The Pre-Raphaelites

The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

Jericho has striking connections with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Posted - Apr 21, 2013

Few people are aware that the area of Oxford known as Jericho has a number of striking connections with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which, as well as being the only British art movement to take on international significance, has claims to being the best-loved art movement of all. The Pre-Raphaelites' patron Thomas Combe, in company with his wife Martha, presided over what became a kindof "good-humoured salon" [Jon Whiteley, 'Oxford and the Pre-Raphaelites', Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1989, p. 26] in Jericho at the Combe's residence in Walton Street and the existence of this Jericho base led to the creation of a series of memorable paintings which were first of all painted, then hung and exhibited in Jericho. In 1850 Combe, who was then printer to the university, came across John Everett Millais in Botley Wood where, together with Charles Collins - Wilkie's brother - he was engaged in painting. Combe took an interest in what they were both doing and invited them back to Jericho for lunch. Millais and Collins declined the invitation on the grounds that they were too busy. However, undeterred, Combe sent them over a hamper of food on his return and this was how the relationship began - one which would establish Jericho as a stamping-ground for Collins and Millais, later to be followed by other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. By the end of September, 1850, Collins and Millais had both moved into Combe's house in Walton Street where Millais painted Combe's portrait and Collins finished the garden in the background of his Convent Thoughts. Combe suggested ideas for and bought a considerable number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings notably Dante Drawing an Angel; The School-Girl's Hymn, The Afterglow in Egypt, A Converted British Family Sheltering from Druids; The Return of the Dove to the Ark, London Bridge; and The Light of the World. William Holman Hunt would also come to live in the Combe's residence - Printer's House in Jericho - where he painted his allegory The Light of the World. It depicts the glowing figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door; the door is thought to symbolise the human conscience and, significantly, cannot be opened from the outside but only from within. Hunt told Combe while he was painting it in Jericho that he was sustained by the thought that 'it might find its resting place in Oxford'. Combe duly bought it - for four hundred guineas - and a side-chapel at Keble College Chapel would later be funded by Martha Combe in order to house it. Martha, or 'Mrs Pat' as she was affectionately (though inexplicably) nicknamed by Millais was a maternal figure to the young group of Pre-Raphaelites. She was an accomplished painter in her own right and had been a pupil of the water-colourist David Cox. Millais would frequently ask her to help him find props for his pictures and she was clearly quite as influential a patron as her husband. 'Mrs. Pat' persuaded her uncle, a Mr Bennet, to buy Holman Hunt's work and, throughout her lifetime, she was a regular recipient of letters from Millais who, on one occasion, commented on the reaction to himself and to his fellow painters by the inhabitants of Oxfordshire who were "given to that wondering stare, as though we were as strange a sight as a hippopotamus."
Convent thoughtsConvent Thoughts - by Charles Collins
When Edward Burne-Jones happened to see Hunt's picture The Light of the World exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855 and when he later learned of the Combe's patronage he determined, together with William Morris, to visit Jericho in order to see the rest of Combe's collection. It was here that "the picture that impressed the friends most was a watercolour by Dante Gabriel Rosetti that had only recently entered the collection, The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice. This, Burne-Jones later recalled, was our 'greatest wonder and delight, and at once he [Rossetti] seemed to us the chief figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.'" As a medieval town, Oxford fulfilled Burne-Jones' fondest dreams and he would often make pilgrimages along the river to the ruins at Godstowe and the burial place of Fair Rosamund, the beloved mistress of Henry II, where "he saw so intense a vision of the Middle Ages as he walked beside the river that he had to 'throw stones into the water to break the dream.' The Combe's collection of paintings with their intensely poetic evocations of the Middle Ages, and most particularly their recently acquired Rossetti evidently struck a powerful chord with Morris and Burne-Jones, who found that Rossetti's picture "corresponded exactly to their own ardent romanticism, and they were captivated by the artistic personality behind it." Such was the spell which Combe's painting cast upon them that Morris and Burne-Jones left Jericho apparently determined to track down Rossetti and apprentice themselves to him. Rossetti agreed and Burne-Jones would subsequently spend every day in Rossetti's studio with Morris joining them both at the weekends. It was thus at the Combe's house in Jericho that the most productive ingredients of the Pre-Raphaelitism movement were first assembled. In the summer of 1857 Burne-Jones and Morris, in company with Rossetti, returned to Oxford in order to engage in a huge collective work - painting ten Arthurian frescoes in the Oxford Union debating chamber (now the Library): "The artists called this period 'the Jovial Campaign' and Val Prinsep described this extremely relaxed atmosphere and the general veneration for Rossetti as follows: 'What fun we had in that Union! What jokes! What roars of laughter! ...He [Rossetti] was the planet around which we revolved. We copied his very way of speaking... Medievalism was our beau ideal and we sank our own individuality in the strong personality of our adored Gabriel.'" As Tim Hilton has noted "...the group did develop a collective personality that was an extension of Rossetti's own; boisterous, yet touchingly Romantic; fun-loving yet deeply idealistic. It was perhaps not the right combination to deal with the job in hand, and actually the project was never completed." [Tim Hilton, The Pre-Raphaelites, London: Thames and Hudson, 1970, p.164] One evening towards the end of the summer Burne-Jones interrupted their fresco painting (and also his own stint at modelling for a portrait of the sleeping Launcelot), and he and Rossetti paid a visit to the theatre in Oxford where they met a17-year-old girl called Jane Burden, the daughter of a Holywell Street stable-hand. Burne-Jones and Rossetti declared her to be "a stunner" and persuaded her to model for them. Jane promptly inspired a rash of activity and would quickly come to typify the face of Pre-Raphaelite beauty - turning into a kind of Victorian English equivalent of France's 'Marianne'. In the nineteenth century life in Jericho largely revolved around the canal and its wharves, together with a foundry at Walton Well, Lucy's Eagle Ironworks, which produced ornamental ironwork, and the Clarendon Press, run by Thomas Combe, in Walton Street. The area consisted of a maze of cobbled streets, artisan houses, a small shop on almost every corner and eight public houses; it was populated by bargemen, colliers, coach builders, print-workers and bookbinders together with their families and later on by railwaymen when the railway arrived in1844. The Jericho boatyard was built by a coal-merchant and boat-builder called Henry Ward and it had a forge, a chandlery, and stabling facilities for the mule and horse-drawn barges and narrow boats that plied their trade up and down the canal. Ward even converted a barge for use as a floating church for his colliers and bargees as it was considered that their behaviour needed tempering. (One hapless visitor recorded being chased out of Jericho with a series of missiles that included "oyster shells and rats' tails."). Contemporary accounts show that in its heyday - when members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood first saw it - the Jericho Boatyard echoed the feverish activities such as those depicted in Ford Maddox Brown's painting 'Work' - a radical painting that would later become an emblem of Christian Socialism and a trade union icon. Members of the Brotherhoodwould almost certainly have been alive to the fact that when the coal arrived in Jericho several barge loads of it were always parked up at Ward's boatyard at the beginning of winter and that this coal was made available to the poor of Jericho without charge, since this was done at the instigation of their patron, the philanthropic Thomas Combe. Despite its industrial past, the Jericho canal still retains a lush and magical flavour full of "the poetry of the things about us" to use a phrase from the Pre-Raphaelites' magazine, 'The Germ', and on a balmy summer's evening it is no great stretch to see Tennyson's Lady of Shallot, as visualised by John WilliamWaterhouse, floating through Jericho in her barque, bedecked with exotic hangings; or indeed to detect Millais' flower-strewn Ophelia lying justbeneath the watery surface - the painting's richly burgeoning detail prompting John Ruskin to describe it as 'the loveliest English landscape; tinged by Sorrow.' Millais had used the daughter of an Oxford auctioneer, Elizabeth Siddall, as his model for Ophelia and in March, 1852, he wrote to Mrs Combe "To-day I have purchased a really splendid lady's ancient dress- all flowered over in silver embroidery-and I am going to paint it for 'Ophelia'. You may imagine it is something rather good when I tell you it cost me, oldand dirty as it is, four pounds." Ford Madox Brown, who had originally taught Rossetti to paint, would visit Millais at his Jericho lodgings in order to research the life of the fourteenth century Oxford scholar John Wycliffe. Wycliffe had initiated the first translation of the Bible into English and Brown's visits were to inspire and inform his narrative painting, 'Wycliffe Reading his Translation of the New Testament to his Protector,John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, in the Presence of Chaucer and Gower, his Retainers' - a painting which was also first acquired by the devout Thomas Combe. If nothing else the Pre-Raphaelite movement - whose Arthurian and gothic dress was destined to be mimicked in a quite different social context - has stood for a certain nobility of soul, intensely concerned to honour the aspirations of John Ruskin, the movement's Oxford mentor and - as Morris and Burne-Jones both referred to him - "a Luther of the arts" who declared in The Arts of England that "the Pre-Raphaelitism common to us all is in the frankness and honesty of the touch". Ruskin required his disciples to "Go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction..." The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood stood also for a staunchly high-minded political radicalism - an aspect that has often been overlooked, due in all likelihood to the movement's beguiling and often mysterious medievalism. William Morris, however, made no bones about the movement's utopian philosophy, declaring, for example, that "No man is good enough to be another's master." Extracted from an essay by Heathcote Williams