So what exactly was the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood? Forget the bodice-ripping TV drama Desperate Romantics, which belittled the pre-Raphaelites as sexual desperadoes. These were ardent, ambitious and serious artists and poets. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais were the leaders of the movement formed in 1848. The pre-Raphaelite brotherhood embodied protest. William Morris was later to describe it as a “really audacious attempt” to reject the prevailing academic forms of art in favour of truth to nature. It was an audacity that applied to literature as much as to painting and the decorative arts.
They called themselves pre-Raphaelites defiantly, taking up the purist values of pre-renaissance art of the period immediately before Raphael, drawing on the past to make their own mid 19th-century artistic revolution. We need to remember these were still very young men. Holman Hunt was 21, Rossetti only 20, Millais just 19. They formed a cohesive in-group, shutting out the unbelievers. Their dazzling manifesto on the true meaning of art proved terribly obscure to both the critics and the public.
They were clever and sardonic. Their irreverence still makes them seem curiously modern. Alison Smith, co-curator of the Tate exhibition, is surely right in seeing the pre-Raphaelites as the first modern art movement and in subtitling her show “Victorian Avant-Garde”. They were radical in their ways of looking, viewing their subjects with an intense psychological acumen. They were radical, too, in their techniques of painting. That pre-Raphaelite super-realism was achieved through meticulous attention to detail. The artists preferred painting outside the studio, the strange and often shocking candour of their vision exaggerated by the effects of natural light.