Pre-Raphaelite Illustration: A Selection from the NGC Library and Archives


William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott. Alfred Tennyson, Poems. London: Macmillan and Company, 1893. Engraved by J. Thompson

The current exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada Library offers a rare glimpse of Pre-Raphaelite book and magazine illustrations published during the second half of the 19th century. The display complements the exhibition Beauty’s Awakening: Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and their Contemporaries from the Lanigan Collection, which is on view at the National Gallery until January 3, 2015.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in London in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dissatisfied with contemporary academic painting, the artists sought to create art based on John Ruskin’s principle of “truth to nature.” For inspiration, the group looked to early Italian Renaissance art before Raphael and were also influenced by Albrecht Dürer, Jan van Eyck and members of the German Nazarene movement, including Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Several others joined the group in the 1850s, most notably Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes and Frederick Sandys.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Maids of Elfin-mere. William Allingham, The Music Master: A Love Story and Two Series of Day and Night Songs. London: George Routledge, 1855. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel

The exhibition opens with a work widely acknowledged as the first true Pre-Raphaelite illustration: Rossetti’s The Maids of Elfin-mere, which was published in 1855 alongside William Allingham’s collection of poems, The Music Master, A Love Story, and Two Series of Day and Night Songs. This illustration had an immediate impact on British art, setting the stage for the most important book featuring early Pre-Raphaelite illustrations, an edition of poems by Alfred Tennyson published by Edward Moxon in 1857. Known as the Moxon Tennyson, the volume contained 54 illustrations, 30 of which were drawn by Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais. The exhibition features two of these: Rossetti’s Palace of Art (St. Cecilia) and Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott. Both reflect the Brotherhood’s interest in exploring psychological aspects of a text.

Wood engraving was used to produce the illustrations. Popular in Britain at the time, it allowed text and image to be printed together, making it less expensive than other printing methods. The lower cost also meant illustrated publications could, for the first time, be made widely available to the general public.

Ford Madox Brown, The Prisoner of Chillon. Robert Aris Willmott, ed., The Poets of the Nineteenth Century. London: George Routledge and Company, 1857. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel

The Brothers Dalziel were among the most successful engravers of the time, frequently soliciting material from artists on behalf of major publishers. This was the case with two books included in the exhibition: The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, which contained 20 illustrations by Millais, the most acclaimed and prolific Pre-Raphaelite illustrator, and The Poets of the Nineteenth Century, which featured 100 wood engravings by artists such as Millais, Madox Brown and Hughes. The Poets includes Madox Brown’s illustration of Lord Byron’s poem “The Prisoner of Chillon,” for which he spent two days studying a cadaver at University College Hospital in London in preparation for his drawing of the dead body in the foreground.

The exhibition also showcases several works that appeared in immensely popular magazines such as The Cornhill Magazine, Good Words and Once a Week. The skill and versatility of Sandys, arguably the most talented Pre-Raphaelite illustrator, is evident in three illustrations, including Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards, published in Once a Week in 1861.

Frederick Sandys, Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards. Once a Week, 30 November 1861. Engraved by Joseph Swain. Gift of the Denis T. Lanigan Collection, 2010

Also highlighted are two of the earliest drawings by Burne-Jones, both of which appeared in Good Words. Via the Brothers Dalziel, the magazine commissioned two illustrations on the recommendation of Holman Hunt, who referred to Burne-Jones as “perhaps the most remarkable of all the younger men of the profession for talent.”

Among the best work of the prolific Hughes are numerous drawings for children’s stories, including three shown in the exhibition that were done for George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, a fairy tale published in serialized form in Good Words for the Young.

The two decades following the publication of the Moxon Tennyson were the most productive period for Pre-Raphaelite illustration. By the late 1870s, new reproduction methods began to replace the wood-engraving process, and the number and quality of illustrations began to decline sharply. This tendency was interrupted by a revival of the book arts in the 1890s led by William Morris, who started the Kelmscott Press in 1891.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Hammersmith: The Kelmscott Press, 1896. Engraved by W.H. Hooper. Gift of Douglas E. Schoenherr, Ottawa, 2004, in honour of Jean Sutherland Boggs

Kelmscott Press’ crowning achievement – and the most ambitious collaboration between Morris and Burne-Jones – was The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer in 1896. Morris designed the typeface, the initial letters and decorative borders for the volume, while Burne-Jones contributed 87 wood-engraved illustrations. This outstanding volume was donated to the National Gallery of Canada Library in 2004. While Burne-Jones referred to the book as “something like a cathedral to stroll through and linger, a kind of pocket Chartres,” for those interested in illustrations, this entire exhibition could be summed up with his words.

Pre-Raphaelite Illustration: A Selection from the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives is on view at the Library of the National Gallery of Canada until March 24, 2016. The National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives wishes to thank Dr. Dennis T. Lanigan and Douglas E. Schoenherr for generously donating several of the books and magazines included in the exhibition. 

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