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Michaela Giebelhausen & Tim Barringer eds., Writing the Pre-Raphaelites: Text, Context, Subtext

Béatrice Laurent
p. 39-241
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Michaela Giebelhausen & Tim Barringer, eds., Writing the Pre-Raphaelites: Text, Context, Subtext, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. 262 p. ISBN 978-0-7546-5717-0

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1The editors of this volume, both highly respected scholars in the field of Pre-Raphaelite studies have accomplished the feat of producing an exciting new book on Pre-Raphaelitism, an artistic movement that has already been abundantly written about, discussed in seminars and the theme of many exhibitions.

2Giebelhausen and Barringer’s approach is an interdisciplinary one which claims that the visual perception the public had—and still have—when looking at Pre-Raphaelite art is oriented, biased and predetermined by a vast corpus of literary material, ranging from letters and diaries to reports and art catalogues written by the members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement themselves or by successive generations of critics and biographers. The essays they have collected therefore tend to inscribe the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a forerunner of twentieth-century avant-gardes through their common use of the written word to configure for itself a radical artistic identity.

3In a way, this collection of essays comes to terms with the difficulty of defining and delimiting Pre-Raphaelitism by suggesting that it was a large-scale cultural phenomenon derived from the interplay of images and critical discourse, rather than a school in the accepted meaning of the word. This is not completely new, but is convincingly argued with the “new art historicist” questioning of the primary sources, including diaries, letters, articles and autobiographies by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais as well as their circle and followers. The logical conclusion is that cultural identities are a mental, and most of the time a posteriori construct, involving not only the artworks but the wider literary context in which they are embedded.

4In their most noteworthy introduction, the editors show how Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the countless processes of making and remaking of works of art through critical discourse is particularly effective in the case of Pre-Raphaelitism and resulted in what they aptly term “Pre-Raphaelite mythologies”. Indeed, they trace the shifts in scholarly practice over the past 40 years, from Fredeman’s Pre-Raphaelitism: A Bibliocritical Study (1965) to the present, from “empirical scholarship, which kept close to written source material, treating it as irrefutable evidence”, to more contemporary critical studies, especially feminist and semiotic approaches which sometimes borrow their theoretical models from psychoanalysis and literary theory and offer new lines of interpretation. Giebelhausen and Barringer therefore demonstrate that cultural supports, be they verbal or visual, serve as screens for the projection of concerns which were not contemporary with their creators but rather with their commentators. This is exemplified by the successive grids of interpretation applied to the large body of Pre-Rapahaelite art which resulted in various and sometimes contradictory “readings” which stress the Orientalist bend of William Holman Hunt, or his complex system of symbolic realism, or try to analyze his works in the light of socio-political theories of race, class and gender. The distinguished international contributors of this collection of essays, including first-class Pre-Raphaelite experts Tim Barringer, Deborah Cherry, Julie F. Codell, Michaela Giebelhausen and Malcolm Warner, are at their best when they question the reliability of historical archive by paying critical attention to its “formation, inherent logic and diverse intentionalities”. This effort is richly rewarded for the often-quoted primary sources have suffered from extensive manipulations from well-meaning hagiographers. It is therefore the scholars’ responsibility to scrutinize all discourses, primary as well as secondary, and to fill the gap of what is left unwritten between the lines by a careful reconstruction based on an aggregate of historical data, so that the full impact and intent of the text can be appreciated.

5The essays, by leading scholars and art historians, are arranged in four parts: historiographies, artistic identities, languages of criticism and spreading the word. The first part examines the shifting meanings of the term Pre-Raphaelite according to specific contexts and to the requirements of the art market. The longer and most useful second section stresses the internal dispute for the leadership of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which was waged by means of printed words, and which contributed to the complexities and perplexities the public had to face to circumscribe the meaning as well as the makers of Pre-Raphaelitism. The third part offers interesting explorations of the linguistic mechanisms involved when discussing subversive art. The fourth and final section pays attention to the staging and displaying strategies deployed by the artists in exploring other supports than the walls of the Royal Academy for the dissemination of their work. The last two papers by Matthew Plampin and Malcolm Warner are important contributions to a reassessment of the Pre-Raphaelites as artists concerned with their reputations and the market value of their productions.

6While a more exhaustive and up-to-date bibliography would have been an extra bonus to the readers, this volume is, in Barrie Bullen’s words, to which we wholly subscribe “a highly sophisticated, inventive, scholarly, and desirable collection of essays”, one which should find its way to the shelves of many academic libraries.

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Béatrice Laurent, « Michaela Giebelhausen & Tim Barringer eds., Writing the Pre-Raphaelites: Text, Context, Subtext », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 74 Automne | 2011, 39-241.

Référence électronique

Béatrice Laurent, « Michaela Giebelhausen & Tim Barringer eds., Writing the Pre-Raphaelites: Text, Context, Subtext », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 28 novembre 2014, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL :

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Béatrice Laurent

Université des Antilles.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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