Illuminated initial T

his beautifully illustrated, handsomely produced volume makes a game attempt to relate three interrelated and not always compatible stories. Beginning with the discovery, purchase, and restoration of Biddulph Old Hall, an “Elizabethan mansion on the edge of the Staffordshire moorlands” (15), The Lost Pre-Raphaelite next tells the author's experiences of discovering and then interpreting the works of Robert Bateman (1842-1922), a painter associated with Simeon Solomon and Walter Crane, who lived briefly at Biddulph. The encounter with his painting and carving prompts the author to interpret first them and then piece together the artist's biography, particularly as it relates to his work, and this in turn leads to several enigmas. Why, Daly asks, does such sadness permeate Bateman's paintings, particularly the enormous one of his wife, and why did the artist leave London for the isolation of Biddulph? Then, too, why did the man who became his wife's first husband abandon his beloved parish for a smaller one with a lesser income and then marry a woman thirty years younger than himself? Finally, why did Robert and Caroline Bateman bequeath all their worldly goods to a nephew, Henry Burke?

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The front and back covers of the The Lost Pre-Raphaelite, which emphasize two of the book's major subjects — Biddulph Old Hall and the portrait of Caroline Bateman, Daly's ways into the mysteries of the artist's life and career.[Click on image to enlarge it.]

According to Daly, Bateman's “work, through most of his active life as a painter, was inspired by his love for Caroline and constituted an encoded record of the critical events of their story” (165); and this is the story told by The Lost Pre-Raphaelite: the artist, who married the widowed Caroline Howard when she was 40 and he 37, had loved her for many years, and the love was reciprocated, but a series of financial, social, and artistic scandals prevented their marriage in their younger days. Unable to marry, they became lovers, had an illegitimate child, Henry, who was placed with a relative, and Caroline then married the saintly and well-connected Rev. Charles Philip Wilbraham, who abandoned his beloved parish and portions of his morals and belief to save the family from scandal. After Wilbraham's death, the two lovers marry but mourn the loss of their child, whom they can never acknowledge for fear of scandal but to whom they bequeath all their worldly goods. Having located their graves, Daly summarizes the results of his long quest, which he has pursued so arduously and imaginatively:

That was the story the graves told - the same story that the wills told, and the house told, and the lost paintings told, and retold; the story that Henry, Katrina and Ulick Richard set out to suppress. We now knew that the dry words on Robert and Caroline's headstone had been put there bv them, and reflected their priorities. They had chosen to forget everything except Robert's status as a JP and Caroline's exalted Howard connections. But they could not forget the true story, because it was woven into the fabric of all their lives. They had all stood, huddled together in this churchyard, in 1920, when John's little coffin was lowered into its grave. They must have known why it had been brought from their home in Bristol, where he died. They were here again, in the very same spot, two years later, when Robert and Caroline were interred near the child, and again, nine years later, when their wife and mother was placed with them. . . . We felt that the relentless series of anomalies that made up the pattern of Henry Burke's extraordinary life, and the repeated evidence of Robert and Caroline's determination to benefit and bond with him and his family, was only explicable if they, and not Ulick Ralph and Katherine Burke, were his parents. It was a bold assertion to make, in the face of the fact that every written document defined Henry as their nephew, including their own wills. [273-74]

Indeed it is! Daly supports his interpretation of the lives of the married couple and Bateman's paintings with an often exciting narrative of relentless archival scholarship that reminds one, perhaps too much, of A. S. Byatt's Possession: both books, one fiction the other supposedly non-fiction, devote much of their texts to carrying out similar scholarly detective work that reveals a previously unknown sexual relationship between people from two different backgrounds that produces a child who grows up apart from one or both the lovers. Typical of the mixed genres that constitute this book, despite its self-conscious display of scholarly archival research it has neither footnotes nor a bibliography. Footnotes and bibliographies are to humanities research what laboratory experiments are to scientific research — the means by which others can test the validity, the truthfulness, of the work described.

If, and only if — as the Oxford philosophers say —  Robert and Caroline were in fact lovers and had a child out of wedlock, the tale Daly has crafted has plausibility, but the reader must accept a great many “if’s.” First of all, would it have been as impossible as Daly asserts for a highborn spinster to marry someone like an artist well below her in the social scale? The Way We Live Now and other Trollope novels suggest that such marriages were not all that unusual. Daly also repeatedly emphasizes the immense wealth and power of her family, the Howards, but George Howard, himself a capable artist, was the friend and patron of William Bell Scott, the lover of a wealthy woman. And were the scandals that Solomon and Burne-Jones created as damaging to Bateman as Daly insists? Crane's career doesn't seem to have suffered at all from the association with them, and would scandals involving two other artists have mattered to the Howards? Daly certainly tells a plausible, if not necessarily convincing, tale, but what about other possible explanations for the events Daly finds so enigmatic? Take Rev. Wilbraham, for example. Perhaps he, rather than Caroline, had become involved in something scandalous, say, something involving pedophilia, homosexuality, or both, and his powerful family moved him to a smaller parish and married him off to Caroline to create a respectable marriage?

This is one of those books that starts arguments and investigations with “if,” quickly moves to “possibly” or “might be,” which then becomes “probably,” and effortlessly metamorphoses into “certainly” and “must have been.” Another problem with Daly's credibility arises in prose that often seems to belong more to a bodice-ripper than a work of scholarly detective work. In the paragraph quoted above, Daly describes those attending the burial as "huddled together," but surely we can not know how they stood at the funeral. His characteristically overheated prose mixes with unsupported imagined reconstructions in his description of Rev. Charles Philip Wilbraham's supposed reaction to a supposed proposal that he marry the woman who supposedly has had an illegitimate child:

How Charles must have longed for them to leave, and allow him to confront the profound implications their scheme had for the faith in which he had put his trust all his life. He needed to think, and to pray for guidance, before he could respond to so morally complex a dilemma. The only undertaking he could give, if there was any prospect of his doing what they were asking, was to agree to go and speak to Caroline, as one fallible human being to another. He needed to understand the intensity of the forces that had driven her to abandon the virtuous path down which she had been guided by her saintly father.

How agonising his dilemma must have seemed as he knelt alone in his empty church, scouring his conscience for a truthful, valid response to the conflict between the doctrinal clarity of scripture on physical abstinence except within marriage, and the inexhaustible forgiveness and love of Christ for the penitent sinner. How often did he read and re-read St John's account of the woman taken in adultery . . . . Surely he was shocked to discover his own ability to empathise with Caroline's account of the pain of forbidden love, and to recognise echoes of it deep within himself. Did it reawaken the memory of his devotion to Beatrix Egerton, and her father's disdainful rejection of him? How thrillingly new to him those hushed confidential talks must have been, when this beautiful, enigmatic creature opened her broken heart to him and acknowledged her and Robert's inability to contain the urgency of their desires within the confines of their families' wishes. She must have wept bitterly, and prayed with him for forgiveness, both for her lapse from grace and for the shame she had brought on her father's memory. [291; emphasis added]

I can't speak for other readers, but for me passages like this one go a long way to undercut the credibility that Daly's narrative of scholarly pursuit has created. The book, which obviously embodies the efforts of a good designer, could well have used the efforts of an equally strong editor, one not afraid to use the red pencil.

One question that Daly doesn't answer convincingly, and granted the available evidence perhaps no one can, is why Bateman, whom he presents as such a powerful painter, simply stopped painting. Looking at the Batemans' magnificent country house, Daly offers this explanation:

The longer we stood gazing at Benthall, the more we came to perceive the fundamental consistency of Robert and Caroline's personalities, despite an apparently abrupt change in the pattern of their daily existence after they moved there. This house represented the final fulfilment of the prime motivating drive of their earlier lives, their longing to be permanently together. The achievement of that aim changed their priorities and led Robert, in particular, to adopt a far less focused, driven approach to his creative life. While from an art history perspective this may seem regrettable, from their own standpoint they were merely continuing to give the stability and development of their relationship priority over every other achievement. All the striving of their lives, even the phase at Biddulph after their marriage when they had set out to promote Robert's work so that he could achieve a sufficiently established artistic and financial position to make him acceptable to her family, had been leading to this place, and this life, which at last resolved some of the external pressures on their relationship and held out the prospect of a secure, loving future. [184]

Well, maybe. Still, Nigel Daly has given us an often enjoyable read.


Daly, Nigel. The Lost Pre-Raphaelite: The Secret Life and Loves of Robert Bateman. London: Wilmington Square Books, 2014. Pp. 335. ISBN 798-1-908524-386.

Last modified 1 November 2014