Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre

The Woman in White, illustration by Frederick Walker, 1871

I am a passionate reader of mystery stories, particularly from that long golden age of English mysteries that ran from the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth, when the genre was characterized by gentlemen detectives, period atmosphere, eccentricity, and strangeness, before the advent of American police procedurals and hardboiled prose. The literary “mystery” as we know it today began with the work of three writers in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century. A line can be drawn from Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) to Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), from them to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), and from Doyle to all of the major mystery writers that came after.

De Quincy was born into a prosperous Manchester mercantile family in 1785. Upon the death of his father, control of his education and inheritance was entrusted to several guardians, who saw that he was furnished with a classical education. By the age of fifteen he had distinguished himself as a student at King Edward’s School in Bath. “That boy,” said one of the dons, “could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.” De Quincey was ready for higher education and hoped to go on to Oxford. In this ambition his guardians prevaricated, postponed, and generally stymied him. They sent him to continue his preparatory education at Manchester Grammar School where he was miserable. By nature he was a sensitive and depressed young man. De Quincey resolved to run away from school and his guardians, which he did, just before his seventeenth birthday, relying on what little money he had in his possession, or could borrow, to make his way across the country. When this money ran out he took odd jobs to survive and could often afford only one small meal per day.

Eventually, De Quincey made his way to London. He was homeless at first, sleeping in the rough, unable to appeal to family acquaintances, for fear that his guardians would find him. He was given occasional crusts of bread by a man who took pity on him. With the onset of winter, the same man allowed him to stay in an unused house on Greek Street near Soho Square. This house was large, empty of furniture, and infested with rats. A neglected young girl also lived in the house, and she and De Quincey huddled together for warmth during the cold nights. De Quincey’s benefactor was a lawyer of dubious character and practices: he moved around frequently and, when present, regarded anyone who appeared at the door with suspicion.

During the day, De Quincey sat in parks or on doorsteps, slowly wasting away from hunger and malnutrition. He got along amiably with the prostitutes in the area, which was, at the time, London’s red light district. They protected him from the watchmen. One of these prostitutes, a fifteen year old girl named Ann, became his close friend and probably the love of his life. They spent as much time as they could walking the streets or sitting in places of shelter together. Ann was kind to De Quincey and tried to care for him. On one occasion, when he came near fainting from hunger, Ann spent her own meager resources to buy a cup of spiced wine to revive him. She told De Quincey about her past. She had been treated unjustly and he suggested that she might find restitution if she presented her case to a magistrate. He offered to help “avenge her on the brutal ruffian who had plundered her little property,” but she was hesitant.

De Quincey was in desperate need of money, for himself, and now for Ann. He appealed to a Jewish moneylender who agreed to advance him a large sum on the condition that De Quincey’s school friend, a young earl, stand as guarantor for the loan. De Quincey needed to travel to Eton to enlist the help of his friend. He had fortunately just received ten pounds from a family acquaintance. He gave a significant amount of this money to Ann, and used the rest to further his borrowing scheme.

Ann walked with De Quincey to Piccadilly, where he would catch the mail coach to Eton. As they sat together in a nearby square, De Quincey felt hopeful about his prospects and assured her of his intention to share whatever funds he was able to acquire with her. He told her he “would never forsake her as soon as [he] had power to protect her.” Ann was nevertheless miserable. She hugged him and cried as they said goodbye. De Quincey expected his trip to take around a week, and so he made plans to meet Ann again when he returned. She agreed to wait for him at the bottom of Great Titchfield Street, which was their “customary haven,” every night at six o’clock in the evening, beginning five days after his departure. Confident in this plan—after all, they had found each other every day for weeks without any more elaborate arrangements—De Quincey did not think to ask Ann her family name or address.

He set off on the journey to Eton, nearly falling from his place on top of the mail carriage due to weakness and exhaustion. Arriving at last, he succeeded in finding his friend the Earl. Though he sat down with his friend to a lavish breakfast, better than any meal he had eaten for months, De Quincey found that he was hardly able to keep food down after so long without. His friend agreed to partially guarantee the loan, a compromise that the moneylender later rejected, and De Quincey returned to London earlier than expected, after only three days. He waited for Ann at their rendezvous point on Great Titchfield Street. When she did not appear after several days, he made inquiries about her and tried to trace her based on the vague information he had, such as the street (but not the house) where she lived. He could find no trace of her. It was as though she had disappeared.

De Quincey left London soon after, the loan having fallen through. Before departing, he gave his forwarding address to an acquaintance who had also known Ann. For a long time, he still hoped he might hear from her and find her again. He never did.

After attending Worcester College, Oxford, De Quincey moved to Grasmere in the Lake District, where he sought out the Lake Poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. He had read their Lyrical Ballads while still a student at King Edward’s School and the poems had made a deep impression upon him. De Quincey quickly became a member of their circle; they mentored him, and he later contributed greatly to their reputations with a series of essays on their work. He married during this period, eventually fathering eight children, and lived for ten years at Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth had written his most famous poems.

By the late 1810s De Quincey had become a professional essayist and journalist in his own right. He was hired in 1818 as editor of The Westmorland Gazette, a Tory journal published in the Lake District. Like Coleridge, Wordsworth, the poet laureate Robert Southey, and other members of his circle, De Quincey was an avowed conservative. In The Guardian, James Purdon writes that De Quincey held, “reactionary views on the Peterloo massacre and the Sepoy rebellion;” he was against “Catholic emancipation and the enfranchisement of the common people.” In personal correspondence, De Quincey “reserved ‘Jacobin’ as his highest term of opprobrium.” Purdon calls him, “a fascist avant la letter.” Hardly. He was, like Coleridge, a sensible Protestant Tory. Purdon quips, “Champagne socialists are so common as to be unremarkable; De Quincey was a laudanum Tory.” Laudanum is a solution of opium dissolved in alcohol. This is an allusion to the circumstance with which De Quincey is most commonly associated: his lifelong dependence on the drug.

Portrait of Thomas de Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon, undated (before 1864)

Although he lived to the age of seventy-four, De Quincey never physically recovered from the period of sustained, border-line starvation that he had suffered in London during his teenage years. His stomach had atrophied to the extent that he could hardly eat without being sick and recurring pain in his abdomen made it difficult to lie down. These problems were obviously exacerbated by the laudanum he began taking to treat them when he was nineteen years old.

In 1820 De Quincey published Confessions of an English Opium Eater which made him instantly famous—or infamous. The book detailed his ongoing and increasingly debilitating use of opium, being in part autobiography, in part a dispassionate record of self-medication and addiction, and in part a feat of remarkable self-analysis (De Quincey coined the term “subconscious” mind).

The Confessions called attention to the worrisome side effects of a drug that was sold over the counter by druggists and grocers at the time. It also made opium use into a romantic literary trope, popular with the Sensation and Decadent writers of the later nineteenth century. De Quincey’s descriptions of the effect of opium on his dreams suggested recreational uses for the drug. He had been susceptible to unusually vivid dreams and nightmares even before he began taking it. Under the influence of laudanum his dreams became even more vivid and intense. Time seemed to warp. He had visions of a universe of beauty and horror. He suffered nightmares that felt as though they lasted for years. He described one unsettling dream in which, “upon the rocking waters of the ocean [a] human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.” His dreams began to reflect the Oriental aesthetic associated with the drug. He wrote, in language redolent of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan,

I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

Mystical and outré passages like these have always been the most popular part of the Confessions, which is otherwise a restrained and profoundly humane book. De Quincey emerged from the minor scandal that it provoked with a reputation as a writer of dark sensibilities. This was confirmed in 1827 when he published a piece of ink-black satire entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts,” in Blackwood’s Magazine. It was this essay probably more than any other that inspired later writers of mystery fiction.

“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.'” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.

De Quincey examined the details of these murders, calling attention to crime scene investigation and the identification of clues, themes crucial to the later development of the detective genre.

The fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder represents a foreshadowing of the modern mystery and detective genre, but the creation of that genre was the work of another author: Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, a clear-thinking, puzzle-solving investigator even before the word “detective” came into common use, was the model for later characters in the genre. Dupin is the prototype of the gentleman detective: a scholar from a once wealthy family, now fallen on hard times, who conducts investigations, not as a professional, but with varied motives and in conjunction with the anonymous narrator of the tales in which he appears. Dupin is famous for his method, which Poe dubbed “ratiocination.” He is a close observer of details and makes inferences through extreme rational and logical thinking. Dupin uses these skills to put himself in the minds of criminals, solving crimes by thinking from the their point of view.

The first story in which Dupin appears, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was published in 1841. Dupin and his friend the narrator live together in Paris, and they become interested in newspaper accounts of the mysterious and gruesome murder of two women. When a former acquaintance of Dupin is arrested for the crime on only circumstantial evidence, Dupin steps forward to help. The clues have the police baffled: one body in a chimney and one outside the house, a murder scene in a locked room, tufts of non-human hair, and witness reports of two voices—one speaking an unintelligible language. Dupin infers from the super-human agility and strength of the murderer, and the tufts of hair, that the culprit is an orangutan. He proves this by tracking down the sailor who controls the beast.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, illustration by Harry Clarke, 1923

Poe followed “Rue Morgue” with a second Dupin story a year later, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” This complex tale was based on the real-life murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers in New York City in 1838 and represents an attempt by Poe to solve the case. The third and final story in which Dupin is featured, “The Purloined Letter,” was published in 1844. Here the police seek Dupin’s help on a case where a Minister “D–” is blackmailing a woman with a revealing letter that “D–” has stolen. The police assume that “D–” must have the letter readily accessible, and they have thoroughly searched every potential hiding place in the hotel rooms where he is staying without success. A month later, after a huge reward is offered for the letter, the police return to visit Dupin, who produces the letter. He explains to the narrator that the police underestimated their opponent, who knew their methods and instead left the letter disguised in plain sight. Dupin, recognizing the letter even with its external alterations, arranged a distraction, took it, and left a decoy in its place. Poe called the story, “perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination.”

The Dupin stories were the direct model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes and Dupin use the same method of deductive and inferential reasoning to connect clues. Holmes, like Dupin, is a gentleman amateur. Holmes, like Dupin, is assisted by a friend and fellow lodger, Doctor Watson, who narrates the stories. In the first novel in which Holmes appears, A Study in Scarlet, Watson compares his method to that of Dupin. Holmes balks, “In my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow…He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appears to imagine.” But Sir Arthur himself was well aware of the debt that he owed to Poe. “Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed,” he said of the Dupin stories. “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

There is no doubt that Poe was influenced by De Quincey in the broadest sense. He read the English magazines in which De Quincey was published and expressed admiration for the Confessions. In a piece of humor that Poe composed for the American Museum in December of 1838, entitled, “How to Write a Blackwood’s Article,” he noted, “Then we have the Confessions of an Opium Eater—fine, very fine!—glorious imagination—acute speculation—plenty of fire and fury, and a good spicing of the decidedly unintelligible.”

In at least one instance Poe was directly inspired by De Quincey. Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” is based on an episode from De Quincey’s novel Klosterheim, or the Masque. In her 1937 thesis, The Influence of Thomas De Quincey on Edgar Allan Poe, Ruth Kelly explains,

The situation from Klosterheim which Poe borrowed for “The Masque of the Red Death” is a masqued ball found in Chapters XIV, XV, and XVI. A mysterious masked marauder has been bringing destruction and death of a bloody nature throughout the country. It has been impossible to apprehend him, and the country is stricken with fear. The prince con­sequently barricades the castle during a great masqued ball to which he has issued twelve hundred invitations. A chal­lenge of defiance has been hurled at the “Masque,” as the invader is called. Feeling runs high. Midnight approaches. A whisper begins to circulate that an alien presence is in the room. The whisper grows into a buzz. The music ceases abruptly. The order to seize him is given. The “Masque” discloses his identity to the prince who cries out and falls full length upon the ground bereft of consciousness. All rush toward the “Masque” in order to seize him, but in the confusion he disappears.

Poe built upon this premise, and transformed it, making the masked figure an allegory for plague in his own story. But it is clear that he read De Quincey closely and borrowed from him. In turn, Wilkie Collins read, and borrowed from, both of them. If Poe wrote the first detective stories, Wilkie Collins wrote the first modern mystery novels. T.S. Eliot famously praised The Moonstone as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.” Collins drew on the earlier gothic tradition but also on the new literary strands being teased out of that tradition by De Quincey and Poe.

In Collins’s 1859 novel, The Woman in White, a young artist, Walter Hartright, takes a position as drawing master for two young ladies, half-sisters, who live with their uncle at a manor house in Cumberland. One night before he leaves London to begin his employment, he encounters a distressed woman dressed entirely in white and helps her; later he learns that she escaped from an insane asylum. In Cumberland, Walter and his student, Laura Fairlie, fall in love. She bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman in white, whose name is Anne Catherick. However, Laura is engaged to another man, Sir Percival Glyde, and marries him. When the couple returns from the honeymoon, Laura’s half-sister Marian discovers that Sir Percival is in financial trouble. Since Laura has refused to sign over her marriage settlement, Glyde and his friend, Count Fosco, are planning to take Laura’s money by other means.

At the same time, the terminally ill Anne promises to share a secret with Laura that could ruin Glyde. Before she can do so, Fosco and Glyde carry out their plan, switching the identities of Laura and Anne. Laura is drugged and sent to the asylum, and Anne dies and is buried as Laura—leaving Laura’s money to Glyde. Fortunately, Marian finds and rescues Laura. They live in poverty in London with Walter until, at last, they discover Glyde’s secret and find a way to re-establish Laura’s identity, restoring their fortunes.

Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone concerns the theft of a large diamond that a British officer has brought from India and bequeathed to his niece, Rachel. The diamond is taken from Rachel’s room on the evening of her birthday, after she wore it to a party. Suspects abound: three Indian jugglers are in the vicinity; a maid, Rosanna Spearman, acts suspiciously; Rachel refuses to let the police search her room and spurns the man with whom she was in love, Franklin Blake.

During the following year, Blake leaves England. Rachel accepts the proposal of another man who was at the party, the philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite, but later breaks the engagement. When Blake returns, he discovers that Rosanna was in love with him. She found stains on his clothes from the wet paint on Rachel’s door and tried to cover for his assumed crime, eventually killing herself in despair. He then confronts Rachel, who tells him that she saw him take the stone. Blake is entirely confused, but with the help of a doctor’s assistant, and a probing, clever police detective, Sergeant Cuff, he pieces together that he had been drugged with opium on the night of the robbery. In a trance, Blake took the Moonstone from Rachel’s room to protect it, with no memory of the event, and no memory of where he put it.

Franklin and Rachel learn that the stone is in a bank, pledged to a moneylender. They watch the bank to see who will redeem the diamond, and follow this line of investigation to the discovery of Godfrey Ablewhite’s body. He has been murdered and the stone stolen again. They realize that Godfrey, on the brink of financial ruin, took the diamond from the drugged and sleepwalking Blake on the night it disappeared. Godfrey was murdered by the three Indians—in fact Brahmin priests in disguise—who return the stone to its rightful place on the statue of a moon god in India.

“He opened the bedroom door, and went out,” illustration of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, by John Sloan, 1908

The influence of Poe on Collins is subtle but pervasive. In a review of Collins’s novel After Dark, George Eliot made a connection between the two authors, writing, “Edgar Poe’s tales were an effort of genius to reconcile the two tendencies—to appal the imagination yet satisfy the intellect, and Mr. Wilkie Collins in this respect often follows in Poe’s tracks.” A.B. Emrys identifies Collins as,

the bridging figure between Poe and Conan Doyle, but not because of Sergeant Cuff. Not only did Collins reprise plot from Poe multiple times but the influence of Poe’s prose monologues is a key factor in Collins’s successful development of the casebook form. The vivid voices of The Woman in White and The Moonstone are central to the continued popularity of these novels and their being ranked as Collins’s best works, and their dramatic monologues are built on those of Poe’s criminals.

The influence of De Quincey is more specific. The plot twist involving opium in The Moonstone hinges upon the Confessions. “There,” the doctor’s assistant tells Blake, handing him a book, “are the far-famed Confessions of an English Opium Eater! Take the book away with you and read it.” Episodes from De Quincey’s memoir, creatively interpreted by Collins, provide an explanation for the goings on in The Moonstone.

In 1887 Doyle published A Study in Scarlet. He would go on to write a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes over a period ending in 1927. Throughout this canon of works, references, not just to Poe, but to De Quincey and Collins, appear. Doyle seems to have been inspired by his reading of De Quincey to give Holmes a drug habit.  In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson notices that Holmes has “risen out of his drug-created dreams,” a concept taken straight from the Confessions, “and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.” Watson, as a disapproving physician, describes another character’s addiction to opium in “The Man With the Twisted Lip.” Here, the doctor observes, “The habit grew upon him, as I understand, from some foolish freak when he was at college; for having read De Quincey’s description of his dreams and sensations, he had drenched his tobacco with laudanum to produce the same results.”

Likewise, plot elements from the novels of Wilkie Collins echo through the Holmes canon. As Charles Rzepka notes, “The plundered Moonstone inspired Doyle’s choice of the Agra treasure as incentive to crime in the Holmes novella, The Sign of Four, where the three Brahmins that Collins set in pursuit of the gem reappear as three Muslim and Sikh conspirators who seize the treasure during the height of the Mutiny.” Doyle had already written an homage to The Moonstone: his early novel, The Mystery of Cloomber. In that book three vengeful Buddhist priests take the place of the three Brahmins.

The Sherlock Holmes series was the wellspring of the whole modern mystery genre. But it too had its source in earlier works. Without De Quincey, Poe, and Collins there might have been no Holmes. And no genre.


Collins, Wilkie. (1860) The Woman in White. London: Sampson Low, Son & Co.

Collins, Wilkie. (1868) The Moonstone. London: Tinsley Brothers.

De Quincey, Thomas. (1822) Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. London: Taylor and Hessey.

Emrys, A.B. (2011) Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel. Jefferson [NC]: McFarland & Company.

Kelly, Ruth. (1937) The Influence of Thomas De Quincey on Edgar Allan Poe (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California.

Doyle, Arthur Conan; Klinger, Leslie (ed). (2005-2006) The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: W.W. Norton.

Purdon, James. (December 6, 2009) “The English Opium Eater by Robert Morrison,” The Guardian.

Rzepka, Charles. “‘A Deafining Menace in Tempestuous Uproars’: De Quincey’s 1856 Confessions, the Indian Mutiny, and the Response of Collins and Dickens,” in Morrison, Robert (ed); Roberts, Daniel Sanjiv (ed). (2008) Thomas De Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions. New York: Routledge.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Tune of the Seven Towers 1857 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
The Tune of the Seven Towers, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1857

In the late summer or fall of 1848, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt met to discuss their common interest in art. They had already begun this dialogue as students at the Royal Academy, and as members of a sketching circle, the Cyclographic Club. Nineteen year old Millais was by far the most accomplished, having entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1840, at the age of eleven. There he earned a string of prestigious prizes. Rossetti, a year older than Millais, but lacking his precocious talent, was still developing technique. His commitment to a career in the arts was often distracted by a calling to poetry. Nevertheless he studied painting first at Sass’s Academy, then at the Royal Academy, before dropping out in March of 1848, to join the atelier of Ford Madox Brown. Holman Hunt was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in 1844 on his third attempt. There he befriended Millais and with him shared certain frustrations with the way painting was taught.

Millais and Hunt believed that English art as practiced under the auspices of the Academy was too often lax in detail, removed from nature, and clichéd in theme and composition. This they attributed to the rigid Neoclassicism of the curriculum. The Academy’s late founder, Sir Joshua Reynolds had, according to Hunt, “thought it expedient to take the Italian School at its proudest climax as a starting-point for English art.” Hunt believed that this focus deprived young artists of “the training that led to the making of Michelangelo.” Instead of learning to draw precisely from nature, students learned to repeat certain formulas and compositions.

The method of instruction practiced at the Academy came from the Mannerists of the Italian High Renaissance who learned by copying Raphael and, in turn, systematized Raphael’s intensely personal style into a school of art. Even in nineteenth century England, Raphael’s dramatic poses, dynamism, elongated and simplified forms, and distorted perspective were standards of narrative painting. Millais and Hunt believed this method to be entirely artificial, producing inferior copies of copies, deprived of the genius that had animated the original.

Hunt was quick to emphasize that “Pre-Raphaelitism is not Pre-Raphaelism.” The genius of Raphael himself was not in question. Nor, for that matter, was the genius of Reynolds, who had been the preeminent portrait painter of his day. Reynolds is often remembered as a bête noir of the Pre-Raphaelites, but their objection was more to his pedagogy than his art. “The rules…which he loved so much to lay down were no fetters to him,” Hunt wrote, “because he rose superior to them when his unbounded love of human nature was appealed to.” What they rejected was the notion that the genius of an artist or an art form could be broken down into certain axioms or stereotypes and thus learned by rote. Hunt’s criticism of Reynolds and the Royal Academy was that the “independent genius of the first President could not be transmitted, but his binding rules were handed on.”

Neoclassicism had been the universal language of high art in Europe since the Renaissance. With its simplicity, grandeur, and strict geometry, it had supplanted the more personal, decorative, variegated art of the Middle Ages. Medieval art had possessed its own universal language, Gothic, but it also accommodated the vernacular. High art and low art were woven together with golden threads of sanctity, earthiness, Christian piety, color, abundance, light and darkness, strangeness, whimsy, mystery, transcendence. The rational, top-down, organizing principle of Classicism, for all its beauty and orthodoxy, rarely acknowledged the vernacular or the local, or touched the roots of a culture. The English gardens and terraced houses of the Georgian period are two fine examples of Neoclassical vernacular.

Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the French art critic Robert de la Sizeranne observed that, “Until 1848, one could admire art in England, but would not be surprised by it. Reynolds and Gainsborough were great masters, but they were eighteenth-century painters rather than eighteenth-century English painters. It was their models, their ladies and young girls, rather than brushwork, which gave an English character to their creations.” In looking back to an earlier art form it is clear that the Pre-Raphaelites were seeking a technique and aesthetic that would give expression to the English imagination. Hunt was unequivocal in later life, writing, “every student of art in past was loyal to his own nationality, and that in these days men of British blood, whether of insular birth or of the homes beyond the seas, should not subject themselves to the influence of masters alien to the sentiments and principles of the great English poets and thinkers.” It was Rossetti more than either of the other founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement who advanced Medievalism as a vehicle for spiritual, local, and personal revelation.

In 1847 Holman Hunt had his painting, The Eve of St Agnes accepted by the jury for the Royal Academy Exhibition. At the show, Rossetti approached him, as Hunt later recalled, “repeating with emphasis his praise, and loudly declaring that my picture . . . was the best in the collection. Probably the fact that the subject was taken from Keats made him the more unrestrained, for I think no one had ever before painted any subject from this still little-known poet.” Hunt invited Rossetti to his studio where Hunt showed him his latest paintings and drawings. “I rejoiced to display [them] before a man of his poetic instincts,” Hunt wrote, “and it was pleasant to hear him repeat my propositions and theories in his own richer phrase.” He showed Rossetti a painting inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Rienzi in which Hunt was “putting in practice the principle of rejection of conventional dogma, and pursuing that of direct application to Nature for each feature.”

The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro, or The Eve of St Agnes, by William Holman Hunt, 1847/8

The seeds of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic were thus established before the three artists decided to form a group. To their first meeting they invited the writer William Michael Rossetti, Dante’s younger brother, who was to be the chronicler and organizer of the group; Thomas Woolner, a sculptor; and the painters James Collinson and Frederic G. Stephens. It is unknown if the seven young men attempted to establish a credo or manifesto at their first meeting. They did produce a broad statement of principles:

1: To have genuine ideas to express.

2: To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them.

3: To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote.

4: And most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

This rather vague manifesto suggests that at the beginning the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood lacked a uniform direction. The members had diverse approaches to art, varying depths of familiarity with art history, and unequal technical skills. They all, as William Rossetti noted, “belonged to the middle or lower-middle class of society.” None of them with the exception of William and Dante Rossetti had the kind of liberal education which included the study of Latin and Greek. During their monthly meetings, which were held with some regularity from late 1848 to the middle of 1850, they discussed their opinions on art with as much clarity as could be expected from individuals who were then just beginning to frame the general outlines of their practices. The most voluble of the three principle members, and the most adept at formulating his ideas, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He had, so his brother recalled, “an abundance of ideas, pictorial and also literary, and was fuller of ‘notions’ than” Millais or Hunt, with a “turn for proselytizing and ‘pronunciamentos.’” He was the most defiant of the group, according to William, and, with a kind of adolescent verve, he held “art-sympathies highly developed in one direction, and unduly or even ignorantly restricted in others.”

At the first meeting of the Brotherhood, Millais exhibited a book of engravings that he kept in his studio. It contained poorly drawn reproductions of the frescoes at the Campo Santo in Pisa. Despite their limitations the engravings allowed the young artists to acquire some knowledge of fourteenth century Italian painting. This they supplemented with trips to the National Gallery, to view its collection of thirteenth and fourteenth century paintings, and no doubt by reading Anna Brownell Jameson’s Memoirs of the Early Italian Painters, recently published in 1845.

Another volume that Millais shared with his colleagues was perhaps even more important to their project. This was a book of engravings by Joseph Ritter von Führich, illustrating the dramatic poem, Life and Death of Saint Genevieve, by the German Romantic poet, Ludwig Tieck. The Medieval style and themes would have stirred the interest of all who attended the meeting. Von Führich was a member of a group of German painters who styled themselves, the Brotherhood of St Luke. They were known also as the Nazarenes. They established themselves in Rome in 1810, where, dressed in biblical costume, the “brothers” lived communally in an abandoned monastery. Like the nascent Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood they abandoned Neoclassicism for the spiritual values and aesthetics of the Late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. Although the Pre-Raphaelites did not formally pattern themselves after the Nazarenes, the influence of the latter on the former is visible in early Pre-Raphaelite drawings. Examples of this influence can be seen in Millais’s Two Lovers by a Rose Bush, and Rossetti’s drawing, The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice.

The three principle members of the newly formed Brotherhood began to prepare works for exhibition in 1849, Millais and Hunt at the Royal Academy, Rossetti at the Free Exhibition. Rossetti chose as his subject The Girlhood of Mary the Virgin. None of the young artists had sufficient funds to hire models at this point so Rossetti turned to his mother, Frances, and sister, Christina, to sit for St Anne and the Virgin, respectively. They modeled for him periodically at Holman Hunt’s studio, which Rossetti shared. This working arrangement was fruitful, though it necessitated some measure of compromise. Hunt liked people around and Rossetti preferred solitude. Both profited from discussions on art and pursued their goals independently.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849

For his piece, Hunt completed the scene from Bulwer-Lytton that he had earlier previewed for Rossetti, titled, Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions. Hunt’s composition followed a tradition of heroic battlefield death scenes established in the eighteenth century by Benjamin West in his Death of General Wolfe.

Millais was the second of the group to try his hand at illustrating a scene from the poetry of John Keats. His painting, Lorenzo and Isabella, was an adaptation of Keats’s poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, itself an adaptation of a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. Both poems concern a young woman from a wealthy family, Isabella, who falls in love with one of her brothers’ retainers, Lorenzo. Her brothers, who plan to marry her to a rich man, learn of the romance. They lure the hapless Lorenzo to an out-of-the-way place, and there, murder him. Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream and leads her to his body. She digs it up and cuts off the head, which she plants in a pot of basil. Watered by her tears, the plant thrives. Her brothers grow suspicious and steal the pot, only to discover the rotting head of their victim. Horrified by what they have done the brothers leave Florence in self-imposed exile. Isabella, having lost both her lover and the solace of the pot of basil, descends into madness and dies.

For his painting, Millais chose to depict the moment that the brothers become aware of the romance. The scene is set around a table, at which Isabella, her brothers, and their guests are dining. Lorenzo is seated beside Isabella. He offers her a blood orange, cut in half, as if to foreshadow his own severed head, while the brothers watch from across the table. There are two focal points in the composition. The first is the young couple: Lorenzo, bowing to offer his plate, regarding his lover with gentle, even reverential, concern, but also conspiracy, and the hardness of resolve; Isabella, accepting the orange, but looking down, aware of the danger, resisting the urge to acknowledge him, her body tense with the effort of self-denial. The other focal point is one of her brothers, seated in the foreground, across from them. He is an extraordinary, brutish character, leaning forward to kick a dog who cowers in Isabella’s lap. In an outstretched hand he cracks a nut with a levered nutcracker.

Curator Carol Jacobi, in a 2012 essay on the painting, draws attention to a shadow cast on the table by the brother’s arm. It appears to rise diagonally from his groin in the place of a phallus. Jacobi connects this to the “salt cellar spilling its contents,” which, together with the “shadow and groin,” she describes as “an unambiguous equivalent for ejaculation.” Millais has created a sort of moral manifesto, contrasting these two models of manhood: the chaste, modest, chivalrous Lorenzo with the vulgar, murderous, and sexually incontinent brother.

Isabella, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1849

All three paintings revealed a Medieval influence, whether in subject matter (Hunt’s Rienzi), style (Rossetti’s Virgin), or both (Millais’s Isabella). Rossetti in particular captured elements reminiscent of an altarpiece in his domestic scene. Despite the ambiguousness of their initial statement, the clear meaning of the Brotherhood’s name was reflected in each contribution.

The initials P.R.B. appended to the signatures of Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti, apparently went unnoticed on the paintings they exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere in 1849. This was not the case the following year when they caught the attention of Charles Dickens. The meaning of the enigmatic letters had been revealed to the public before the opening of the Royal Academy show. On May 4, 1850 a columnist, who was not an art critic, wrote in The Illustrated London News, that for those confused by the letters P.R.B., the secret was that they stood for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of “ingenious gentlemen who profess themselves practitioners of Early Christian Art.” Dickens wrote a scathing critique of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings for his journal, Household Words. In the edition of June 15, 1850, Dickens began his review of the annual Royal Academy show with a warning: “You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves…for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.”

The target of this criticism was a painting by Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents. As the title suggests, the work depicts a scene from the boyhood of Jesus. The setting is Saint Joseph’s workshop, which Millais based on a real carpenter’s shop on Oxford Street in London. The composition is rich in Christian symbolism. Jesus has cut His hand on a nail. Blood runs from the center of His palm to the foot beneath it, prefiguring the wounds of the crucifixion. The Virgin Mary kneels before Him, as though at the foot of the cross. A young John the Baptist brings water to clean the wound, foreshadowing his baptism of Christ. A white dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, watches from a ladder in the background. A triangle on the wall above Christ’s head suggests the Trinity. Outside a flock of sheep is gathered, anticipating His mission as shepherd of men.

Christ in the House of His Parents, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1850

If Dickens saw any of this he did not recognize it. He accused Millais of portraying the savior as “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy,” and the Virgin Mary as a “Monster” who would stand out “in her ugliness” from the company of “the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England.” Sweeping the rest of the company into his critique, he wrote, “Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed.”

When we look at the painting today we see none of the depravity that Dickens portrays. The religious subject is treated with reverence. The figures are rendered with great tenderness. The naturalism, though striking, was hardly novel, having a precedence going back to Caravaggio. What could possibly have elicited such contempt?

Dickens was clearly reacting to something other than the technical merits of the painting when he wrote his review. We do not have to search far to learn what that was: Dickens found the notion of a backward-looking art movement plainly shocking. He compared the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to a hypothetical “Pre-Newtonian Brotherhood” for those who objected to being bound by the laws of gravity, a “Pre-Galileo Brotherhood” for those who “refuse[d] to perform any annual revolution round the Sun,” a “Pre-Gower and Pre-Chaucer Brotherhood” for those who would revive the old idiosyncratic English spellings, or a “Pre-Laurentians Brotherhood” for those who would abolish printed books in favor of painstakingly copied manuscripts.

The progressive outlook which dominated liberal thought in the Victorian period, as it does today, held that the arrow of time moves only and ever forward toward a distant perfection of human society. The suggestion that we might restore modes of life from the past threatened the idealism that underpinned so many of the endeavors of nineteenth-century modernity. A progressive like Dickens would have understood the conservative implications of Pre-Raphaelitism perhaps better than the young artists themselves.

Holman Hunt’s contribution to the Royal Academy exhibition was intended as a companion piece to Millais’s, and was, in composition, even more ambitious. The subject, and title, was, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids. In the foreground Hunt depicted the interior of a simple wooden fisherman’s shed on a riverbank, where the titular missionary has collapsed into the arms of the mother of the family, while the men guard the door, and the children succor him. In the background, seen in part through the windows at the top of the hut, a mob of pagans, commanded by a Druid priest, chase down a second missionary to his inevitable martyrdom. Although the scene has its own dramatic narrative and tension, Hunt’s composition suggests an episode from the Gospels: the Deposition of Christ, when the Savior’s body was lowered from the cross. Here the postures of the missionary and the woman holding him from behind clearly evoke the Pietà, the traditional artistic representation of Mary cradling the body of Jesus. On the wall above them is a red cross roughly drawn by the persecuted Christians for their worship. One of the daughters removes a thorn from the missionary’s robe, representing the crown of thorns, while another prepares to bathe his face with sponge and water.

A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids, by William Holman Hunt, 1850

Exhibited together, the relationship between Hunt’s painting, and Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, would have been readily apparent. Both works depicted a primitive Christianity. Both employed traditional, iconographic details. In portraying scenes from Christian history before and after the crucifixion, both placed Christ’s passion at the center of the narrative. Hunt judged his painting to be among the best of his own work. Appraising it more than two decades later, he wrote to Edward Lear, “sometimes when I look at the Early Xtians I feel rather ashamed that I have got no further than later years have brought me, but the truth is that at twenty—health, enthusiasm and yet unpunished confidence in oneself carries a man very near his ultimate length of tether.”

Both Hunt and Rossetti had benefitted in their education from a trip to the Continent in the fall of 1849. They visited France and Belgium. In Paris they toured the large public galleries, studying canvases by Titian, da Vinci, Veronese, and van Dyck. At the Louvre they were awestruck by The Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, which was, according to Hunt, “of peerless grace and sweetness in the eyes of us both.” In Antwerp they admired the paintings of the Early Netherlandish artists, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, as well as those of Rubens and van Dyck. They were prepared for their encounter with the brilliant, detailed works of the Early Netherlandish painters, having already studied van Eyck’s 1434 work, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, at the National Gallery. It was the graphic quality, almost brittle composition, and absence of free, painterly brush strokes in the paintings by van Eyck and his followers that became the goal of Hunt and Rossetti for their own works.

Of all the paintings exhibited by members of the Brotherhood in 1850, the most influential on the development of Pre-Raphaelite style and technique, was Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), shown at the National Institution, formerly the Free Exhibition. The painting had begun with a preliminary sketch in late November of 1849. This process was recorded by Rossetti’s brother William in his journal. He described the work-in-progress as depicting the Virgin in bed, “without any bedclothes on, an arrangement which may be justified in consideration of the hot climate, and the Angel Gabriel is to be presenting a lily to her.” The painting was to be almost entirely white, with contained uses of one color at a time: a red embroidery in the foreground, a blue curtain in the background, yellow halos, a window opened on a blue sky.

In mid-December, Rossetti began to paint the Virgin’s head, using his sister Christina as a model, and later in the month drew the head of the Angel, with his brother William modeling. By mid-January he was busy working on the drapery and in early-February had moved on to the red cloth embroidery in the foreground. On March 29, William recorded that his brother had painted the feet and arm of the Angel from a model, had another, Miss Love, sit for the Virgin’s hair, and a third to finish the Angel’s head. The execution was a protracted process as Rossetti, now working in the studio of Ford Madox Brown, struggled to achieve the level of technical mastery possessed by his colleagues. The finished product was a painting of exceptional tenderness and beauty, in some ways less mature that Hunt’s or Millais’s work, but in others, particularly the figure of the Virgin, entirely developed.

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) 1849-50 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Ecce Ancilla Domini, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850

With this painting Rossetti introduced what would become a signature Pre-Raphaelite technique. Whereas most artists prepared their canvases with a coat of neutral, solid color, called a toned ground, Rossetti painted his canvas bright white. As one modern curator writes, “The particularly luminous white ground…made the pure colors brushed over it seem illuminated.” Beginning in 1850 both Millais and Hunt adopted this practice, amplifying the effect by using a wet white ground. Millais used the technique to depict sunlight on faces in his painting, The Woodsman’s Daughter, completed the following year. Its application can be seen to great advantage in Hunt’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, titled, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, also completed in 1851. In this painting particularly, Hunt achieved what has been described as “an almost preternatural luminosity.”

Experimentation with color had been an ongoing interest of all three artists. Hunt recalled a visit to the Royal Academy by the painter Claude Lorraine Nursey during one of Hunt’s first terms there. Nursey had given a lecture and then stayed to watch the students work. At the time Hunt was copying Sir David Wilkie’s painting, The Blind Fiddler. Nursey had once been a pupil of Wilkie and explained the latter’s practice of applying all his paint, whether for a section of a painting or an entire work, in one sitting. In this way he never painted over dried paint, as most artists did, which tended to dull the colors. For Hunt this had been a revelation. “I tried the method,” he wrote, “and I now looked at all paintings with the question whether they had been so executed. I began to trace the purity of work in the quattrocentists to the drilling of undeviating manipulation with which fresco-painting had furnished them, and I tried to put aside the loose, irresponsible handling to which I had been trained, and which was nearly universal at the time, and to adopt the practice which excused no false touch.” Hunt seems to have arrived at the technique that he used in Valentine Rescuing Sylvia by combining the innovations of Rossetti and Wilkie. By painting on a wet white ground he was able to achieve more luminous colors even than Rossetti had, but only because he had rigorously adopted Wilkie’s constraints. As Hunt observed, “Painting of this kind cannot be retouched except with an entire loss of luminosity.”

Millais had been experimenting with similar methods around this same time. Hunt remembered both Millais and himself arriving at the use of a wet white ground independent of one another. This would seem to suggest that the various influences that informed the technique were being discussed among the members of the Brotherhood during their meetings leading up to the various individual applications. Once it had been perfected, Millais proposed that they should keep the process “as a precious secret” amongst themselves, which they did. When Millais and Hunt revealed the secret to Ford Madox Brown, years later, Brown recognized it as a technique of the late-Medieval and early-Renaissance fresco painters. According to Hunt, Brown “enlarged on the mystery as nothing less than the secret of the old masters, who thus secured the transparency and solidity…valued so much in fresco, the wet white half dry forming an equivalent to the moist intonaco grounds upon which the master had to do his painting of that day while the surface was still humid.”

The subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures varied from artist to artist but clear commonalities were visible by the time they had submitted their works for exhibition in 1851. In addition to shared techniques, the artists shared a preference, though not exclusive, for Biblical and Medieval themes over Classical and mythological, for character and mise-en-scène over landscape, and for bright color over the popular preference for smoky browns. Within this broad consensus was a great range of influences. Rossetti was particularly fascinated with Dante and Medieval devotional art; Holman Hunt with Biblical themes; Millais was more or less encyclopaedic in his references, sometimes turning to Shakespeare, at other times contemporary daily life, the Bible, English history, or contemporary Regency and Victorian poetry.

Millais produced three pictures for the Royal Academy show in 1851: Mariana, The Return of the Dove to the Arc, and The Woodsman’s Daughter. The first was taken from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In Millais’s rendering, the character of Mariana looks plaintively out of large Gothic windows. She has been rejected as a bride because of the loss of her dowry in a shipwreck. The caption to the picture is from Tennyson’s 1830 poem:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary, / He cometh not,’ she said; / She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary, / I would that I were dead!’

Tennyson was a particular favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. Undoubtedly the finest English poet of his generation, Tennyson had been appointed Poet Laureate in 1850, with the support of Prince Albert, an early admirer. The same year Tennyson published “In Memoriam,” a tribute to his late friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The work was a sensation. William Rossetti, as a reviewer for The Spectator, received an advance copy. Upon reading it he rushed home and passed the book to his brother. Although it was after midnight Dante read the entire poem aloud. Thereafter the Pre-Raphaelites hung on Tennyson’s every word, illustrating many of his works, most notably episodes from his Arthurian cycle, Idylls of the King.

Mariana, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851

All three of Millais’s pictures in the Royal Academy show of 1851 were accomplished with deftness of drawing, flatness of surface, and minimal use of modeling in the three dimensional forms. The same may be said of Holman Hunt’s submission, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus. Hunt drew his subject from the climax of Two Gentlemen of Verona. In Shakespeare’s early comedy, Valentine and Proteus both love Silvia, though her heart belongs to Valentine. After rescuing her from outlaws, Proteus threatens to rape Silvia, if she will not consent to love him. Valentine intervenes. Proteus repents and gives his love to Julia who has disguised herself as his page boy.

Reviewing Hunt’s adaptation for The Spectator, the Rossetti brothers were, of course, effusive, calling it, “the finest we have seen from its painter.” Dante drew the reader’s attention to the two female figures. Silvia, he wrote, “nestles to her strong knight, rescued and secure; while poor Julia leans, sick to swooning, against a tree, and tries with a trembling hand to draw the ring from her finger. Both these figures are truly creations, for the very reason that they are appropriate individualities, and not self-seeking idealisms.” William used much of the column to rebuke the hanging committee of the Royal Academy for its poor job in highlighting such an important work.

The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates at the Royal Academy show of 1851 received largely negative reviews. The critic of The Times condemned them for “the puerility or infancy of their art,” their “monkish style” and “monkish follies.” A “morbid infatuation” with ancient art, had, he wrote, caused them to sacrifice “truth, beauty, and genuine feeling to mere eccentricity.” Clearly Charles Dickens had set the tone and terms of public debate in his review of the previous year. Detractors of the new movement shared a common rhetoric and a few common points of opposition.

The seemingly impenetrable wall of critical resistance to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would soon break, however, with the emergence of an extraordinary ally. John Ruskin was a formidable art critic whose opinions held great weight among both scholars and collectors. The first two volumes of his monumental work, Modern Painters, had been published between 1843 and 1846. In them, Ruskin laid the philosophical groundwork for an art closer to nature. He idealized late-Medieval and Renaissance art in terms of the convergence of truth, beauty, and religion. Ruskin argued that the job of the artist was to convey “truth to nature,” by which he meant “moral as well as material truth.” By this measure he judged the contemporary landscape painter J.M.W. Turner to be the greatest artist who ever worked in that field, elevating him above the Old Masters of the Baroque period. He was deeply critical of the contemporary historical painters who, he wrote, were “permitted to pander more fatally every year to the vicious English taste, which can enjoy nothing but what is theatrical, entirely unchastised, nay, encouraged and lauded by the very men who endeavor to hamper our great landscape painters with rules derived from consecrated blunders.” Here was the very language that the young Pre-Raphaelites were using to articulate their dissatisfaction with the prevailing wisdom of the Academy. If anyone could understand the aims of the Brotherhood, they had to hope it would be Ruskin. Indeed, his defense, when it came, was swift, authoritative, and generous.

On May 13, 1851, The Times published a signed letter from Ruskin expressing “regret” that the “tone” of the paper’s critique of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings had been “scornful as well as severe.” He wrote that the “labour bestowed on those works, and their fidelity to a certain order of truth (labour and fidelity which are altogether indisputable) ought at once to have placed them above the level of mere contempt.” He insisted that the young artists were “at a turning point, from which they may either sink into nothingness or rise to very real greatness.” On May 30, Ruskin followed up with a second letter, in which he concluded that the Pre-Raphaelites, “may, as they gain experience, lay in our land the foundations of a school of art nobler than has been seen for three hundred years.” With these words the fortunes of the members of the Brotherhood changed forever.

The Pre-Raphaelites were emerging as integral drivers of the Medieval artistic revival that would come to define the Victorian age, largely thanks to the advocacy of two men: Ruskin and His Royal Highness Prince Albert.

The same year that Ruskin penned his defense of the Pre-Raphaelites he published the first volume in his monumental study of Venetian Gothic architecture, The Stones of Venice. Here he began to lay out a philosophy of Gothicism over and against the prevailing Classicism. In subsequent volumes he would elaborate on this philosophy, defining six characteristic elements of Gothic design: savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundance. Ruskin wrote with irresistible enthusiasm, praising Gothic ornament for its “prickly independence, and frosty fortitude, jutting into crockets, and freezing into pinnacles; here starting up into a monster, there germinating into a blossom; anon knitting itself into a branch, alternately thorny, bossy, and bristly, or writhed into every form of nervous entanglement; but even when most graceful, never for an instant languid, always quickset; erring, if at all, ever on the side of brusquerie.” This was not the language of archeology. Ruskin was not describing relics or museum pieces. In his poetic prose he conjured a vital, living, irrepressible, even inevitable art form.

No one did more to midwife that art form than Prince Albert. When he married Queen Victoria in 1840 the young German prince became an influential patron and advocate for the arts in Britain. One of his first official duties was to lead the Royal Commission tasked with designing the interior of the new Houses of Parliament. He brought to this appointment a vision entirely sympathetic with the Gothic Berry-Pugin architecture. The Prince possessed an informed taste for Medieval and Medieval-revival aesthetics. He collected everything from Tuscan trecento primitives to contemporary German romantic painters. Under his guidance, Clare Willsdon writes, “the wall-painting, sculpture, and stained glass used as a matter of course by the medieval builders” were adopted for the new building. Prince Albert advised the artist William Dyce to draw from Arthurian legend for the murals of the Queen’s Robing Room.

To a certain extent the Prince became involved in arts and culture because he lacked a formal outlet for his talents. Parliament had been opposed to granting any political power to a foreign prince. Not only was he denied the title of King Consort, he was also denied peerage and military rank. Although in time he did take on responsibility for the affairs of state, it is a credit to his genius that, for most of his short career, he had a greater influence on British culture than any other man of his age, despite having little practical power.

Beginning in 1850, the Prince, together with members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, organized what would be the first World’s Fair. The Great Exhibition, as it was known, opened in 1851 in the Kensington district of London, housed within a custom-built “Crystal Palace” of cast-iron, steel, and glass, large enough to enclose full-grown trees. The exhibition showcased rich displays of traditional culture and ultra-modern technology side by side. Visitors encountered the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India and the Daria-i-Noor from Persia; a stuffed elephant bedecked in the livery and howdah of an Indian rajah; porcelain, tapestries, and silk from France; decorative arts, furs, sledges, and Cossack armor from Russia; an Egyptian Court with towering statues and pillars, mummies, and antiquities. At the same time they could marvel at Stevenson’s hydraulic press, adding machines, a state-of-the-art printing press, folding pianos, carriages, and velocipedes.

To represent Britain in this grand evocation of the Victorian future, Prince Albert invited A.W.N. Pugin to create a Medieval Court. Pugin had previously collaborated with Sir Charles Berry on the Gothic Revival design of the new Houses of Parliament. He was now in the last year of his life. This would be his swan song, what Paul Atterbury called, “his final consuming project.” Pugin designed stained glass, furniture, sculpture, and textiles in the Gothic Revival style. He had these fabricated by the various firms of craftsmen with whom he had long collaborated, in what Jeffrey Auerbach describes as a “preview of the team-oriented craftsmanship that would characterize William Morris’s Arts and Crafts productions.” The effect, in the words of one art historian, was “to create a phantasmagoric realm for spectators.”

The Medieval Court, by A.W.N. Pugin, at the Great Exhibition

As the Pre-Raphaelites became part of a broader Medieval revival the Brotherhood itself became somewhat redundant to their needs. The last public exhibition of their works as a group occurred in 1852. Two of Millais’s pictures hung in the Royal Academy Exhibition that year: A Huguenot and Ophelia. The former depicts a young couple in France meeting in a garden during the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when Roman Catholics killed tens of the thousands of Protestant Huguenots, over several weeks in 1572. The girl is pleading with her Protestant beau to wear an armband signifying he is a Roman Catholic so that he can escape the slaughter. While he holds her, gazing tenderly into her worried eyes, he gently removes the armband that she has tied around him, choosing martyrdom over even pretended apostasy. Millais had initially sketched this scene as a simple meeting of lovers in a brick-walled garden but on the advice of Holman Hunt he added the historic context, which he took from Mayerbeer’s opera Les Hugenots.

The wonderful, meticulously rendered flowers and foliage in the garden are typical of the kind of botanical illustration that was immensely popular, particularly among watercolorists, in the Victorian era. The most famous of these was Marian North whose skill at rendering flowers was honoured with the opening of a gallery in Kew Gardens permanently dedicated to her works in 1882. Millais’s passion for setting his subject in rich, verdant, floral surroundings is nowhere more apparent than in his Ophelia.

Drawn from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the tragic story of Ophelia was ideally tailored to fit Victorian and specifically Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. Spurned by Prince Hamlet, she has fallen into a river, while picking flowers, and as she floats away, temporarily buoyed by the air trapped in her clothing, she sings. But as her clothes become saturated, the weight of the water pulls “the poor wretch from her melodious lay” down to a muddy death. In his depiction of the scene, Millais painted flowers mentioned by Shakespeare floating downriver with Ophelia, but he added a red poppy as a symbol of sleep and death. Millais based his gorgeously overgrown riverbank on the Hogsmill River in Surrey where he painted for several hours a day, six days a week, for five months to capture the background. In the end he had to work inside a kind of duck blind to protect himself from the cold weather.

Millais finished the painting over the winter at his studio on Gower Street in London. He based the figure of Ophelia on the newly discovered model Elizabeth Siddal, who would go on to sit for, and later marry Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She would also become an artist in her own right. Ophelia remains one of the most iconic of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It hangs today in the Tate Britain in London and must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Even the most detailed reproduction does not convey the awesome effect of glittering light captured by Millais, in particular where the lace of Ophelia’s dress floats on the surface of the water.

Ophelia, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1852

Holman Hunt’s painting for the 1852 exhibition was The Hireling Shepherd. Its subject was the neglect of duty, in this case by the titular shepherd, who ignores his flock to woo a pretty red-haired maid, showing her a death’s head hawkmoth. Hunt meant to symbolize the retreat of churchmen into theological debate while their flocks were led astray for lack of moral guidance. The title is a reference to the Biblical allegory of the Good Shepherd. Hunt achieved considerable success with this painting as it was awarded a prize when exhibited at Birmingham in 1853 and sold to a collector for 120 pounds. Hunt later observed that with Millais’ picture of the Hugenots also winning a prize at an exhibition in Liverpool, “the double success of our School . . . [indicated that] the recognition of our claims was thus proved to be growing.”

The Hireling Shepherd, by William Holman Hunt, 1852

After the amicable dissolution of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the three artists who had been the primary force behind it, continued to discuss art with each other and to explore common aesthetics, but they pursued their careers separately. They began to inspire a number of other artists. These included Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, William Morris, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick Leighton, Frank Dicksee, Frederick Sandys, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Simeon Solomon, and John William Waterhouse, among others.

The Pre-Raphaelite conquest of the Victorian and Edwardian art world was eventually formalized with honors. Millais and Burne-Jones were given baronetcies; Leighton was given a barony; Holman Hunt received the Order of Merit as a personal gift from King Edward VII; Dicksee and Alma-Tadema were knighted.

In fact, there had long been affection for the Pre-Raphaelites at the palace. In the midst of the early controversy surrounding Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, Queen Victoria had arranged for the painting to be shown privately for her at Windsor Castle. This was unprecedented. “I hope that it will not have any bad effects upon the Queen’s mind,” Millais joked nervously to Hunt. Gordon Fleming in his biography of Millais suggests that it did not. The following year Prince Albert gave a speech to the Royal Academy in which he reminded the members of their obligation to encourage developing artists in terms unmistakably similar to Ruskin’s defense of Millais.

A more private, but in its own way equally momentous, embrace of the Pre-Raphaelites came earlier, in 1855. In January of that year, Millais and Charles Dickens met for the first time at a dinner party given by their mutual friend, Wilkie Collins. After dinner they had a long conversation. The following day, Dickens wrote Millais a letter, and sent it, along with an article from Household Words, about the London fire brigade, which was the subject of Millais’s work-in-progress, The Rescue. The letter read:

If you have in your mind any previous association with the pages in which [the article] appears (very likely you have none) it may be a rather disagreeable one. In that case I hope a word, frankly said, may make it pleasanter. Objecting very strongly to what I believed to be an unworthy use of your great powers, I once expressed the objection in this same journal. My opinion on that point is not in the least changed, but it has never dashed my admiration of your progress in what I suppose are higher and better things. In short, you have given me such great reasons (in your works) to separate you from uncongenial association, that I wish to give you in return one little reason for doing the like by me.

Millais accepted the olive branch. Thereafter they became true friends. When Dickens died in 1870 it was Millais who was summoned to his death bed to draw the final portrait of the great author.


Atterbury, Paul. (1995) A.W.N. Pugin: Master of Gothic Revival. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bartlett, Kenneth. (2013) A Short History of the Italian Renaissaince. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bronkhurst, Judith. (2006) William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Dobbs, Brian; Dobbs, Judy. (1977) Dante Gabriel Rossetti: an Alien Victorian. London: Macdonald and Jane’s.

Doyle, Margaret. (2013) Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900, exhibition brochure. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.

Fleming, Gordon. (1998) John Everett Millais: A Biography. London: Constable.

Fowle, Frances. (2000) “Summary: Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) 1849–50.”

Gowing, Lawrence. (1983) The Encyclopedia of Visual Art. London: Encyclopedia Britannica International.

Holman Hunt, William. (1905) Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Jacobi, Carol. (2012) “Sugar, Salt and Curdled Milk: Millais and the Synthetic Subject,” Tate Papers 18.

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Millais, John Guille. (1899) The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais. London: Methuen & Co.

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Dickens and the Stage


Charles Dickens always wanted to be an actor. As a teenager in the late 1820s he was working in London as a lawyer’s clerk and a courtroom stenographer. In his free time he attended the theater with devotion. Dickens later wrote that he “went to some theatre every night…for at least three years.” Actors like William Macready, Charles Kean, Thomas Cooke, and Charles Mathews dominated the stage of this period. Dickens was particularly fond of Mathews, a veteran actor famous for his “monopolylogues,” one man shows in which he played all of the characters. Dickens would go wherever “there was the best acting; and always to see Mathews, whenever he played.” The monopolylogue was a form that naturally appealed to Dickens, who would entertain his coworkers by mimicking various London types, and who, later, as a prolific novelist, would recite his dialogue out loud, in character, as he wrote it.

By 1831 Dickens had begun to think of a career as an actor “in quite a business-like way.” That year he wrote to George Bartley, manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, to ask for an audition. Dickens told Bartley that he possessed “a strong perception of character and oddity, and a natural power of reproducing in my own person what I observed in others.” Bartley agreed to see him. When the day of the audition came, however, Dickens was sick with a cold. He rescheduled for the following season. By then the moment had passed. In the interim he was hired as a reporter for his uncle’s newspaper, The Mirror of Parliament. So Dickens went on to become the most celebrated writer of his age, instead of the most celebrated actor. And yet, he was never fully rid of his early ambition.

Beginning with his first novel, that magnificent, hilarious, deeply humane portrait of English life, The Pickwick Papers, almost all of Dickens’s novels were adapted for the stage. Often they were produced immediately upon publication, sometimes before the serialized chapters had finished running in the magazines that published them, and as often as not without the author’s permission. Within weeks of the publication of A Christmas Carol eight different adaptations were on stage in London. Dickens at least had authorized one of them.

These stage productions were invariably successful at the box office, so hungry was the public for the author’s work. The theater of his day must have been a perfect mirror for Dickens’s stories. He had drawn so much of his style of writing—the larger-than-life characters, the layering of dark melodrama and light comedy (what he called “streaky bacon”), the phantasmagoric set-pieces—from the theater. Simon Callow, in his superb biography, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, writes that, “Every episode of Pickwick introduced new editions of old stage characters; the spirit of Charles Mathews was everywhere in its pages.”

At the beginning of his career as a novelist Dickens also wrote for the stage. While he was writing The Pickwick Papers he composed the libretto for The Village Coquettes, an operetta by John Hullah, that was staged in 1836. The following year, while he was writing Oliver Twist, he wrote a farce for the St James Theatre called Is She His Wife? Callow believes that Dickens was too stage-struck, too reverent of the theater to make it his own: the plays “suffered from his abject adoration of the theatre of his day, which he dutifully reproduced. It would be hard to find a sentence in any essay, novel, story or letter of Dickens’s that does not have some authentic flavour, but you will search the plays in vain for a single Dickensian turn of phrase.”

By 1838 Dickens had largely sublimated his theatrical imagination into his novels. That year he was writing Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby simultaneously, releasing monthly installments of each. For the next twenty years he kept to this pace, publishing as many as three books per year. But he continued to seek out any small opportunities he could find to be involved with the theater.

In 1845 Dickens and a group of literary and artistic friends staged a production of Ben Johnson’s play, Every Man in his Humour, for charity. Dickens took on the role of the great blustering braggart, Captain Bobadil. Performances were held in Soho and West End theaters. At one performance Queen Victoria was in attendance. Dickens went on to play Sir Epicure Mammon in Johnson’s The Alchemist and Justice Shallow in William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor for similar charity productions. In 1856 he collaborated with Wilkie Collins on an amateur production of Collins’s new play, The Frozen Deep. The word amateur is used only in the strict sense that no money was recouped. The play was staged at Tavistock House, Dickens’s home in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London. In order to accommodate a thirty-foot stage and seating for around a hundred people, Dickens spared no expense to renovate the house. Sets were created by Clarkson Stansfield, who, Callow writes, “as well as being the most distinguished marine painter of his time and an RA, had earlier been the chief scene-painter at Drury Lane. Costumes came from Nathan’s, the premier theatrical costumiers, new gas-lines (to the disapproval of the fire office-surveyor) were laid down, machinery and props were loaned from the Theatre Royal Haymarket.”

The impetus behind Wilkie Collins’s script for The Frozen Deep was a controversy that had recently arisen over the doomed Franklin Expedition of the previous decade. Captain Sir John Franklin and a team of 128 men had set out in 1845 to chart the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Sea. Their ships became icebound in the Victoria Straight and all men were lost. In the early 1850s the first discoveries of their fate were made by search parties. A report to the Admiralty that was made public in 1854 suggested that the stranded party had resorted to cannibalism. Lady Franklin protested vigorously against this calumny on her husband’s memory. Like many members of the public, Dickens was incensed at the report, and devoted many words to defending Captain Franklin and his crew. The Frozen Deep portrayed the noble character of British men in a similar situation. Dickens would play the tragic hero, an explorer stranded in the arctic, who sacrifices himself to save another man, his rival for the love of a woman no less.

The first performances were played to audiences of friends, including members of Parliament and government ministers, in January of 1857. This was followed in July by a command performance for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, their family, and guests, including King Leopold of Belgium and Prince Frederick William of Prussia. In July and August six public performances were staged, at the Royal Gallery of Illustration in London, and Free Trade Hall in Manchester, for paying audiences, to benefit the widow of Dickens’s friend, playwright Douglas Jerrold.

By all contemporary accounts Dickens’s performance was excellent. A reviewer for The Leader wrote that what he accomplished “might open a new era for the stage, if the stage had the wisdom to profit by it.” There was not a dry eye in the house by the end. “[I]t was a good thing,” Dickens wrote, “to have a couple of thousand people…in the palm of one’s hand.” Twenty-five years after missing an audition at the Covent Garden Theatre, Dickens had finally tread the boards, and proven himself as an actor. When the engagements were over, he felt “shipwrecked.”

Shortly afterward Dickens gave a series of public readings from his own work, to benefit Great Ormond Street Hospital, which proved very successful. He began to see in the medium of staged readings a natural outlet for his theatrical ambitions. He planned what would be an ongoing and lucrative speaking tour. For ten months between April of 1858 and February of 1859, he held 129 readings across the United Kingdom.

“Readings” is not really a sufficient word for what Dickens did at these appearances. He transformed himself into his characters—into David Copperfield, into Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, Fagin from Oliver Twist, and countless others. Charles Kent, who was in the audience, wrote:

Fagin, the Jew, was there completely, audibly, visibly before us, by a sort of transformation…Whenever [Dickens] spoke [as the character], there started before us high-shouldered with contracted chest, with birdlike claws, eagerly anticipating by their every movement the passionate words fiercely struggling for utterance at his lips—that most villainous old tutor of young thieves, receiver of stolen goods, and very devil incarnate: his features distorted with rage, his penthouse eyebrows (those wonderful eyebrows!) working like the antennae of some deadly reptile, his whole aspect, half-vulpine, half-vulture-like, in its hungry wickedness.

Standing alone on the stage, behind an unobtrusive desk that he had designed himself, Dickens shifted mercurially between characters as he conjured stories for the audience. Simon Callow quotes Thomas Carlyle telling Dickens, “you carry a whole company under your hat.” The effect could be frightening or funny or both. A reviewer for The Times called it a “return to the practice of Bardic times.” A more immediate association might have been to the theater of Charles Mathews—these were monopolylogues.

Charles Dickens’s reading desk

Throughout the last decade of his life, despite increasingly poor health, Dickens continued to mount major speaking tours. He visited America in 1868, giving 76 readings in New York, Boston, and other cities, then returned to launch a final tour in Britain. In the 1860s, he added a sensational and horrifying segment to his stage repertoire: the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. Charles Kent left a record of the performance:

As for the Author’s embodiment of Sikes—the burly ruffian with thews of iron and voice of Stentor—it was only necessary to hear that infuriated voice, and watch the appalling blows dealt by his imaginary bludgeon in the perpetration of the crime, to realise the force, the power, the passion, informing the creative mind of the Novelist at once in the original conception of the character, and then, so many years afterwards, in its equally astonishing representation.

It was in the portrayal of Nancy, however, that the genius of the Author-Actor found the opportunity, beyond all others, for its most signal manifestation. Only that the catastrophe was in itself, by necessity so utterly revolting, there would have been something exquisitely pathetic in many parts of that affecting delineation. The character was revealed with perfect consistency throughout—from the scene of suppressed emotion upon the steps of London Bridge, when she is scared with the eltrich horror of her forebodings, down to her last gasping, shrieking apostrophes, to “Bill, dear Bill,” when she sinks, blinded by blood, under the murderous blows dealt upon her upturned face by her brutal paramour.

Then, again, the horror experienced by the assassin afterwards! So far as it went, it was as grand a reprehension of all murderers as hand could well have penned or tongue have uttered. It had about it something of the articulation of an avenging voice not against Sikes only, but against all who ever outraged, or ever dreamt of outraging, the sanctity of human life. And it was precisely this which tended to sublimate an incident otherwise of the ghastliest horror into a homily of burning eloquence, the recollection of which among those who once saw it revealed through the lips, the eyes, the whole aspect of Charles Dickens will not easily be obliterated.

These nightly displays took an immense toll on the author. He was already suffering health problems. By the time of the farewell tour he had to lie down for half an hour after every performance to bring his pulse back to normal. There was swelling in his extremities. He slurred words and had difficulty reading. Nevertheless he pressed on and by some miracle or force of will his stage presence did not seem to suffer at all.

Dickens gave his final reading on March 15, 1870, at St James’s Hall in London. He performed A Christmas Carol and the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers. When it was over he addressed a few closing remarks to the audience. His speech ostensibly marked the end of his performing career and the resumption of his writing. But as Callow notes, “it was a sort of swansong, and everyone knew it.” Dickens said:

Ladies and gentlemen—It would be worse than idle—for it would be hypocritical and unfeeling—if I were to disguise that I close this episode in my life with feelings of very considerable pain. For some fifteen years, in this hall and in many kindred places, I have had the honour of presenting my own cherished ideas before you for your recognition, and, in closely observing your reception of them, have enjoyed an amount of artistic delight and instruction which, perhaps, is given to few men to know. In this task, and in every other I have ever undertaken, as a faithful servant of the public, always imbued with a sense of duty to them, and always striving to do his best, I have been uniformly cheered by the readiest response, the most generous sympathy, and the most stimulating support. Nevertheless, I have thought it well, at the full flood-tide of your favour, to retire upon those older associations between us, which date from much further back than these, and henceforth to devote myself exclusively to the art that first brought us together. Ladies and gentlemen, in but two short weeks from this time I hope that you may enter, in your own homes, on a new series of readings, at which my assistance will be indispensable; but from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.

Dickens died of a stroke at his home in Kent less than three months later, leaving his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.

The reading desk and other items are on display at the Morgan Library in New York where Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas runs through January 14, 2018.


Callow, Simon. (2012) Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. London: Harper Press.

Dickens, Charles; ed. Hartley, Jenny. (2012) The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kent, Charles. (1872) Charles Dickens as a Reader. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.