An Australian Pre-Raphaelite Tale

By Crittenden, Victor | M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia, April 2006 | Go to article overview

An Australian Pre-Raphaelite Tale


Crittenden, Victor, M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia


The Pre-Raphaelite movement or as it was called The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was essentially an affair for artists. A group of painters in England had become disillusioned with the rather stilted classical style of painting which had evolved from the Renaissance. They decided that they should take the art of painting back to the period before the Italian painter Raphael. They were saying in effect that the true direction of Art had been side tracked into a formal, and now dead, form. They wanted to go back to the style which had preceded this constricting fashion. It was a return to art of the medieval period.

Artists like Burne Jones supported by authors like John Ruskin caused a major revolution by presenting paintings with far more detail, with a different pallet of primary colours and a medieval subject matter. Ruskin was a supporter of this new development and it spread to the other arts including literature. It also was connected with the growing appreciation of the Gothic in Architecture, not only in churches but in public and domestic buildings. This is the reason why we have 'gothic' buildings in Australia like most of our Cathedrals and some Government Houses as well as private houses.

The influence also appeared in literature in England with historical romances and medieval tales and serials. There were some Australian attempts at historical tales published in Australian periodicals like the Australian Journal for example

In 1858 there appeared in the magazine The Month a 'Fairy Story for Old and Young'. It consisted of four Chapters and occupied fifteen pages of the magazine. Not only that but it was illustrated by four line drawings. Only one illustration contained a picture of a fairy and I wondered if this was the first depiction of a fairy in an Australia publication.

The story was written by the lawyer and poet James Lionel Michael a friend and colleague of Frank Fowler and Joseph Sheridan Moore who were producing The Month. They belonged to one of the Literary Groups that had arisen in Sydney at that time. They were the expatriate group, what I call the exiles from Britain, as opposed to the Currency writers (Australian born) like Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, William Forster, William Charles Wentworth and Henry Halloran (almost a currency lad). The Month was a lively magazine and even today some of the articles and tales read well if one ignores the sometimes archaic language.

James Lionel Michael was an interesting person who had known some of the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood in England before he came to Australia, This influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is obvious in his tale The Isle of Vines and makes it especially interesting as an example of the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites in Australia. Michael, who had assisted Henry Kendall in his early days, died in mysterious circumstances in Grafton New South Wales. The suspicious circumstances indicate possible suicide or murder but Henry Kendall suggests it was an accident.

The Isle of Vines, like many legends or fairy tales, is set in an imaginary country that sounds more like Australia with its long white beaches, orange groves and balmy climate, than a country in northern Europe. It is quite different from the snow covered mountains and weird pine forests of many of the German tales by the Grimm brothers and the stories of Hans Christian Anderson which were popular in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The country in the story The Isle of Vines was ruled over by a king, old, venerable who had visits from a fairy. She arrived to see the king and ask his help. The king had three grown up children who had been endowed by the fairy with certain qualities which had an important bearing on the story.

It is much like many of these stories with kings, princes and princesses. It is however not a love story and their is no heroic prince although at one stage I thought the 'poetic bird' owned by the princess would turn into a prince and they would live happily ever after. …

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