Click on the images to enlarge them, and usually to find out more about them. — JB

This book treads that fine line between the scholarly and the engaging (not that the two need be mutually exclusive), a line that its publisher, Sansom and Company, has successfully pursued with its many publications on British art of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century. A book on a topic, such as this is, presents a greater challenge to that endeavour, however, than the monographs that have made Sansom such a useful contributor to the literature of British art. With a preface by the editor and essays by five authors (generously described by the editor as “internationally recognised Arthurian specialists”) and plentiful illustrations, it aims to be a freestanding publication as well as a companion to the exhibition touring in Britain in 2022-23 under the title The Legend of King Arthur: A Pre-Raphaelite Love Story (William Morris Gallery, London; Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle; Falmouth Art Gallery). In the event, while highly engaging by virtue of its subject-matter, the book falls short in its scholarship.

Alison Smith’s introduction lays out the cultural territory, describing how Tennyson popularised the ancient stories of "King Arthur and the Round Table" in the Victorian age, and how the artists who signed up to Pre-Raphaelitism became fascinated by this trove of English history, legend and lore. While some were satisfied to take their lead from Tennyson’s version of the sources, which “not only rescued the saga from obscurity but also bestowed upon it a new vision that resounded deeply in Victorian and Edwardian society” (12) others were provoked by his moralising and sentimentalising to study the earlier Welsh, French and English (notably Thomas Malory’s) iterations of these characters and their collective adventures. Joanna Banham’s essay examines Pre-Raphaelite treatments of the Arthurian legends, and embraces a rich range of forms in so doing – paintings, photography, stained glass, works on paper, tapestry. However, both these essays fail to distinguish between the Morrisian/Burne-Jonesian take on Pre-Raphaelitism and its original Ruskinian form; and equally to spell out why exactly the subject (Arthurian legend) and the style (Pre-Raphaelitism) fitted so irresistibly – a vital point to make when other (non-Pre-Raphaelite) artists’ works are included as illustrations if not within the texts.

Two Burne-Jones/Morris & Co. tapestries. Left: Arming and Departure of the Knights. Right: Detail from Attainment of the Holy Grail.

Sarah Crown then discusses the use of Arthurian subjects in Victorian poetry, giving a potted history of the appearance of this source in printed publications available to English readers, with a nod to the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Scott and Keats get their due credit here before Tennyson inevitably muscles in again, “chiselling and sculpting Malory’s characters until they fitted into the seemly moulds of Victorian ladies and gentlemen” (57). Given that the book’s concern is with the Pre-Raphaelite treatment of the Arthurian stories, it is disappointing that neither the Brotherhood’s short-lived journal The Germ nor the two Rossetti poets, Dante Gabriel and Christina, are considered here.

By this time this reader felt Tennyson had had enough attention, but more was to come: Jim Cheshire’s essay gives an account of the poet’s well-documented trips to Cornwall, in 1848 and 1860, in search of inspiration from the alleged locales of Arthurian events. Cheshire gives some useful background to Tennyson’s interest in the Arthurian world, naming some female poets of the pre-Victorian nineteenth century, and brings into focus his pre-eminent influence as Poet Laureate and demonstrated favourite of Queen Victoria. (It is fascinating to see two of the princesses making watercolours of Arthurian subjects.) The book’s mission to connect Arthurian literature with Pre-Raphaelite art is honoured in Cheshire’s narration of how the second of Tennyson’s jaunts coincidentally involved Pre-Raphaelite personnel, as Thomas Woolner was amongst his fellow-travellers, and both William Holman Hunt and John Inchbold were encountered as poet’s and painters’ itineraries criss-crossed.

William Morris's La Belle Iseult.

Jacqueline Nowakowski’s essay takes a fascinating look at the history of Cornwall’s connection with the Arthurian legend, which has comprehensively outflanked Wales’ and Brittany’s claims to figure in the story, as any present-day visitor to England’s south-western extremities will know. Contending that “looking for physical evidence of the great King Arthur became an obsession with medieval kings and queens” (81), Nowakowski traces successive generations’ curiosity and agendas, incidentally mapping the overlapping narrative of King Mark, Tristram and Iseult that has cropped up tantalisingly here and there in earlier essays. Her consideration of both archaeology and "cultural tourism" brings the reader up to the present day and to the final section of the book, also credited to her, which encourages the reader in their own cultural tourism with a map and gazetteer of Arthurian locations in the south-western end of English territory. Nowakowski’s geographical detail may bewilder readers unfamiliar with Cornwall, but surely it will make most such eager to correct this lacuna in their knowledge of England’s cultural landscapes.

Left: Ruins of the castle associated with King Arthur at Tintagel, in Cornwall. Right: Sir Gawain's place at the round table installed in "King Arthur;s Hall" in Tintagel's main street.

Rigby identifies this publication and the concurrent exhibition as “the culmination of five years of study” (6) and this goes some way to explain the book’s shortcomings. An idea can change shape more than once over five years, and ultimately carry an accumulation of baggage that, once taken on, takes obstinate form: editing a collection of essays can come to bear an unfortunate resemblance to cat-herding on the path from purpose to execution. In the event, the demarcation of each essay’s territory needed to be much more rigorous to avoid both repetition and omission. A few examples: the appearance of Arthurian themes in the Palace of Westminster fresco scheme of the 1840s on would have sat well in Smith’s essay; the pre-Victorian writers mentioned by Cheshire would have made more sense in Crown’s essay; where was there a consideration of how much market trends and personal temperament, not an aesthetic programme, was at play in artists’ adoption and treatment of these subjects? With the inclusion of work by G.F. Watts, Daniel Maclise, Gustave Doré, James Archer, J.W. Waterhouse and Frank Dicksee (surely not candidates for redefinition as Pre-Raphaelites), the book would have benefited from someone learning from Muriel Whitaker’s ground-breaking The Legends of King Arthur in Art (Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 1990) and Debra Mancoff’s effective expansion of her 1990 Garland publication, The Return of King Arthur: the legend through Victorian eyes (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), which are neither cited nor included in the bibliography. Indeed, the bibliography rather epitomises the weaknesses I have alluded to: it lists three publications on non-Pre-Raphaelite J. W. Waterhouse but not the work done on that resonant figure The Lady of Shalott by Poulson, Nelson and others, nor Mrs Dinah Craik’s hugely popular An Unsentimental Journey through Cornwall (1884).


Rigby, Natalie, ed. The Legend of King Arthur: Pilgrimage, Place and the Pre-Raphaelites. Bristol: Sansom and Company, 2022. 109 pp. ISBN 978-1-911408-89-5

Created 2 December 2022