When it comes to Art, I love all things modern and delight in the abstract. It is, therefore, somewhat of a mystery to me why I have a weakness for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. However, I have always loved the romanticism, the intense colours, the idealised beauty and the general rebelliousness of the whole movement, which struck a chord in me and has lasted to this day.
It, therefore, piqued my interest, when we moved down to Hastings, to hear about the Pre-Raphaelite connection to the Hastings area. With some minimal research, I soon discovered that many of the great names of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood had associations with the area including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife and muse Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal, his sister Christina Rossetti, along with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. In addition, Edward Lear, that wonderful eccentric writer and painter was also a peripheral member of the Group and spent many happy summers in Hastings.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood together with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848 when he was only 20. Their influence was the art of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, prior to what they regarded as the corrupting influence of the later Renaissance, following Raphael, hence the name Pre-Raphaelites. They wanted to revive the intense colour and sensualism of that period, but updated for the 19th century.
Like many artists before and after, the Pre-Raphaelites were drawn to the light on the South Coast. It is not widely known, but in the early 19th century, one of our greatest ever artists J.M.W. Turner visited Hastings, again and again, between about 1810 and 1825, and produced a vast number of sketches and many fine paintings. And so it has continued until the present day, artists are drawn to our shores like moths to a flame.Turner’s wonderful painting ‘Fish Market at Hastings Beach’ can be seen below, with one of his characteristic moody skies.
A further atmospheric watercolour painting of the fish market on Hastings sands, much closer to home, can be found in the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. For the eagle eyed, it can be seen that there are two exotically dressed figures in the foreground .These were Greek Refugees, escaping the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832), which has a certain resonance with the world we live in today.
But this is predominately a story of the Pre-Raphaelites in Hastings and it starts with the tale of a doomed love. Elizabeth Siddal, better known as Lizzie, was born in humble circumstances, and was already an accomplished poet and artist in 1849 when she was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelites, by a customer, when she showed him some of her art. Rossetti was smitten from the start and she started modelling for Millais and Rossetti, but it was clear the women in the group were not treated on an equal footing with the men, even though many were themselves accomplished artists. For all their so-called radicalism, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the clue is in the name), treated women as their muses, models and often, quite frankly, as chattels.
In 1851 and 52, Lizzie was the model for Ophelia in the famous painting by Millais, where she was made to lie in a bath for hours on end; eventually the inevitable happened, she caught pneumonia and nearly died.
Lizzie was always frail and she went to Hastings to recuperate, where she stayed on and off for the next decade. In 1854 she was staying at No. 5 High Street, where Rossetti visited her, a blue plaque being put up in their honour. From this time onwards Rossetti became infatuated with Lizzie, making thousands of drawings and paintings of her during their time together and also preventing her from modelling for the other Pre-Raphaelite artists.
But although Rossetti dominated her life, and they were engaged, he was reluctant to commit to marriage. By 1860 Lizzie, who by that time, was in very poor health and addicted to laudanum, had had enough and broke off her relationship with Rossetti. He rushed down to Hastings to make amends, staying at the Cutter pub along East Parade and once she had regained some of her strength they were married in St. Clements Church in the Old town on the 23rd May 1860. There were no family or friends present, just a couple of witnesses.
After a Honeymoon in Paris, Lizzie was soon pregnant, but sadly she was already in decline and gave birth to a stillborn child. In her grief and depression, her laudanum use increased and in February 1862, Rossetti came home to find her unconscious, having taken an overdose of laudanum. It is said that there was a suicide note, which Rossetti destroyed so that she could have a Christian burial and today she rests in Highgate Cemetery, London.
Rossetti mythologised Lizzie after her death and painted, from memory, Lizzie as Beate Beatrix from the Dante story of unrequited love, producing a haunting and beautiful portrait of Lizzie transformed into an angelic being. It is to Rossetti’s shame, that he treated Lizzie better in death than he did in life.
Lizzie died tragically young, at 32 and despite being an accomplished self taught poet and artist, whose work was lauded by the likes of the famous Victorian art critic, Ruskin, her talent was always overshadowed by the male Pre-Raphaelites. The painting below shows her true potential, and what she might have achieved, if she hadn’t died prematurely.
Whilst writing about Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Hastings, we should not forget his sister, Christina, as she was also a frequent visitor to Hastings and regularly worshipped at St. Clement’s church. Christina was a devout Christian and it has been suggested that she suffered from religious mania. Although, she disapproved of her dissolute brother, they stayed close to each other throughout their lives.
Although her star faded in the early 20th century, with the rise of modernism, Christina was one of the most lauded female poets in Victorian England, second only to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In recent years, she has been studied again for the Freudian imagery in her poems, including themes of sexual repression and unconscious longings.
Today, she is probably best remembered for writing the words to one of our best loved Christmas carols, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, which will no doubt guarantee her fame for posterity.
Both the other two original founders of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, also had strong ties to area and painted many coastal scenes in Hastings, Winchelsea and Rye. Holman Hunt’s paintings were full of symbolism and were often painted in vivid colours.
One of Holman Hunt’s most famous pictures was painted at at Lover’s Seat at Fairlight Glen near Hastings, in 1852, a spot very familiar to people who live in the area, with an original title of ‘Our English Coasts’. The treatment of the light was considered revolutionary and the painting has a luminous, almost spiritual quality. At a later date, Holman Hunt changed the name of the painting to ‘Strayed Sheep’ thus emphasising the symbolic meaning of the picture. To me it has an ecstatic feeling to it and is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which I never tire of.
During his time at Fairlight, Holman Hunt produced another masterpiece ‘Sunlight on the Sea – Fairlight Down’ which is the header image, that can be seen at the start of this article.
1852 was also the year that a certain Edward Lear spent the summer with Holman Hunt being taught technique and working in oils by the younger Hunt. Lear was a polymath, at times a musician, self taught artist, intrepid traveller and travel writer and, not least, world famous for his nonsense prose and poetry.
Ever since I was a small boy, I loved the daft poetry of Lear and in particular I was entranced by ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, once requesting this on a BBC children’s programme, sung by Burl Ives. I never knew what a runcible spoon was, but I definitely wanted one. I still do.
As time passes, Edward Lear’s art is being recognised for it’s greatness, especially his landscapes of foreign lands on his extensive travels, many of which have the same techniques and intensity of light that Holman Hunt had taught him a few years earlier. The influence of Holman Hunt can be seen can very clearly in this painting in the Middle East of 1858.
Another painting with a similar quality to the Fairlight paintings of Holman Hunt, is ‘The Blind Girl at Pett Level’ by John Everett Millais from 1854. Pett Level is a short distance east of Fairlight and the story goes that Millais spied two young girls in Winchelsea, one of them blind, who were singing and begging in front of the church. When he saw them again the next day, walking across Pett Level, he realised he had to paint them and the result was this glorious picture, which manages to avoid sentimentality and conveys a deep sense of compassion for its subjects. The town of Winchelsea can just be seen in the background.
I am privileged to own a modest piece of Pre-Raphaelite art, whilst not being as grand as the famous works in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous Pre-Raphaelite collection, means a great deal to me. It is a print of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Sancta Lilias’ , the original of which resides in Tate Britain.
Many years ago, when I was a boy, my Father came home, in a state of excitement, with a picture which he had rescued from a junk shop. He soon discovered that it was not an original drawing as he had first thought, but what he had found was an early print of ‘Sancta Lilias’, probably produced not long after the original was painted in 1874.
This picture is based on one of Rossetti’s own poems ‘The Blessed Damozel’ about the longing felt by a dead woman for her lover, who is still alive. There is no question that the poem and the picture from 1878 , with May Morris (William Morris’ wife) as the model, refers back to Lizzie Siddal, still in Rossetti’s thoughts after so many years.
My Dad died many years ago and I have since had the print framed, where it hangs in our house, a treasured link to my Dad, the art lover. Perhaps it is this one image, which has been with me for most of my life, that is the source of my fascination with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite movement.