “radical changes had been conceded”.2 Hunt’s repudiation of the Academy marks a moment of transition, when accepting the status of Royal Academician became a matter of preference and not professional necessity. London was beginning to fill with spaces where art was exhibited and sold. Public and private exhibiting societies, not to speak of semi-formalised studio viewings, provided alternative routes to patronage and the already busy art market.3 Although still regarded as the nation’s principle salon in 1868, at some point between the Select Committee on the Arts held in 1836 and the Manchester Exhibition of 1857, the Academy Exhibition came to no longer be the only game in town.

Explore the 1868 catalogue

In 1868, Hunt chose to exhibit Isabella and the Pot of Basil at Gambart’s Gallery in Pall Mall, rather than the Royal Academy, and the absence of this work and other pictures from the walls of the Academy became subject to almost as much debate as those present.4 The year witnessed a culmination of forces in the British art world that had been building over the previous decade or so, as artists explored territory beyond the Academy walls. Many of these artists would later be associated with the Aesthetic movement, and in 1868, a phrase that was to so characterise this cultural moment was applied to a contemporary British artist for the first time when the critic Tom Taylor wrote of Frederic Leighton, “Art for Art’s Sake is his motto”.5

William Michael Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne, in their pamphlet titled Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1868 made a significant contribution to the growing debate about the relationship of art and artists to society.6 Rapidly written7 and modest in size, the authors championed a small group of artists whose work shared an ambition to pursue “a pure art”, defined as that devoted to beauty.8 Royal Academy exhibitions had long been fertile ground for pamphleteering, a tradition that had been re-ignited by John Ruskin’s Academy Notes of 1855–1859.9 Pamphlets permitted a swift response to each year’s exhibition, independent of entrenched opinion or editorial policy. They were cheap, convenient, and more informative than the official exhibition catalogues. By publishing their own critique, Rossetti and Swinburne were engaging with and satirising an established, rather complacent, mode of public discourse that possessed a fully developed set of shared assumptions, linguistic shorthand, and tired cliché.10

The first half of the text is written by Rossetti and is structured according to an established tradition, discussing one painting after another, as the reader passes along the walls of the Academy in steady progression. Within this comfortably familiar format, Rossetti provides nods of acknowledgement to established Academicians, but singles out three works, G.F. Watts’ Wife of Pygmalion, Frederic Leighton’s Ariadne abandoned by Theseus, and George Heming Mason’s Evening Hymn, all hung near to each other in the Academy’s “Middle Room”, before providing qualified praise for Albert Moore’s principle exhibit, the painting Azaleas (Fig. 1), described by Rossetti as, “a Grecian lady (or at any rate Grecian-robed), at a pot of azaleas, some of which she plucks and drops into a basin”.11

Rossetti’s cautious enthusiasm for Azaleas provides a keen contrast to the approach taken by Swinburne, who arrives in a rush of energy and opinion, although he claims to do little more than “note down at random my impressions of some few among this year’s pictures.”12 Swinburne focuses almost completely on artists who he regards as aligned to his aesthetic concerns, singling out Watts’ Pygmalion and Moore’s Azaleas as the most significant works in the Exhibition. He urges visitors to first seek out these paintings, and says they share “the loftiest quality of beauty, pure and simple”. He writes:

No one has so keen a sense of this absolute beauty as Mr. Albert Moore. His painting is to artists what the verse of Théophile Gautier is to poets; the faultless and secure expression of an exclusive worship of things formally beautiful. That contents them; they leave to others the labours and the joys of thought or passion.13

Swinburne and Rossetti were unique among the critics in expressing such admiration. The critic for The Art-Journal admitted that Azaleas possessed a “classic beauty” despite its “eccentricity”;14 the Paris Gazette des Beaux Arts dismissed it as “neo-greco … pallid as a moonbeam”;15 while F.G. Stephens in The Athenaeum acknowledged Moore’s technique, but thought the work “roughly if not carelessly handled”.16 Scorning this sort of boiler-plate art-speak Swinburne describes Moore’s work in terms of synaesthesia: “The melody of colour, the symphony of form is complete: one more beautiful thing is achieved, one more delight is born into the world; and its meaning is beauty; and its reason for being is to be.”17

Partway through his essay, Swinburne abandons the Exhibition altogether and draws the reader’s attention to the even greater glories to be found outside of the Academy. Most reviewers that year mentioned the rejection of Frederick Sandys’ Medea, regarding it as an injustice (Fig. 2). From comments in The Art-Journal and The Athenaeum, it appears the work was initially accepted by the Academy’s Council, but was “crowded out” by an unsympathetic Hanging Committee.18 Swinburne looks beyond this single instance of selective dismissal (which may have inspired/spurred the pamphlet’s creation) and uses Medea as a beacon to highlight the Academy’s inadequacy in the face of pure art:

Exclusion and suppression of certain things in the range of art are not really possible to any academy on earth, be it pictorial or literary. It is natural for academies to try, when any rare or new good thing comes before them in either kind … but the record of their ill-will has always been the record of their impotence.19

As a direct illustration of this impotence, Swinburne continues to discuss the work of Sandys and then two significant Academy refuseniks: James A. McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He describes in rapturous prose works that were not only unseen at the Academy but, as Rossetti never exhibited his pictures, also out of sight to all but the most select few. The reader is caught up in a narrative current which, though originating in the familiar crowded halls of the Academy, leads deliriously to a place where art possesses, “a freshness and fulness [sic] of the loveliest life of things, with high clear power upon them which seems to educe a picture as the sun does a blossom or a fruit.”20

The Art-Journal briefly promoted Rossetti and Swinburne’s Notes in favourable terms, expressing surprise that the pamphlet was absent of “bitter, or even ungenerous spirit”, while lamenting the obvious bias towards certain artists and hoping for a more comprehensive 1869 edition.21 But there was no further volume: the authors’ purpose had been fulfilled. Having acknowledged the still undeniable dominion of the of Royal Academy Exhibition, they had charted a path through its galleries and then outwards, to a new art holding the promise of untrammelled beauty.

  1. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/SEC/3/10/1, William Holman Hunt, to J.E. Millais, 10 February 1868.↩︎

  2. William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1905), Vol. 2, 248.↩︎

  3. Pamela M. Fletcher, “Creating the French Gallery: Ernest Gambart and the Rise of the Commercial Art Gallery in Mid-Victorian London”, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 6, no. 1 (Spring 2007).↩︎

  4. [F.G. Stephens?], “Fine Art Gossip”, The Athenaeum, 1868, 428.↩︎

  5. Elizabeth Prettejohn, Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 33.↩︎

  6. William Michael Rossetti and Algernon C. Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1868 (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868).↩︎

  7. The pamphlet’s imminent publication was noticed in brief in The Examiner, 2 May 1868, the day on which the Academy Exhibition opened to the public.↩︎

  8. Prettejohn, Art for Art’s Sake, 107.↩︎

  9. John Ruskin, Notes on the Principal Pictures Exhibited in the Rooms of the Royal Academy (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1855–1859).↩︎

  10. Julie F. Codell, “The Art Press and Its Parodies: Unravelling Networks in Swinburne’s 1868 ‘Academy Notes’”, Victorian Periodicals Review 44, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 165–183.↩︎

  11. Allen Staley, The New Painting of the 1860s: Between the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 139.↩︎

  12. Rossetti and Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1868, 31.↩︎

  13. Rossetti and Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1868, 32.↩︎

  14. “Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 1 June 1868, 106.↩︎

  15. “Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 223.↩︎

  16. F.G. Stephens, The Athenaeum, 21 March 1868, 666.↩︎

  17. Rossetti and Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1868, 32; Codell, “The Art Press and Its Parodies”, 173.↩︎

  18. “Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 107.↩︎

  19. Rossetti and Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1868, 43.↩︎

  20. Rossetti and Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1868, 45.↩︎

  21. “Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 1 June 1868, 162.↩︎

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Explore the 1868 catalogue