The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – were they really desperate?

In the same way that I adored watching Rome and am enjoying The Tudors, I also loved Desperate Romantics which recently finished screening on the BBC. All of them are generally utter tosh historically, but great entertainment to watch – and of course everyone looks marvellous; (Rome also wins prizes for being the most creatively potty-mouthed programme on TV!).

So how accurately were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) portrayed on screen?

Luckily I have a few books on hand on the subject. I’ve long been a fan of many of the later pictures of Rossetti, Byrne-Jones et al, but apart from Millais’ Ophelia I didn’t know much about the earlier PRB works, so with my Tate catalogue of PRB works by my side, I read Lizzie Siddal: The tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley and the relevant chapters of John Ruskin from the OUP’s Very Interesting People series.

Art historian Hawksley, (who is a direct descendant of Charles Dickens), tells of the central romance between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal. It was an American artist, Walter Deverell, that discovered the ‘stunner’ when he accompanied his mother to the hatshop where Lizzie worked. With his mother’s help, he secured her services as a model for his own pictures before Holman Hunt and Millais were to immortalise her in theirs.

 On meeting her later, Dante was immediately obsessed by Lizzie and she with him; it was a claustrophobic relationship – he was commitment-phobic and both were insanely jealous and attention-seeking. Lizzie was depressive, anorexic and was frequently ill – particularly when Rossetti wasn’t paying attention to her – she always got better when he ran to her bedside, but did become a laudanum addict early on.

They did finally marry, but laudanum was to be her final downfall after post-natal depression after the stillbirth of their child. She comes across as manipulative and demanding, but remember she was desperate to be married to the love of her life – as ruin for her and her family would be the result if their unmarried relationship became fully public. Rossetti, while undoubtedly talented, was totally self-interested and never worked at his best when Lizzie was around.

When she died, he did bury the only copy of a book of poems he’d written for her with the casket, and amazingly it was later dug up! – I thought this was just for the telly, but it happened, although he did get an official exhumation order for it – selfish as ever.

The other really ineresting character in the TV series was the art critic John Ruskin – a rich and hugely influential person in the Victorian art world. It is doubtful whether Rossetti would have got anywhere without his patronage, and the PRB without him having supported John Everett Millais first. Ruskin recognised that the PRB were trying to do something different in their back to nature ideals. However it was the scandal over Ruskin’s unconsummated marriage and subsequent annulment that Desperate Romantics concentrated on – and that was all true!

Hawksley’s biography concentrates on the events of Lizzie’s life and made for an entertaining read with a good selection of illustrations. First published in 2004, highlights include some of Dante and Lizzie’s poetry which is touching and sad. In contrast, the VIP book on Ruskin, although short, is very dry and factual, and completely without illustration. The TV series itself is based on a recently published book by Franny Moyle called Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites which I think I may have to read too!

I can’t comment on the veracity or otherwise of the TV portrayals of Millais, Holman-Hunt and other characters, but I did wonder a bit why they combined the other PRB members Frederic Stephens – the former artist turned journalist and writer, the aforementioned Deverell and Rossetti’s brother William into Fred Walters in the series – cost savings and streamlining of the main story one presumes. Actor Aidan Turner was a great young Rossetti look-alike. His self-portrait (above) shows him aged 19 in 1847, but shortly after Lizzie’s death in 1862, he’d become balding, bearded and slightly stout!

0 thoughts on “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – were they really desperate?

  1. Juxtabook says:

    It is amazing how much is true in Desperate Romantics! often the things you think they were most likely to have made up. I think the majr alterations aprt from combining several real people into fictional Fred (as you mention) is time scale and character. Each seems a characature of their worst trait. Poor William Morris didn't come out well!

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