The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was established in 1848; an era now referred to as the Year of Revolutions. It was the year in which Louis Philippe abdicated from his throne, and the French Second Republic was later declared. The Palermo rising erupted in Sicily, whilst Denmark and Germany were rooted in conflict surrounding the Schleswig-Holstein Question.
Rebellion, however, was not restricted to the continent, and London became something of a nucleus for it during this time. The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels was published in the capital and serialised in the Deutsche Londoner Zeitung. Kennington Common was also the site of the Chartist demonstration as 150,000 people marched in support of political reform. William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais were amongst the protesters, and a month later, at the house of Millais’ parents in Bloomsbury, they launched their movement. Like the year in which it was formed, the approach of Pre-Raphaelitism to the world of art can be read in terms of revolution.
Though recent exhibitions and publications have stressed the avant-garde aspects of the movement, their involvement in the shifting climate of printmaking is seldom discussed. The Pre-Raphaelite’s played an important role in the etching revival. They also contributed to the burgeoning culture of book and magazine illustration, as copies of their works were reproduced in Edward Moxon’s edition of Tennyson’s poems and the evangelical periodical Good Words. Nonetheless, it was in the advancements made to photographic reproduction in the latter half of the nineteenth-century, and the Brotherhood’s endorsement of them, that truly marked their innovation.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was an early advocate of this, and commissioned a daguerreotype of his painting The Girlhood of Mary in 1853. His act was exceedingly prophetic. Horace Vernet and Eugène Delacroix opted to have works translated in Louis Daguerre’s native France a few years prior, but Rossetti was amongst the first Englishmen to experiment with the print, and in doing so, anticipated the flourishing of the medium in the coming years. Although the daguerreotype became quickly outmoded, Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites continued to subscribe to similar photographic devices. Because of this, a mutually beneficial relationship arose between the method and the movement.
The invention of photography, and the reproductive potentials which came with it, radicalised the field of printmaking. It allowed for greater quantities of images to be reproduced at increasing speeds, whilst freeing publishers from the process of engraving. But herein lay the problem. In his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1872, Gustave Flaubert inquired about the purpose of art when it could be replaced by mechanical processes which did the job faster and more exceptionally? Art and photography were often viewed as separate entities. However, the symbiotic relationship enjoyed by Pre-Raphaelitism and photgraphic reproduction acted to dispel this notion.
Fidelity to nature was one of the foremost doctrines of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. What was the use of Holman Hunt fastidiously capturing the atmospheric effects upon the architecture of Magdalen Tower (Page no. 20), if the detail would get lost in translation. The Brotherhood understood that the photographic print, more than any other method, could convey the physical qualities of painting, and in their continued endorsement of the technique, they in turn legitimised the status of photography as a fine art. The movement’s repeated employment of photogravure is especially pertinent. The technique combined tradition and innovation, as the gelatin tissue of the photographic negative was subjected to the etching process. Quattrocento conventions were given an innovative twist. The parallels to Pre-Raphaelitism are clear, but the results of the relationship are spectacular.
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