William Morris

Address on the Collection of Paintings of the English Pre-Raphaelite School

Mr Kenrick has said that I am going to address you on the subject of Art, but it is clear that that subject is a very wide one and that I must limit myself very considerably. Not only so, even if I were to speak about all the pictures exhibited here, the subject would be again such a very wide one, that there would be no end of it. So I must limit myself still further. Therefore I propose to speak to you almost entirely, according to the light I have, of that school of painters once called the pre-Raphaelites, and who perhaps should still be called pre-Raphaelites. There is all the more reason for my doing so because, as a matter of fact, their doctrines have been successful; they have impressed themselves upon the present generation, at any rate of the English people, and, I think to a certain extent, have influenced also the artists of France. In fact, they have exercised a very great influence on the works of art that are now current. I mean, even apart from the magnificent works that have been produced by the leaders of that School, the School itself has made its mark upon the age.

Let us consider what these pre-Raphaelites were. They were certainly a very small body of men. The three original leaders, the chief members of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as you probably know, were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Everett Millais, and Holman Hunt; but there were others who belonged to the School, though they were not actually enrolled in the Brotherhood. The most noteworthy of these painters, in the early days of the School, were Ford Madox Brown and Arthur Hughes. Later on your fellow-townsman, Burne-Jones, became a friend and fellow-worker of the above named men. There were several others, but those named were not only the greatest, but also the most characteristic.

However, these few young men, wholly unknown till they forced the public to recognize them, began what must be called a really audacious attempt; a definite revolt against the Academical Art which brooded over all the Schools of civilized Europe at the time. In point of fact I think, in considering the revolt of the pre-Raphaelites, one must look upon it as a portion of the general revolt against Academicism in Literature as well as in Art. In Literature the revolt had taken place much earlier. There were many reasons for that; but the principal one seems to me to be that the Art of Painting, being so much more technical than Literature, depends much more upon tradition than Literature does, and that tradition, however much it may have lost its original position, however poor a tradition may be, and however deficient in positive, in creative power, nevertheless retains the negative and conservative power, and keeps people from changing the general tendency of the Art; whereas the sister Art of Literature depends less on traditions, and is more individual than that of Painting, though less than many think, and consequently the necessity for a revolt is sooner felt, and the effect of it is more easily and plainly to be seen.

Before I go further I may as well give something like an approximate date. If I am wrong I see at least one friend in this room who can correct me. It seems to me that somewhere about the year 1848 will cover the date for the first general appearance of the pre-Raphaelites before the public.

Well, let us consider, first of all, what their first and underlying doctrine was. What was the special and particular standpoint they took up? Because in all revolts there is one special and particular principle which, so to speak, swallows up all others, which is so engrossing that those who are carrying on the revolt can scarcely see any other side to what they are doing than that which embodies this particular doctrine. Well, I think that the special and particular doctrine of the pre-Raphaelites is not very far to seek. It is, in one word, Naturalism.

That is to say the pre-Raphaelites started by saying, `You have Nature before you, what you have to do is to copy Nature and you will produce something which at all events is worth people's attention.' Now that at first sight seems a self-evident proposition. But you must not forget what I said just now as to that worn-out tradition which was dominating the whole of the artistic schools of Europe at the time. I remember distinctly myself, as a boy, that when I had pictures offered to my notice I could not understand what they were about at all. I said, `Oh, well, that is all right. It has got the sort of thing in it which there ought to be in a picture. There is nothing to be said against it, no doubt. I cannot say I would have it other than that, because it is clearly the proper thing to do.' But really I took very little interest in it, and I should think that would be the case with nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand of those people who had not received definite technical instruction in the art, who were not formally artists. I should have said, but just now my friend Mr Wallis rather corrected me on that point, that even up to the present day the greater part of what I should call the laymen in these matters of the Arts do not feel any very great exultation when they see an Old Master. If they are suddenly introduced to an Old Master I venture to think they are more or less disappointed with the impression that it makes upon them.

Well, what the pre-Raphaelites really practically said was this, `We are going to break with this poor and worn-out tradition which has tyrannized over us so long. We are going in point of fact to present you with something that is natural.' And I must say that they certainly did do so. They did paint fully intending to be, and fully succeeding in being naturalistic, and I should have thought most people would have thought that the public would have received this attempt with acclamation, with joy, that they would have said: `Here at last is something we can understand. Here are visible sheep; here are such and such things as we have seen them, as we see them every day, exceedingly like the things in question. There may be short-comings here and there, very probably, but after all we understand what it means. This is addressed to us, the public, and not merely to artists prejudiced in favour of certain traditions.'

But strange to say, the public did exactly the reverse of receiving these paintings with acclamation. What they really said was `These things are monsters. They are not like nature.' They did not mean that; they meant to say `They are not like pictures.' They certainly were not, as pictures then were, but they assuredly were like nature; you could not possibly get out of that. However as I tell you, the public received these attempts as revolutionary attempts of young men always are received, with jeers, because they also were under the influence of the academical tradition.

But there was one man, at all events, who although he had been brought up in a very different school from that of the pre-Raphaelites, in what I should call the old-fashioned Drawing Master School (I do not mean to use the word with any sort of contempt but merely as an explanatory word) - who although he was brought up in that school, and although his master was Mr J. D. Harding - a name you know very well - really looked at these pre-Raphaelite paintings with open eyes. That man I need scarcely tell you was John Ruskin. He immediately came forward as the champion of those young men before the public. And no doubt they needed such a champion very badly.

However, they made way and they finally won, in the first place great personal reputation, thoroughly well deserved, and they also achieved success as a School; as far as their root doctrine, Naturalism, is concerned they destroyed the old feeble Academical tradition.

But now one has got to say a little more about what one means by the word Naturalism. I can conceive, I fancy most of you can conceive, a certain kind of Naturalism which would not be very interesting. There is a good deal of talk about such Naturalism as that nowadays. It means but very little more than bare statements of fact by means of the Art of painting, and it seems to me that pictures painted with that end in view, unless - as not very seldom happens by the bye - in spite of the theory they have other things to help them, will be scarcely works of Art. They will be rather something on the border-line between works of Art and scientific statements. Now the pre-Raphaelite pictures were not in the least like that, because besides the mere presentment of natural facts, they aimed at another kind of thing which was far more important. The painters aimed, some of them no doubt much more than others, at the conscientious presentment of incident. In other words they certainly had entirely come to the conclusion that not only was it necessary that they should paint well, but that this painting, this good painting, the excellent execution, the keen eyesight, the care, the skill, and so on, should be the instrument for telling some kind of story to the beholder. That you sees completes the Naturalism. Granted that you have something to say, and that you say it well by means of the Art of Painting, you are then, and then only, a Naturalist Painter.

No doubt in the early days of pre-Raphaelitism, in talk at all events, it was rather the fashion to decry the use of any sort of convention in dealing with the works of painting which were produced in the reaction against the aforesaid tyranny of a weak, poor and unworthy convention. But as a matter of fact every work of Art whether it is imitative or whether it is suggestive, must be founded on some convention or other. It seems to me that the real point of the thing - and that I think the pre-Raphaelites understood instinctively - is that that convention shall not be so to say, a conventional convention. It must be a convention that you have found out for yourself in some way or another, whether that has been deduced from history, or whether you yourself have been able to hit upon it by the light of nature. In any case, this you must understand, that it is absolutely impossible to give a really literal transcript of nature. You must have some convention. You know in the old story about Parrhasios and Zeuxis, Parrhasios says, `Zeuxis deceived the birds but I deceived Zeuxis.' This story, though instructive in some respects, makes a mistake. Zeuxis would never have deceived the birds: Zeuxis himself was very much easier to deceive than the birds, because Zeuxis was a man, and had an imagination, which was all his life telling him some kind of a story, which story was connected with the actual sights that passed before his eyes. Well the Naturalism of the pre-Raphaelites which did not stop at the simple presentment of scientific fact but when further and conscientiously considered the due and proper incidents that were necessary in order to make a work of Art, was founded on a genuinely natural convention.

I have so far spoken of two sides of the qualities that go to make a great work of plastic Art: presentation of nature and the telling of a story. There is also however a third side necessary in a work of Art: and that third side was both less considered by the public, and was much more difficult to put before it: that side was the ornamental function of the Art. No picture it seems to me is complete unless it is something more than a representation of nature and the teller of a tale. It ought also to have a definite, harmonious, conscious beauty. It ought to be ornamental. It ought to be possible for it to be part of a beautiful whole in a room or church or hall. Now of the original pre-Raphaelites, Rossetti was the man who mostly felt that side of the Art of painting: all his pictures have a decorative quality as an essential, and not as a mere accident of them, and not unnaturally, because of all his fellows he had most sense of the historical connection of the Arts. His mind was formed on that looking into history which is such a marked feature of the general revolt against Academicism: and whoever looks into history will find living Art there always decorative.

But this decorative side of the school needed another man to complete its development, and did not fail to get him - your townsman, Burne-Jones - of whom, indeed, I feel some difficulty in speaking as the truth demands, because he is such a close friend of mine. But I must say that he added the element of perfect ornamentation, the completely decorative side of the Art. In fact, when the pre-Raphaelite School was completed by this representative man, it then became apparent that what pre-Raphaelitism was, was sufficiently indicated by its name. That is to say, it was the continuation of the art that had been current throughout Europe before Raphael marked the completion of the period when art became academical, i.e., inorganic; the so-called renaissance.

It has become clear that the `new' school which was received at one time with such volleys of scorn and has since made its way so vigorously, was really nothing more or less than a branch of the great Gothic Art which once pervaded all Europe. I will repeat that the characteristics of that Gothic Art were in the main three. The first was Love of Nature - not, mind you, of the mere dead surface of it - but Love of Nature as the only instrument for telling a tale of some sort or another. Love of nature is the first element in the Gothic Art; next is the epical quality, and joined to those two things is what people very often think perhaps is the only quality it has got, and that is its ornamental quality. These qualities you may say it shares with the ancient organic Schools of Art, the Greek above all; (though it seems to me that it outgoes them in its epical and ornamental developments), but at least one quality distinguishes it from them, the romantic quality, as I must call it for lack of a better word; and this quality is eminently characteristic of both Rossetti and Burne-Jones, but especially of the latter. It is an element of the epical quality (as notably in Homer), though it is not the whole of it; and is necessary to the utmost refinement, abundance and enduring interest of decoration; though I admit that it is rather to be felt than defined.

And I must say, that you will find throughout the whole of the history of the Arts, that when artists are thinking in the main of conscientiously telling a story their works are really much more beautiful, much more fitted for the ornamenting of public buildings than when they are only thinking of producing works of mere ornament. How this comes about it would take long to say, but so it is. Perhaps it may seem at first something like a paradox to you. I am afraid however I must add another paradox to it, and say, that when people talk most about Works of Art, generally speaking at that period they do least in art. Well we must take that home to ourselves for after all we are in that position. We must acknowledge that in these times of the world we have got a great deal of backway to make up. We are forced to talk about Art, clearly not because it is in a satisfactory condition, but because it is in a very unsatisfactory condition: or else why should we have to say anything about it?

A word or two summing up the characteristics of the individual members of the pre-Raphaelite School. I should say that as a representative of its pure naturalism, not thinking so much about tale-telling as about the presentment of natural form, Millais was the leader, and that the three, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown were all of them equally concerned with the contentious presentation of incident. You will find in looking at their pictures that they always want to knock in the nail hard on this point: that there is always something going on, there is something being done in the picture. They say, `Here is an event'; and at their best they are successful in doing what every genuine artist tries to do - in really convincing the beholder that the events they represent could have happened in no other way that the way in which they represent them. That is the end and aim of what, for want of a better word, I will call dramatic Art: perhaps epical Art would be a better word. And Rossetti and Burne-Jones are those members of the school whose conscientious presentation of events deals with romantic subjects in a romantic way, and consequently includes decoration as an essential.

Now I must must say one word about the fact that both Rossetti and Burne-Jones have had very little to do with representing the scenes of ordinary modern life as they go on before your eyes. One has often heard that brought against the `Romantic' artists, as a short-coming. Now, quite plainly, I must say that I think it is a short-coming. But is the short-coming due to the individual artist, or is it due to the public at large? for my part I think the latter. When an artist has really a very keen sense of beauty, I venture to think that he can not literally represent an event that takes place in modern life. He must add something or another to qualify or soften the ugliness and sordidness of the surroundings of life in our generation. That is not only the case with pictures, if you please: it is the case also in literature. Two examples occur to my mind at this moment. Let us take the novels of such a man as Hardy, or the others who write more or less in the same way. They are supposed to represent scenes of modern life in their novels. But do they? I say they do not; because they take care to surround those modern scenes with an atmosphere of out-of-the-way country life, which we ourselves never by any chance see. If you go down into the country you won't see Mr Hardy's heroes and heroines walking about, I assure you. You will see a very different kind of thing from that when you meet the ordinary British farmer or the ordinary British agricultural labourer walking about, and more especially - excuse me - more especially when you see their wives and daughters walking about. I am very sorry, but so it is. Well, I say the difficulty is even greater, perhaps, for the painter. In painting, you cannot get so far away from the facts as you can in literature. Nevertheless I think those of you who have seen Walker's pictures (and if you have seen them you must have admired them, for they are exceedingly beautiful and exceedingly skilful) will have perceived that his countrymen: his haymakers, his carters and all the rest of them: are really not modern English carters and haymakers: they are carters and haymakers that have stepped down from the frieze of the Parthenon. The agricultural Briton is not built like that, or is built like that very rarely. Sometimes you may get people of that kind amongst waifs and strays: amongst, perhaps, the gipsies, but never amongst the ordinary working people of the country. Well, of course Art is free to everybody, and by all means, if anyone is really moved by the spirit to treat modern subjects, let him do so, and do it in the best way he can; but, on the other hand, I don't think he has a right, under the circumstances and considering the evasions he is absolutely bound to make, to lay any blame on his brother artist who turns back again to the life of past times; or who, shall we rather say, since his imagination must have some garb or another, naturally takes the raiment of some period in which the surroundings of life were not ugly but beautiful.

Well, I have tried as well as I could to give you some ideas of the general principles of the pre-Raphaelite School. I say that those principles, so far as they inculcated pure naturalism, have more or less succeeded: I mean in producing a continuous School. So far as they inculcated the conscientious representation of incident - their special side - they have not succeeded so well, because, after all, for the production of works of that kind you want either artists of startling and stupendous genius, of whom very few can be born in one epoch, or else a great homogenous school of tradition, which is able to use up all the various qualities of the lesser men and combine them in a harmonious whole. On the other hand, the ornamental aim of the School has made less impression still upon the age. That cannot be wondered at, because, after all, the ornamental side of the Art is but a part of architecture, and architecture cannot flourish unless it is the spontaneous expression of the pleasure and the will of the whole people. In these days let us admit it at once: and that is one reason why these galleries hung with pictures, each one complete in itself, are interesting to us: whatever you can get out of Art can not be got out of the combined efforts of the people at large, but must be simply the work and the expression of individual genius, individual capacity, working towards a certain end. And I recur to what I was talking about just now, and say that I think one reason why there is much to be said for that Art which deals with the life of the past, or rather with the artist's imagination of it, is because only so can the artist have at his back in the form of history anything like that traditional combined idea of Art which once was common to the whole people. That, I think, is perhaps, after all, the real inner reason why it is so very difficult to represent the life which is round about us at the present day.

When all is said, though, I must repeat that it certainly is a shortcoming in our Arts that this can not be done; and this shortcoming I think we ought by all manner of means to strive to remedy. Now I won't try to dwell too much on the advantage of places like this we are in at present: Museums and Art Galleries and the like. Museums and Art Galleries are not of the slightest use to a population that has not got some idea of Art before it goes into the Galleries and Museums. You cannot educate a man who doesn't earnestly desire to be educated: that is a fact. But granted the desire, and surely that desire must exist, if not universally, if not even very widely, yet in some degree or another, I say, granted that desire, all places like these Museums, and I will add Picture Galleries, if the pictures are only sufficiently well chosen, may be of the very greatest advantage to those people who have the desire, who really want to put themselves more or less into rank with the great artists of past and present time. Indeed, having once the love for Art a man must feed that love for Art by seeing works which not only are acknowledged to be great works of Art but which he himself can at once feel to be so. People sometimes talk, as though the ordinary man in the street (of all classes, I mean) is the proper person to apply to for a judgment on Works of Art. They say he is unsophisticated, and so on. Now, just let us look the facts in the face. It would be very agreeable if he were; it would be delightful if he were. But if he were, you would not need all these efforts for Art Education that you do need now. As a matter of fact he is not unsophisticated. On the contrary he is steeped in the mere dregs of all the Arts that are current at the time he lives. Is not that absolutely and positively the state of the case? I am quite sure it is. I perhaps haven't got much right to talk about another and kindred Art, because I don't know much about it, but I am perfectly certain that in the Art of Music what the `unsophisticated' person takes to is not the fine works of Art, but the ordinary, commonplace, banal tunes which are drummed into his ears at every street corner. That is natural. In other words, there is a tendency for all people to fall under the domination of tradition of some sort; and the fine tradition, the higher tradition, having disappeared, men will certainly fall into the power of the lower and inferior tradition. Therefore let us once for all get rid of the idea of the mass of the people having an intuitive idea of Art, unless they are in immediate connection with the great traditions of times past, and unless they are every day meeting with things that are beautiful and fit. Now it seems to me (in fact I am certain of it) that the upshot of people, neither practising an Art nor seeing it, will be, that at last they will no longer have any tendency towards practising the Art or desiring it. They will find that this sense of Art, which has hitherto been one of the senses of the human race, will disappear altogether. Being unnecessary to them, it will fall away, just the same as, if taste or touch were not necessary to them, they would gradually lose the sense of taste or touch. So I say by all means let us cultivate whatever there may be left of any wish to get back into the best traditions of Art. Those traditions we must undoubtedly work up again for ourselves. They must help us to produce something which has not been produced before. We cannot do the work of the past again. We don't want it, and it would be no particular use if we could; but whether we want it or not it is absolutely certain that we cannot do it. But certainly education may give us new wants in these matters, and the new wants will produce a new art. And on those grounds the conduct of the City of Birmingham seems to me to be worthy of all praise. They are determined that they shall have something serious by way of a Museum and Art gallery in their City.

One word I ought to say before I leave off, a word of thanks to those people who have lent their works of art to the city. I don't want to dwell too much upon it, because I distinctly think that a man who has bought a masterpiece is in the position, with reference to that masterpiece, of a trustee for the public. Nevertheless, considering how very seldom people do their duty, I think that you will all agree with me that people ought to be thanked for doing it now and again. It is not so common as all that comes to.

Well, now, to say the last word about the pre-Raphaelites that I have spoken about so very inadequately, because it is really a very difficult subject: there are so many side issues to it that it would be a very long business to deal with all round. I would hold out those leaders of the pre-Raphaelite movement to any young artists who are here present, as an example of patience and diligence and courage, and that painstaking quality which always goes with true practical genius: and by those qualities only could they have gained the success they did gain in their difficult task. And consider, if you please, the difficulty of it; of managing to lead even a considerable portion of a public that did not care much for Art of any kind, and who were tolerably contented with any humdrum presentation of it that they got before these men arose, to understand what the School was doing, to appreciate the artists' work, to allow them, which is something after all, to earn a livelihood by it, and at last to hand their names down to posterity as people who have really deserved well of their country. Further, the young artists will surely understand this, that they also have got to learn by patience and diligence, and not to profess to be masters of their craft while yet they are apprentices. A commonplace you will say: yes, but above all necessary to remember in these chaotic days. Lastly, though it is exceedingly good for them in the time of their learning to observe diligently and even in some sort, to follow the manner of work of some great master, yet the time must come to all of them when they must do work of their own: work which is not merely in the manner of the great master but which is their own work: or else they must cease to be artists. For even small artists, if they be genuine, have something of their own in their work. That is a word which those will understand who really are in the heat of the fight, who really are struggling very hard to become artists. They will know, of course, the difficulty there is when they admire a great master not to follow his manner, and I should hope they will clearly understand that the only use of following that manner at all must be that they may gradually be led to be, not mannerists, but original artists, who will give something definite to the world, something which did not exist before they began to work.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have got no more to say, except that I invite you to continue the study of these masters, and of all the great masters that are shown to you, not from a conventional point of view. Don't merely stand before a picture and say you like it because it is done by some man with a great name, but find out for yourselves whether you can like it yourselves or not, and if you cannot, well, I don't say don't be ashamed of not being able to like it, for in many cases you had better be ashamed perhaps, but at any rate acknowledge to yourselves, if not to other people, that your education is not quite complete in the matter of the Arts, and try to make it so.

Bibliographical Note


Address on the Collection of Paintings of the English Pre-Raphaelite School


  1. 2nd October 1891 at a private showing of the exhibition arranged by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Committee at the Corporation Gallery, Birmingham