A Brotherhood Of Realism And Romance: A Guide to Pre-Raphaelite Art in the UK

By Richard Moss | Updated: 22 October 2016
Shows a painting entitled Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is an oil painting that depicts a female figure with long, flowing red hair and holding an arrow.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia, oil, 1863-8. © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth

Love them or loathe them the Pre-Raphaelites occupy a peculiar and influential space in the history of British art. Even today, over 150 years after it was painted, the most popular painting in Tate Britain's postcard shop remains Millais' classic portrayal of Shakespeare's tragic heroine, Ophelia.

In many ways, the painting serves as a kind of blueprint of the Pre-Raphaelite style; the beautifully tragic girl, the truth to nature, the literary theme and layer upon layer of symbolism.

Yet despite these easy-to-identify themes, to look for a common style in the Pre-Raphaelite painters is really to look in vain.

a painting of a young woman floating face upwards in a pond whilst holding a stream of flowers

Tate Britain's most popular painting, John Everett Millais' Ophelia (detail) 1851-52, oil on canvas. Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894. Picture © Tate.

A survey of their work reveals a surprisingly wide variety of approaches and subject matter, whilst an investigation of the artists themselves shows an idealistic group in touch with their times.

Not only did the Pre-Raphaelites seek to improve standards in contemporary art, later members and associates, in particular Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, sought to improve standards in society as well.

The first group of painters to establish themselves as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) in 1849 were three disaffected Royal Academy students John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.

a painting showing an auburn haired woman playing a harp as two similar looking women look on from the upper corners

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Ghirlandata. Picture © City of London Museums/Guildhall Art Gallery

These three young guns convened in Millais' studio and recruited the painter James Collinson, the writer Frederic George Stephens, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and art critic William Michael Rossetti – younger brother of Dante.

Together they formed a bohemian cadre of youthful artists (Millais was only 19) who saw themselves as what could be termed an 'avant-garde' group, determined to resist the staid artistic strictures imposed by the Royal Academy. They would disseminate their ideas directly through their paintings and through a journal they called The Germ.

Espousing an approach to art that strove to achieve a realism in nature and a ‘genuine art’, exemplified by the work of the Italian Realists, they looked to the early masters for inspiration. They chose the name Pre-Raphaelite as a homage to the painters that flourished before the perceived 'dour influence' of Raphael.

In a spirit of brotherhood and camaraderie they also agreed to inscribe the mysterious initials 'PRB' on their paintings.

Proserpine,oil, 1882, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.

Proserpine, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Picture © Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.

At their first academy show the work - in particular Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents - was mauled by the critics, including Charles Dickens who led a ferocious attack from the pages of his journal, Household Words.

It is perhaps difficult now to see these quintessentially Victorian and seemingly escapist paintings as a source of controversy, but in 1850 the paintings were the 'Tracey Emin's bed' or even the 'Damien Hirst's shark' of their day.

As the debate raged in the papers the eminent Victorian sage and art critic John Ruskin was moved to mount a strong and rigorous defence in the Times. It was an intervention that paved the way for the acceptance and popularisation of the Pre-Raphaelite style.

Yet despite their hard won recognition, by 1853 the first Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had effectively broken, with the original members, except William Holman Hunt, moving on to develop different styles. Rossetti developed his own peculiar but influential brand of symbolism whilst Millais became more drawn towards the mainstream.

Shows a painting of a woman from a Burne-Jones panel in the William Morris Room at the V&A.

A painting from a Burne-Jones panel in the William Morris Room at the V&A. Picture © V&A Museum.

A second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism after 1856 centred on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Frederick Sandys and here is where the central tenet of realism began to fuse with the romance and symbolism that would go on to influence many painters of the later Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Over 150 years on and Pre-Raphaelitism is enjoying one of its periodic revivals; 2003 saw a crop of excellent exhibitions including a wonderful Rossetti retrospective at The Walker in Liverpool and Lord Lloyd Webber’s varied collection of victorian masters at The Royal Academy.

In 2004 Tate Britain led the continuing renaissance with a major retrospective of Pre-Raphaelite landscape paintings, Pre-Raphaelite Vision, whilst in September 2007 the same venue began its homage to the man whose statue looms large outside the gallery, John Everett Millais.

2009 and the BBC 's bawdy drama about the Brotherhood, 'Desperate Romantics' had some purists gritting their teeth whilst introducing new younger audiences to the artists and their lives.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery revealed its pre-eminent collection of Pre-Raphaelite Drawings in an exhibition in 2011 and in the same year Manchester Art Gallery returned to the illuminating world of Ford Madox Brown.

2012 saw Tate Britain return once more to the fray with Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde and since then the Pre-Raphs have been reinterpreted and revisited year upon year. 

Yet outside of these perennial exhibitions, the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and the artists influenced by them can be found on permanent display all over the UK - with sizeable collections in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

If you follow our trail you will discover even more nooks, crannies and strongholds of Pre-Raphaelite Art - allowing you to view these stunning works for yourself.

Take your time to investigate major collections (page one and page two), smaller regional holdings (page three), historic houses (page four) and a handy printout page with contact details of all the galleries and heritage sites mentioned (page five).

You'll also find links to these sections when you scroll to the bottom of each page.