While discussing the work of Thomas Woolner, Benedict Read, our leading scholar of Victorian sculpture, points out that he belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and yet his work has never "been viewed as Pre-Raphaelite as such."
Whether such a dimension to Pre-Raphaelitism is possible depends on one's definitions of what constituted that movement, though there seems to have been little doubt at the time that it was possible: there was not only Woolner's consistent presence as a Pre-Raphaelite Brother, but there were a number of other sculptors within the Pre-Raphaelite penumbra — Alexander Munro, who was closely associated with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Lucas Tupper and John Hancock whose names flit through the official Pre-Raphaelite Journal, and finally Bernhard Smith, who actually signs a portrait medallion of Mrs (or Miss) M. E. Gray of 1849 'Bernhard Smith PRB.'
Reminding us that only Woolner actually belonged to the Brotherhood, Read asks whether "the works of these sculptors in any way partake of qualities in style or subject matter that could be described as Pre-Raphaelite," and he finds four that appear in their works — "none admittedly unique to the Brotherhood":
- Truth to nature — that is, the hard-edge, quasi-photographic realism of the early PRB
- "Anguished, intense expressions, portraying possibly exaggerated emotional states," — that is, the kind of pose and facial expression one finds in Millais's Lorenzo and Isabella and Hunt's A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids
- "Medieval, early Italian, literary and religious subject matter"
- Portrait medallions "of a formal purism that harks back to Italian Early Renaissance medals" (Woolner, Munro, and others)
In addition, Read notes the importance to these men of architectural sculpture. Echoing one of Ruskin's arguments, William Michael Rossetti had claimed that "foremost among the causes of depression of the sculptural art may be named the divorce which has taken place of sculpture from architecture." Read therefore argues that one can
identify in the Ruskin-inspired Oxford Museum project to some extent a scenario for this Pre-Raphaelite concern. The building contains a series of statues of eminent scientists; and while some of these are by sculptors who by no stretch of the defining imagination could be called Pre-Raphaelite (Durham, Weekes, Stephens), no less than six of the statues are by Munro, one is by Woolner, and another by Tupper. The latter's Linnaeus is a rare instance of his work and it is possible to see in the faithful representation of the furry coat worn by the botanist a demonstration of Pre-Raphaelite principle. . . . The more strictly decorative architectural sculpture on the building, like the capitals on the west side which portray animal and plant forms with much truth and sincerity, certainly conform to the Ruskinian back-to-nature call that features as part of Pre-Raphaelitism. [179-80]
I believe that Read has proved his point: the ideals and emphases of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — say, from 1848-55 — do appear in enough sculpture by Brotherhood friends and associates to justify calling their work "Pre-Raphaelite."
I think one can go even farther. Pre-Raphaelitism to many people signifies the later stage of the movement inspired by Rossetti and characterized by him, Burne-Jones, and their followers in painting and by Swinburne and Morris in poetry. Looking for sculptors associated with this Aesthetic Pre-Raphaelitism, one thinks of Harry Bates, Frederick W. Pomeroy, Albert Toft, and, above all, Sir Alfred Gilbert. The only difficulty here lies in the fact that the Aesthetic Movement derived from Aesthetic Pre-Raphaelitism took on such a life of its own that it is not clear if considering these and similar sculptors to be late Pre-Raphaelites tells us any more than that one can find convincing parallels between the work of Burne-Jones and contemporary workers in clay, bronze, and stone.
Beattie, Susan. The New Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
Read, Benedict. Victorian Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
Last modified 25 August 2005