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2003-06, 338, Alan Rickard, Book Reviews

‘The Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators.’ Gregory R. Suriano.

Newcastle [Delaware USA]: Oak Knoll Press, 2000. 336p. ISBN 1-58456-021-5. $US49.95

Published in collaboration with the British Library, this attractive large format hardback contains some 500 black and white illustrations, with portraits and biographical details of the artists, catalogue of all their known works, and extensive bibliography and index. It is the product of years of devoted effort by Gregory Suriano, art historian, editor, graphic designer and antiquarian. The quality of the volume throughout will certainly ensure its preservation against the hazards of the years.

Heavily influenced by the mores of the Victorian era, and in turn an immense influence on its artistic sensibilities, the Pre- Raphaelite movement attempted to restore to art a nobility and stimulus to high ideals. Springing largely from the concepts of the writer and art critic John Ruskin, it sought to return to what it saw as the purity of artistic perceptions prior to the time of Raphael (Raphael Sanzio) mainly in 15th and early 16th century Italy. However, lacking the control exerted by the church in these earlier centuries, it was considerably broader in subject matter. There is a certain aloofness in the faces portrayed, which is reminiscent of 15th century art, often with somewhat Gothic undertones, but a more lavish use of colour in illustration of myth and legend, poetry and literature from many sources.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement took hold in England in the mid- 19th century, the better known figures being Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and the colourful Dante Gabriel Rossetti, English-born of Italian migrant parents, a poet and painter heavily influenced by Italy’s romantic national poet Dante Alighieri.

The first stage of 19th century Pre-Raphaelism lasted only a few years, from 1848 to 1853, involving some sixteen artists, but there were later adherents and associates, making some 40 in all, carrying the movement through to about 1920 when it finally merged into the world of English art in general, though certain influences are noticeable here and there, to the present day. It had only slight influence outside England, on individual artists in France, Germany and America. Certainly there is an apparent affinity with the American N.C. Wyeth (1882-1944) in his meticulously detailed illustrations of mainly American stories and legends. But Pre-Raphaelism is widely regarded as, arguably, the most interesting and influential movement the English art world has produced. It is often said to have been a precursor of French Impressionism. There may be truth in this with regard to some of the Impressionist portraits and group scenes of Manet, Bazille and Berthe Morisot in facial types and meticulous detail of background.

I have beside me another large format volume, this time a softcover, The Pre-Raphaelites by Christopher Wood, art dealer and prolific author, published also in 2000, by Seven Dials, Cassell & Co., London. This book covers some of the same ground, but from a very different perspective. It is illustrated in black and white, and in colour, covering somewhat more of Pre-Raphaelite landscape art than Suriano’s volume. Some of the works are very attractive, but the landscapes are generally regarded as a distinct offshoot of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, unconnected with its primary aesthetic aims.

Hunt, Millais and Ford Madox Brown are regarded as the main exponents of Pre-Raphaelite landscape, although for Millais these landscapes provide mainly background, his work in the genre usually being attuned more to traditional landscape styles. As to the movement generally, the most memorable work is probably that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which is unmistakable and generally more colourful. It is probably a fair assumption to say that people who have not examined the field very closely are likely to have mind pictures acquired from Rossetti’s work.

Wood’s publication, not a long text, albeit of 160 pages, is more of a summary, attractive for its colour, whereas The Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators is intended primarily as a reference, its black and white reproductions being singularly appropriate to this aim. Suriano and Oak Knoll Press have produced an essential reference for those seeking to understand the full impact of Pre-Raphaelite influence and its connections with the world of art some four centuries earlier.

The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood abandoned the rules of art developed under Raphael and painted in a clear, detached style they saw in earlier work. The implicit rejection of Raphael was savagely attacked in the press, particularly by Charles Dickens. Where the Pre-Raphaelites saw Raphael as, in a sense, excessively academic and therefore to be opposed, he was, and is considered by many to be, the greatest painter who ever lived. The subject remains highly controversial to this day.

With Suriano’s guidance, Pre-Raphaelism becomes an absorbing study from many points of view.

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