Kathryn Hughes Reviews Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood for the Mail on Sunday

Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

Jan Marsh                                                                                                  Quartet £18.95 

Rating: 

The working-class women who modelled for, and even married, members of the Pre-Raphaelite artistic circle were usually portrayed as little more than groupies. With their luscious curly hair, bee-stung lips and Insta-brows, beauties such as Jane Morris, Lizzie Siddal and Fanny Cornforth may take up a lot of canvas, but they don’t get much credit for being equal partners in the making of some of the most revolutionary art of the Victorian era.

Instead these ‘stunners’, as they were condescendingly known, are consigned to the role of ‘muse’, a passive creature whose job it was to sit and suffer and stir up their Great Men to new levels of creative expression. No wonder so many of them came to a sticky end: Siddal committed suicide, Morris endured years of depression and Cornforth finished her days in a lunatic asylum.

But to write these women off as victims would be a huge mistake, argues pioneering art historian Jan Marsh in this seminal work, which has been reissued to coincide with a major exhibition on now at the National Portrait Gallery (until January 26).

Jan Marsh's seminal work has been reissued marking the National Portrait Gallery's show dedicated to the female Pre-Raphaelites. Above: The Bower Meadow by DG Rossetti

Jan Marsh’s seminal work has been reissued marking the National Portrait Gallery’s show dedicated to the female Pre-Raphaelites. Above: The Bower Meadow by DG Rossetti

Instead, using the latest biographical research to update her classic study of the women who lived alongside the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, Marsh shows that many of these ‘sisters’ had significant artistic skills themselves, not to mention a fair degree of ambition. Siddal, who had a long, unhappy relationship with D G Rossetti before killing herself as a result of his infidelity, was a fine artist in her own right.

Morris, meanwhile, was more than just an exquisite face. While her dramatic looks provided constant inspiration both to her husband William Morris and to her lover Rossetti, her skill as an artistic needlewoman went a long way towards fixing in the general public’s imagination the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic: medieval tapestry motifs reimagined for the industrial age.

Not all the ‘sisters’ found such satisfaction. Georgiana Burne-Jones, a middle-class minister’s daughter who married Edward Burne-Jones, admitted that she had ‘fallen behind’ her husband when it came to artistic achievement because it didn’t seem worth investing in her ‘tolerable skill’ when she was surrounded by such stand-out genius. Today, we would wonder whether she was limiting herself because she was worried about outshining her husband.

Marsh is too scrupulous a scholar to pretend that every woman who crossed paths with the Pre-Raphaelites was a genius oppressed by the patriarchy. On the other hand, she has found some extraordinary stories about the ways in which these women contributed to what was still a family business – ordering paints, making costumes, sending out invoices, fixing lunch for everyone in the studio. This is popular art history at its best.

Kathryn Hughes