Tuesday 29 September 2015

The Pre-Raphaelites: Romantic Victorians

Kelmscott Manor, William Morris's Cotswold retreat
Over the past couple of years, my research and teaching interests have been extending further into Victorian territory. It will come as no surprise that I’m particularly interested in the dark Gothic and dystopian texts of the fin de siècle period; indeed, the ‘Last Man’ theme crops up time and again in literature of the 1880s and 1890s. Beyond the Last Man, though, I’m also really interested in the depiction of subterranean spaces in fin de siècle texts, and have just finished a chapter on this topic which will appear in a forthcoming edited collection on William Morris and H. G. Wells.

News from Nowhere: frontispiece
Having spent the summer immersed in the work of Morris and Wells, I felt that I was justified in taking a ‘research’ trip (albeit with a fair bit of cake, ice cream, and tea!) to Kelmscott Manor, the former Cotswold retreat of Morris and his friends and family. The house and grounds were just as wonderful as I was expecting them to be, and it’s easy to see how the Manor was a source of inspiration for Morris’s art. Morris – a pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement – originally leased Kelmscott Manor with his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As a result of this partnership, the house is filled with a variety of works – from tapestries to paintings – produced by the two men and their wider circle.

The house, which features in Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), boasts some real treasures; one favourite of mine was Rossetti’s portrait of Morris’s wife, Jane, entitled 'The Blue Silk Dress'. Jane apparently made the blue dress herself, and her creativity is reflected throughout the house, with many examples of her needlework on display. Other artists featured in the Manor’s collections include Burne-Jones and Breughel.

D. G. Rossetti's 'The Blue Silk Dress'
If you’re visiting Kelmscott Manor, be sure to leave time to explore both the grounds and the local village. The church (St George’s) was locked by the time that I’d torn myself away from the house but I was able to locate Morris’s grave, which is marked with a commemorative headstone designed by his friend Philip Webb.

I am, of course, a Romanticist at heart, so one of the things that I love about the Pre-Raphaelites is their interest in, and response to, the Romantic movement. The famous Pre-Raphaelite ‘List of Immortals’ features Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, but Kelmscott Manor also indicates an interest in William Blake. This silk-on-silk textile (below), known as the ‘The Homestead and the Forest’ quilt, was designed by Morris’s daughter May, and embroidered by Jane. The quilt features an array of exotic animals, including a tiger, underneath which is a line from Blake’s poem 'The Tyger'. I managed to chop the bottom of the quilt off in this picture, so you'll just have to trust me on that one!

'The Homestead and the Forest'
The Pre-Raphaelite poets frequently refer to the Romantics in their work – some good poems with which to start if you’re interested are William Michael Rossetti’s ‘Mary Shelley’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘On Keats’, both of which can be found in Dinah Roe’s superb anthology. I’ll leave you with a personal favourite of mine by another Rossetti: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘John Keats’, in which the Romantic view of the tragic life and death of this young poet very much lives on.

‘John Keats’, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The weltering London ways where children weep
And girls whom none call maidens laugh, - strange road
Miring his outward steps, who inly trode
The bright Castalian brink and Latmos’ steep: -
Even such his life’s cross-paths; till deathly deep
He toiled through sands of Lethe; and long pain,
Weary with labour spurned and love found vain,
In dead Rome’s sheltering shadow wrapped his sleep.
O pang-dowered Poet, whose reverberant lips
And heart-strung lyre awoke the Moon’s eclipse, -
Thou whom the daisies glory in growing o’er, -
Their fragrance clings around thy name, not writ
But rumour’d in water, while the fame of it
Along Time’s flood goes echoing evermore.