Pre-Raphaelite history at Red House

Painting depicting Romeo leaning over Juliet, who is lying on a table.

When Morris became friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the 1850s, and was inspired to follow a career as an artist, he became part of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. But what was the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, and who were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?

The Pre-Raphaelites, 1848

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret society that was established in 1848 in opposition to the prevailing fashion in the art world at the time. At the time, the art world was dominated by the views of Sir Joshua Reynolds and the Royal Academy, who believed that for art to be truly beautiful it should follow neoclassical ideals, as epitomised by the work of the Italian artist Raphael.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), The Tale of Sir Degrevaunt, 1860 / NT 60139
The Tale of Sir Degrevaunt: The Wedding Ceremony by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), The Tale of Sir Degrevaunt, 1860 / NT 60139

The Pre-Raphaelites believed that art should depict the real world, and not just religious or classical scenes. The influential art critic, John Ruskin, encouraged them to look to nature for ideals of beauty. Their subject matter also incorporated figures such as lovers and mistresses, contributing to the scandal that the movement encountered initially.

Both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones belonged to the Brotherhood in its early days, and indeed, it was the success of Rossetti’s work in particular, that led to the acceptance and growing popularity of the movement’s ideas.

'Old Woman brooding by the Fire' painted by D.G Rossetti when he was 18
Pen and ink drawing of an old woman seated on a low stool with a cat on her left shoulder. She is holding a small twig.
'Old Woman brooding by the Fire' painted by D.G Rossetti when he was 18

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

By the early 1850’s the Brotherhood had disbanded, due to conflict over whether to allow medieval influences, which sometimes contradicted the aim of realism to be a key feature of their art.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a keen supporter of using medieval influences in his paintings, as a way of linking art and literature in a meaningful way. His popularity

and success, led to a second ‘wave’ for the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1860s, and it was this wave that William Morris was a part of.

Inspired by medieval images, Rossetti’s work became increasingly symbolic and less realistic as the decades progressed. His passion for Elizabeth Siddal, whom he met in 1850 and married in 1860, also influenced the type of models that became a key feature of Pre-Raphaelite art.

Through Rossetti’s friendship with Morris, the ideals and aesthetic of medievalism became an important feature of the designs created by Morris and Company, and found their way into the homes and lives of The Firm’s customers.

Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Eleanor Siddal, Lovers listening to Music, c.1854 / NT 1287930
A pencil sketch depicting two lovers sitting on a bench under a tree
Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Eleanor Siddal, Lovers listening to Music, c.1854 / NT 1287930

The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

Through Rossetti’s paintings (predominantly), the names of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris, Fanny Conforth and others are known to us. But for many years these women were presented only as the models and muses of the artists.

However, the women of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, played a far more active role, that has been uncovered in the latter part of the twentieth century. Elizabeth Siddal, is now recognised as an artist in her own right, supported in her ambitions by Rossetti. Indeed, the figures from Genesis painted on the wall of William and Jane Morris’ bedroom at Red House, are believed to be the work of Elizabeth Siddal, though further analysis needs to take place to confirm this with greater authority.

While at the theatre in 1857, Rossetti spotted the tall and beautiful Jane Burden in the audience and convinced her to model for the murals he, Morris and Burne-Jones were painting in the debating chambers at Oxford Union. It was here that William met and fell in love with Jane, marrying her in 1859.

" The Dining Room was not yet finished, and the Drawing Room upstairs, whose beautiful ceiling had been painted by Mr and Mrs Morris, was being decorated in different ways..."

Jane actively participated in the decoration of Red House and along with her sisters and Georgiana Burne-Jones, produced numerous embroideries for the house’s decorative scheme.

The women were also shareholders in Morris and Co. with Jane eventually managing the embroidery department of the company in her own right, a role taken up by her daughter May later on.