Avant-Garde Realism in England: Coping with Contemporary Life

At mid-century, young English artists were prepared for the Royal Academy in a system called the “schools,” or preparatory schools, such as Sass’s Academy and Heatherley’s School of Art.  But the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds seemed less relevant to new artists, as a newly restive lower class demanded a voice in government and newly rich industrialists began to collect art.   After the Reform Bill of 1832, the climate of English art changed and the shift away from ancient times and Renaissance models and towards a new interest in the great social and economic changes taking place in Britain. A group of young artists, some graduates of the “schools,” initiated a modern realism in England at the same time Gustave Courbet was preparing for his bold move to political realism.  In 1848, the artists of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood established a style and content that was so successful and so beloved that the “realism” of this group lasted as an English tradition well into the Twentieth Century.  The movement was complicated, combining vestiges of Neoclassicism, with careful drawing and historical content, and Romanticism, with a fascination with the Medieval past, and Realism, with a new emphasis on urban subject matter.

Debuting in   the revolutionary year of 1848 under the mysterious acronym “PRB,” the paintings showed a virtuoso demonstration of technical prowess in painting and bright colors patterned after the original “pre-Raphaelites” of the Early Renaissance.  To borrow Erwin Panofsky’s description of the artists of the Northern Renaissance, the realism of the PRB was based upon a vision that was both “microscopic” and “macroscopic.” In other words, the artist saw through both a microscope and a telescope, perfect vision, both near and far: the world revealed in all its manifest detail. With the Pre-Raphaelites, the attention to detail was nothing short of obsessive.  The labor-intensive painting practices were based upon a morality of work and diligent labor that gave their works an aura of the medieval, as was intended. Pre-Raphaelite art acted as a rebuke to the lazy habits of the academic artist who copied, not nature, but artistic conventions.  The influential art writer, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, called their academic practices “laborious idleness.”  Although the PRB was rebellious against academic theories and practices, there were limits to the rebellion of these middle class men.  The group resembled a boy’s club, for the men involved were quite young, and the women later associated with the PRB remained peripheral and played a larger role as models than as associates.

Art history has exorcised Pre-Raphaelites from the canon of correct art but the PRB was the first group to self-consciously declare themselves avant-garde artists.  They issued a literary manifesto, published their own journal, The Germ, for four issues, opposed the kind of academic art that based upon Raphael, painted en plein air, and organized their own exhibitions three decades before the Impressionists.  There were two main groups.  The founding group, the “PRB,” was organized by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1848 and included John Millais, who entered the Royal Academy at the age of eleven, and William Holman Hunt.   All members selected by Rossetti, this group included lesser known painters and writers, Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, and Frederick George Stephens. Meeting for the first time in 1848 in the studio of Millais, the original group were inspired by the German Nazarene artists and determined that three elements were necessary for them to establish a new kind of art.   First, they had to be a disciplined group, which, second, produced a distinct doctrine, disseminated, lastly, by their own journal.

The idea of discipline and doctrine would have pleased Sir Joshua and the journal was designed to preempt the power of the art critics.   However, the President would not have been pleased by the PRB’s refusal to take classical art as their model.  Instead the Pre-Raphaelites rebuked the notion of “style” and formulas and looked to nature in a desire to retrieve a naïve vision.  Clearly, the English idea of Realism was close to the French concept.  Based upon science and a close study of nature, Realism in both nations sought to regain an innocent eye and to eliminate self-conscious style in favor of objective observation. Both the French and British Realists were part of a movement that was deliberately avant-garde and in rebellion against their respective academies.  Both groups used realism, as approach and as content, to position their art to counter the stranglehold of the establishment. There were important divergences, however.

It would be more appropriate to say that the Realism of the French was a response to contemporary scenes of life in France, particularly life among the lower classes.   The English Realists were more intent in precisely copying nature and losing themselves in the welter of details.  For them, Realism was linked to an absolute and moral fidelity to Nature and their content was simply “English.”  The “Englishness” of English art could be found both in the past and present in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites who were inspired by English literature and poetry and by the social problems in an industrial society.  In contrast, the second group of Realist artists in England could also be termed “artisans,” whose realism was to be found in their exactitude of execution.   This second group used precision to evoke the past.

Just as the first group of mid-century English artists were self-consciously archaic, so too did the second group also look back to Medieval art and its standard of excellence and pride in individual craft.  This group, which formed around Rossetti and included, the painter, Edward Burne-Jones and the designer, William Morris, the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the artist, Ford Maddox Brown. These men came together in 1852 in reaction to the horrors of mass manufacturing revealed in the Great Exhibition of 1851. They came, not from London, but from Oxford’s Exeter College and were unaware of the Pre-Raphaelite group until 1854.  Once again, this is a male brotherhood in rebellion against the status quo.  The Oxford Group rejected the “canon” of literary reading and looked to the Romantic English poets, such as John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.  But, typical of the Victorian period, they particularly admired Chaucer’s Medieval poems and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic poems of King Arthur.

Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (1856 – 85) was an updating of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1470), discovered by the Group in 1855.  Like the German Romantics before them, these men looked to Gothic architecture for inspiration and traveled to Italy to see the early Renaissance murals.  The only way, they surmised, to counter the pernicious influence of manufactured aesthetics was to become visual artists themselves.  William Morris became an architect and interior designer and Edward Burne-Jones became a painter.  The Oxford Group connected with the Pre-Raphaelites when Burne-Jones introduced himself to Rossetti.  Also joining the Group were Arthur Hughes, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Valentine Cameron Prinsep, John Hungerford Pollen, and sculptor, Alexander Munroe.  Together they painted murals of the life of King Arthur in the new building for the Oxford Debating Society.

Both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Oxford Group had many followers and a long life span that dominated artistic and aesthetic life in England well into the Twentieth century.  Sir Joshua Reynolds would not have been pleased to learn that the “English” style or “English school” of painting would never be established by chasing the classicism of the Italians or the English, in other words, “modeling,” but by a careful rendering of nature and a relentless observation of human behavior.  The Pre-Raphaelites and their followers created “English” art precisely by defying Sir Joshua and his Discourse.

The Oxford Group began the Arts and Crafts Movement that merged effortlessly into the   English version of Art Nouveau and its Liberty fabrics and designers, such as Archibald Knox and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  The seven men of the Oxford Group were, as founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the precursors of  Art Nouveau in France.  Both movements were dreams of restoring respect for hand-crafted goods to counter bad middle class taste.  However beautiful and popular these styles were, both Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau were to expensive and too elitist to be accessible to the middle class the movements were trying to reform.  And yet, today, these avant-garde English styles are still living and still popular and still in use, having long since been assimilated into contemporary life.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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