In the middle of the 19th century, British capitalism was advancing at full steam at home and abroad. Factories, mines and railways covered the country and Queen Victoria’s gunboats made much of the world safe for Her Majesty’s money-men to grow fat on the exploitation of other peoples and their land.
The most powerful state in the world was puffed up with pride at its status; its future appeared to be one of ever-increasing modernity, progress and wealth.
Inevitably, though, there was also a cultural counter-surge against this imperial and industrial arrogance – an important and deep one, which rebelled not just against the details of Victorian capitalism but against the very essence of the civilisation that had spawned it.
At the heart of this revolt was a group of young artists and critics who termed themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The initial circle revolved around Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, along with Ford Madox Brown. Their influence and energy was boosted later by the arrival of two younger men, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.
There was a strong political impulse behind the movement even if Millais, for one, later drifted away into apolitical respectability.
They came together at a moment marked by uprisings across Europe, including England. Holman Hunt’s painting Rienzi was planned in the summer of 1848 and inspired by Chartist demonstrations and general unrest. He wrote: “Like most young men, I was stirred by the spirit of freedom of the passing revolutionary time”. (1)
His drawing Lorenzo at His Desk in the Warehouse also plainly expresses anti-capitalist sentiment, depicting harsh “ledger-men” presiding over an exploited workforce.
Morris, in particular, went on to engage directly in anti-capitalist politics and he became a key figure in the socialist and anarchist movement in London – in the Social Democratic Foundation and then, from 1884, in the breakaway libertarian Socialist League. His political friends included Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.
From a 21st century perspective, it is perhaps difficult to gauge the extent of Morris’s dissidence – we live at a time when supposedly “left-wing” views can be remarkably uncritical of industrial capitalism as a whole, preferring to concentrate on reform than on revolution.
But it is clear that in his engagement Morris was continuing what the young Pre-Raphaelites had termed, in the words of Burne-Jones, a “Crusade and Holy Warfare against the age”. (2)
Morris saw that the obvious horrors of Victorian society – the poverty, squalor, child labour, pollution – were merely the inevitable symptoms of a disease that had gripped the heart of society.
He wrote in 1885: “All our crowded towns and bewildering factories are simply the outcome of the profit system. Capitalist manufacture, capitalistic exchange force men into big cities in order to manipulate them in the interests of capital…
“There is no other necessity for all this, save the necessity for grinding profits out of men’s lives, and of producing cheap goods for the use (and subjection) of the slaves who grind”. (3)
Morris sensed something rotten at the very core of the society in which he found himself living, writing that it “is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with helpless loathing”. (4)
This wasn’t just about the government of the day or the way in which contemporary life was organised – it was about the essence of modernity itself.
“Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization”, he wrote in 1894. (5)
What Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites in general, detested most about modern society was that it was entirely based on a love of money, self-interest, calculation and ostentatious show and was devoid of any real sense of authentic values.
Their great quest was to search for this missing authenticity and reintroduce it into the contemporary world through their art, in an aesthetic challenge to the corrupted modern spirit.
They found inspiration in the poetry of John Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Alfred Tennyson, in the plays of William Shakespeare and in Arthurian themes.
But they were most directly influenced by the art critic and social campaigner John Ruskin, who became the foremost champion of Pre-Raphaelite work.
Even their name reflects Ruskin’s tastes. The idea was that European art had experienced a general decline from clarity and authenticity since the Italian Renaissance, starting with Raphael, whose art was considered by Ruskin to be “clear and tasteless poison”. (6)
Stephen Coote writes that when the second volume of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and its great chapter on ‘The Nature of Gothic’ appeared in 1853, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood “discovered their sacred text”. (7)
Ruskin had a genius for understanding and explaining the ways in which art and architecture reflect the qualities of the society that produces them and ‘The Nature of Gothic’, with its angry condemnation of industrialism, was a revelation for young Morris and his friends.
In turning his back on industrial capitalism, Ruskin looked to the model of the Middle Ages for a society untainted by the horrors of modernity and the Pre-Raphaelites did likewise, embracing with enthusiasm the style of Albrecht Dürer and medieval sacred art, spurning the modern realism of perspective for the flatter, symbolic simplicity of the earlier era.
For a certain section of the left, this love of the medieval immediately shunts Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites into the dead-end sidings of all that is “reactionary” and to be avoided at all costs.
But it is crucial, for anyone with a genuine interest in the history and future of anti-capitalist thinking, to understand why this is not the case.
It is also important to understand that the association of modernity with civilizational advance is part of a deliberate strategy to make industrial capitalism seem somehow inevitable, a part of human evolution, something whose continued existence could never seriously be challenged.
From this capitalist perspective, any positive reference to pre-capitalist societies is necessarily “reactionary”. Any departure from the motorway of capitalist “growth” and development is necessarily a turn in the wrong direction, away from the historical destiny which it claims for itself.
It can never allow the thought that there is more than one possible future; that its industrial infrastructures are far from beneficial to humanity, let alone necessary; that one day we might collectively decide that we went wrong many hundreds of years ago and now need to put things right.
The fact that so-called “radicals” or even “revolutionaries” fall into this capitalist trap, and accept its equation of industrial “progress” with the social kind, is one of the reasons why we are still stuck in this industrial capitalist nightmare.
Seeking inspiration in earlier times is therefore not “reactionary”, or a betrayal of “progressive” politics, but a vital step in escaping the suffocating capitalist mind-cage.
It is worth noting that the Pre-Raphaelists were not the only radicals to be attracted by aspects of the Middle Ages. Kropotkin enthused greatly about the mutual aid of medieval guild society, as did the German-Jewish anarchist Gustav Landauer.
The healthy Gemeinschaft or community, which German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies contrasted with modern commercial Gesellschaft (society), was very much a medieval one. The 20th century British anarchist Herbert Read also identified strongly with the Middle Ages.
While it would obviously be reactionary to literally call for a “return” to the Middle Ages, attempting somehow to reproduce all the social conditions of the historical era (including feudal bondage and chattel status for women), none of these radical thinkers were doing that.
They were merely inspired by the idea of a society which had flourished before the age of capitalism got properly underway – and whose positive qualities could act as a model for a future post-capitalist world.
For Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, the underlying good health of the medieval social organism was proven by the sublimity of its artistic achievements, such as the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe.
Gothic, in Ruskin’s eyes, was a form of art that was natural, human and beautiful, an art which expressed a social world of “tranquil and gentle existence, sustained by the gifts, and gladdened by the splendour, of the earth”. (8)
These three qualities – natural, human and beautiful – always go together in Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites’ shared vision and are contrasted with a modern industrial world which is artificial, inhuman and ugly.
Alfred Noyes writes of Morris that just as he revolted in his earlier days against the ugliness of furniture and wallpaper, in his later years he revolted “against the ugliness of society”. (9)
Ruskin was the prophet of the new religion, “the religion of beauty”, says Noyes (10) and he taught the young artists that it was in nature that they would find the beauty that had infused the Gothic cathedrals with their forest-like interiors, urging them to “go to Nature… rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing”. (11)
The initial aims of the Pre-Raphaelites included the desire “to study Nature attentively” so as to know how to express authentic ideas. (12)
“It is simply fuller Nature we want”, (13) declared Holman Hunt and they saw their task as being to spurn all the existing rules in art and turn directly to nature for inspiration.
Morris declared in a 1878 lecture: “Everything made by man’s hands has a form, which either must be beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her; it cannot be indifferent”. (14)
There is a double layer of medieval influence at work here, for not only did medieval art express the connection between beauty and nature, but medieval art theory also consciously identified the connection.
Indeed, even the way that Ruskin and Morris insisted on the wider social significance of art renewed the philosophical influence of the Middle Ages.
This was the old wisdom of microcosm and macrocosm, “as above so below”, a holistic vision based on the unity of all things and the correspondences and connections between them.
One of the ways in which industrial society had lost its way was in abandoning that ancient holistic approach in favour of a narrowed-down, fragmented thinking based on “scientific” classification, commercial calculation, on price rather than value.
Yes, depictions of nature were appreciated by industrialised Victorian society, but, as Coote explains, these observers were more interested in the pursuit of naturalistic detail than any infused spirit of nature: “An audience relatively unsophisticated in aesthetic matters but having a high regard for scientific accuracy took pleasure in what could easily be evaluated and admired for its accuracy and technological finish”. (15)
The new religion of beauty, the insistence on natural beauty as manifestation of natural goodness, was built on quite different, Gothic, foundations.
As Ananda Coomaraswamy explained in his study of the medieval theory of beauty, from this perspective the form, beauty, goodness and truth of a thing are seen as deeply connected, almost synonymous.
Art was the product of an inner universal light and the individual artist was the channel through which this light passed and made itself visible to us.
Any work which was not inspired in this way – and, like much Victorian art, was over-refined and over-elaborated – could be described as “decadent”, he explained in The Transformation of Nature in Art: “Decadent art is simply an art which is no longer felt or energised”. (16)
This approach was later taken up by Read, when he insisted in The Forms of Things Unknown: “The artist is merely a medium, a channel, for forces that are impersonal, and though there can be no great art without enabling instruments of sensibility and talent, it is the power and purpose with which those instruments are used that make the difference between the major work of art and those trivial but charming expressions of sentiment which are not merely minor in degree but also essentially different in kind”. (17)
Read very much continued the approach of Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites into the twentieth century, although the art he championed was very different.
Michael Paraskos points to “Read’s early interest in Guild Socialism, a political manifestation of late nineteenth-century mediaeval revivalism, associated with William Morris” (18) and describes his philosophy as an unlikely synthesis of the ideas of Ruskin and Nietzsche.
He adds: “Ironically, although Read was an arch-modernist, the similarities between his ideas and those of Ruskin can lead one to characterise Read not simply as a modernist, but as the last Gothic revivalist”. (19)
Read certainly shared many of the core values of his Victorian predecessors. George Woodcock notes that he had come to regard the technological revolution as “a disaster that is likely to end in the extermination of humanity”. (20)
Read also declared, in a phrase that could just as easily have been uttered by Morris or Ruskin: “There is order in Nature, and the order of Society should be a reflection of it”. (21)
The work of Carl Jung was another influence on Read and helped him to understand exactly what was happening when the artist acted as a channel for the much wider energy which inspired all authentic work.
Read wrote that the great artist was the one who went beyond personal feelings and accessed “symbols for the universal archetypes of the psyche”. (22)
He explained: “The whole of our theory of art may therefore be conceived as one that allows for spontaneous emergence of a psychic energy which, passing through the brain, gives unity to a variety of forms, which forms are in no sense nondescript or arbitrary, but are the typal forms of reality, the forms in which the universe exists and becomes discretely comprehensible to mind”. (23)
The idea of archetypes is important to an understanding of what lay behind the medievalist Romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelite movement – and why their embrace of the aesthetics and values of a long-forgotten era was not reactionary or backward-looking but radical and idealistic.
We can glimpse the spirit behind these artists’ endeavours with their attitude towards light. Following Ruskin’s lead, they regarded light in art as a representation of beauty, reality, nature, goodness and purity – qualities which all went hand in hand, according to their holistic philosophy.
Above all, they sought natural light, the light of daylight and reality: the only authentic source of beauty.
Writing about Holman Hunt’s painting Strayed Sheep, Ruskin wrote: “It showed to us, for the first time in the history of art, the absolutely faithful balances of colour and shade by which actual sunshine might be transposed into a key in which the harmonies possible with material pigments should yet produce the same impressions upon the mind which were caused by the light itself”. (24)
Ford Madox Brown, writing about his own painting The Last of England (1852-55), said: “To insure the peculiar look of light all round, which objects have on a dull day at sea, it was painted for the most part in the open air on dull days, and when the flesh was being painted, on cold days. Absolutely without regard to the art of any period or country, I have tried to render this scene as it would appear”. (25)
What a telling phrase! “Absolutely without regard to the art of any period or country”. The ambition of the Pre-Raphaelites was nothing less than to channel directly the light of nature itself and to transform it into a physical object of natural beauty.
In keeping with their holistic overview, this aspiration was not confined to art. It also fuelled their “crusade” against the capitalist age.
Into the gloom of industry and artifice, greed and pollution, they hoped to reflect the direct natural light of another world of beauty, authenticity and love.
They realised they could not find a vision of this other world amidst the corruption and decadence of imperial commercialism, so they looked for it directly within their own hearts.
There they found the universal archetypes described by Read. They discovered an ideal of how the world could be and should be and, grasping for a definite form in which to represent it, seized on Romantic visions of medieval society, of Arthurian legends and timeless poetic fantasies.
This was as true of Morris’s writings as of he and his friends’ paintings, drawings, tapestries, fabrics, wallpaper, furniture and stained-glass windows.
Noyes describes Morris’s poetry as having “the natural and harmonious freedom and flexibility of organic life”, (26) adding: “Morris’s method was that of an artist so exquisite that he thrusts space and time under his feet, and creates his fabled cities out of that eternal light which never was on sea or land, without a single lapse into the light of common day”. (27)
The luminous neo-medieval scenes painted by Burne-Jones, the deep mysteries of Rossetti’s women and the Utopian future of Morris’s News from Nowhere were all essentially delivering the same message.
In the face of the vulgarity, filth and ugliness of the industrial machine these organically radical visionaries were declaring, in the best anti-capitalist tradition, that another world was not only desirable but eternally possible.
1. The Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate Gallery/Penguin, 1984), p. 15.
2. Stephen Coote, William Morris: His Life and Work (Oxford: Past Times, 1995), p 15.
3. William Morris, ‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’, News From Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs, ed. by Asa Briggs (London: Penguin, 1984), pp. 131-32.
4. Alfred Noyes, William Morris (London: Macmillan & Co, 1908), p. 127.
5. William Morris, ‘How I Became A Socialist’, News From Nowhere, p. 36.
6. Coote, pp. 22-23.
7. Coote, pp. 17-18.
8. Coote p. 21.
9. Noyes, p . 126.
10. Noyes, p 15.
11. The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 52.
12. The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 11.
14. William Morris, ‘The Lesser Arts’, News from Nowhere, p. 84.
15. Coote, pp. 10-11.
16. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art (NY: Dover, 1956), p. 25.
17. Herbert Read, The Forms of Things Unknown: Essays Towards An Aesthetic Philosophy (New York: Horizon Press, 1960), p. 61.
18. Michael Paraskos, Herbert Read: Art and Idealism (Mitcham: The Orage Press, 2014), p. 113.
19. Paraskos, p. 112.
20. George Woodcock, Herbert Read: The Stream and the Source (Montreal/London/NY Black Rose Books n/d) p. 232.
21. Herbert Read, cit. Woodcock, p. 192.
22. Read, The Forms of Things Unknown, p. 201.
23. Read, The Forms of Things Unknown, p. 62.
24. The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 108.
25. The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 124.
26. Noyes, p. 119.
27. Noyes, p. 42.