Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Absurd," Antiquarian, and "Modern-Antique" Medievalism(s): Girlhood of Mary Virgin, the Bride's Prelude, and "Stratton Water"
Bentley, D. M. R., Victorian Poetry
"I wish ... that you would not attempt to defend my mediaevalisms, which were absurd, but rather say that there was enough good in the works to give assurance that these were merely superficial. My picture should be described as the 'Girlhood' & by no means 'Education.'" (1) So wrote Dante Gabriel Rossetti to his brother in September 1851 after reading a draft of "Pre-Raphaelitism," the article defending the early paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848-53) that William Michael would revise and then publish in the Spectator on October 4 of that year. (2) Coming as they do less than a year after the exhibition of Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850-51) (the only other picture besides Girlhood of Mary Virgin [1849-50] to which the word "works" can refer), Rossetti's remarks raise questions that are both sharply focused and far-reaching as regards the relationship between Pre-Raphaelitism and medievalism. What precisely are the "mediaevalisms" in Girlhood of Mary Viran and Ecce Ancilla Domini! and why, in retrospect, did Rossetti regard them as "absurd"? How do his remarks reflect a shift in his thinking about "mediaevalisms" and their artistic uses and, if so, when and why did this shift occur and where and how does it fit into the narrative of Pre-Raphaelite medievalism in which Rossetti provides the link between the first and second generations of Pre-Raphaelites? What, if any, was the relationship between Rossetti's medieval revivalism (and, more generally, his deferential attitude to the Middle Ages) and the truculent progressivism--the iconoclastic "determin[ation] to respect no authority that stood in the way of fresh research in art"--that William Holman Hunt regarded as the driving force of Pre-Raphaelitism (1: 111)? Because these questions are far-reaching as well as sharply focused, they benefit from being briefly placed in the historical and artistic context in which the PRB coalesced in September 1848 and dissolved in November 1853.
London in the late eighteen forties and early eighteen fifties was increasingly stocked with manifestations of both progressivism and revivalism. On the one hand, was what Walter Benjamin calls the "economically and technologically based" "constellation of phantasmagorias" that were in the process of transforming mid-nineteenth century cities like London into concretions of modernity: the arcade, the panorama, the plate-glass shop window, and, of course, world exhibitions such as the one in the Crystal Palace in 1851. (3) On the other hand, were the architectural and religious manifestations of an incipiently anti-modern desire to recover and reinstate aspects of the past: the decorated altars and surpliced choirs of the High Church movement, such Gothic-revival churches as A.W.N. Pugin's St. Augustine, Ramsgate (1844-51) and William Butterworth's All Saints', Margaret Street, London (1850-59) and, of course, Sir Charles Barry's new Houses of Parliament (1840-60). In many places and instances, these competing forms and their underlying principles existed parasitically within and upon one another: Pugin had a medieval court beneath the glass and iron dome of the Crystal Palace to display his wares and used concealed iron bars to support the walls of his neo-Gothic buildings.4 Between 1845 and 1855, visitors to the Colosseum (1824-32), a massive pleasure dome designed to display a panorama of London but decorated so as to reflect "'antiquity,'" could ascend to a viewing platform in a steam-powered elevator decked out in the "Tudor style." (5) The "mediaevalisms" of Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini! are painted on a white primer in emulation of early Italian artists, but in oils squeezed from lead tubes and on canvas sealed with "commercially prepared priming."6 In this regard, it is notable that in "Pre-Raphaelitism," William Michael does not insist strongly that Pre-Raphaelitism is "distinct" from "mediaevalism of thought" but focuses instead on the artistic "practice," of the Pre-Raphaelites" in "so far as. …