Pre-Raphaelites' Love affair with the Isle of Wight
If you have enjoyed the BBC2 drama series ‘Desperate Romantics’ which follows the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood – the men who blew the art world apart in the mid 19th Century – then why not come to the Isle of Wight where you can visit some of the places they visited and fell in love with?
The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of radical English painters, poets and critics founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everitt Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The three founders were soon joined by William Michael Rosetti, James Collinson, Frederick George Stephens and Thomas Woolner to form a seven member “brotherhood”.
The group’s intention was to reform art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. They believed that the classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular has been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art. Hence the name ‘Pre-Raphaelite’.
Many great artists were drawn to the Island at this time following in the footsteps of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson whose Arthurian legends so inspired the Pre-Raphaelite movement as in The Lady of Shalott (William Holman Hunt) and Queen Guinevere (William Morris).
At his home, Farringford House, overlooking Freshwater Bay, Tennyson played host to John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and George Frederick Watts, who eventually bought a home just half a mile from Tennyson. Dante could not resist the opportunity of drawing the esteemed poet, while the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor and poet, Thomas Woolner, made a medallion sculpture of Tennyson while staying with him at Farringford.
Another esteemed Island resident at that time, Queen Victoria, commissioned Noel Paton, a lifelong friend and follower of Millais, to produce pictures for the prayer room at Osborne House in East Cowes – now on show at Sandringham, the Norfolk retreat of HM The Queen.
Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, Queen Victoria’s daughter and a talented artist was a student of Richard Burchett, a British artist and educator on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. His View across Sandown Bay, Isle of Wight (1855) at the Victoria & Albert Museum is seen by modern historians as his best work.
Another Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Brett (1831-1902) also visited the Island where he painted landscapes.
Today’s visitors can see some of the works and influences of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood at churches and other buildings across the Island:
- The stained glass windows at St Olave’s Church, Gatcombe, near Newport, are the work of William Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite Group dating from 1865 and 1866.
- ‘The Beloved’ (1898) a painting of Christ by William Holman Hunt is on public display at Osborne House, East Cowes. After seeing his work, Queen Victoria commissioned the painting for the Royal Collection. Using vivid colours, Hunt depicts Christ staring skyward holding a scroll. Inscribed on the frame is a biblical text: “Lo, I come, in the volume of the Book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will O God.”.
- Pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, a friend and close neighbour of Tennyson, made figure studies of Pre-Raphaelite types – girls in flowing dresses with long hair, looking melancholy. She also photographed Ellen Terry, the English stage actress and wife of Watts, which can be viewed at Dimbola Lodge photographic museum at Freshwater Bay.
- George Frederick Watts had a home on the Island, just outside Freshwater where he lived and worked for a number of years with his pupil the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Val Princep, whose family Watts had been close friends with in London. There is a stained glass window in St Mary’s Church, Freshwater, depicting Sir Galahad based on a painting by Watts of his then wife, the actress Ellen Terry.
- Walk part of the 15-mile Tennyson Trail which stretches from Carisbrooke Castle to the Needles and Alum Bay (www.islandbreaks.co.uk/site/sports-and-outdoor-activities/walking/walkingroutes) experiencing the same panoramic and inspiring views as the poet and his Pre-Raphaelite guests. Take tea afterwards at Farringford, now a hotel (www.farringford.co.uk).
It’s simple to get to the Isle of Wight, there are up to 350 ferry crossings a day from Portsmouth, Southampton, Lymington and Southsea. Once you’re there it’s easy to get around, ferry routes connect directly with the Island’s road, rail and coach links.
From an Isle of Wight Tourism Press Release - August 2009