1848 was the year of political revolution in Europe, and Britain was virtually the only country to avoid upheaval, although an attempt was made that year on the life of Queen Victoria. The last great Chartist rally took place that year, in April on Kennington Common in south London. It was attended by two young aspiring painters who had met at the Royal Academy School — the nineteen-year-old John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, two years his senior. No doubt they caught something of the spirit of the age; but the object of their revolutionary fervour was specific — British art. They were ambitious for themselves, impatient and critical of their elders, and in September 1848 with their friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti and four others they formed the 'Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood'. They were united by a dislike of the prevailing ethos in British art, and yearned for the truth to nature, directness of appeal, simplicity of sentiment and high moral purpose of European art before Raphael, hence the group's name. Like most youth protest movements, it is easier to identify what they opposed than what they actually stood for. Rossetti's brother, William, who later became the historian of the movement, wrote that "the bond of union" between them was fourfold:
(1) to have genuine ideas to express; (2) to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; (3) to sympathise with what is serious and direct and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and (4), and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues. [Quoted in The Pre-Raphaelites (1984), p 11]
The first and last of these are clearly artistic truisms, whilst the other two show the influence of Hunt. He wanted to paint nobler, more serious pictures than the "Monkeyana ideas, Books of Beauty, and Chorister Boys" which, as he wrote later, characterised the Royal Academy at the time. He despised the careless brush techniques of earlier artists such as "Sir Sloshua Reynolds". Hunt was fired by Ruskin's comment in his Modern Painters: "...go to Nature in all singleness of heart and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning and remember her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth".
The Brotherhood drew up a list of 'Immortals', heroes of art and literature whom they particularly admired. Christ was alone at the apex (at the insistence of Hunt). Below him were Shakespeare and the author of the Book of Job; while on the third level were twelve names — Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Leonardo, Goethe, Keats, Shelley, King Alfred, Landor, Thackeray, Washington, and Browning. As a critic has written, "the jumpy and irregular nature of this selection is some indication of the Pre-Raphaelites' intellectual uncertainty" (Hilton, p. 35).
The idealisation of women, the emotional impact of landscape, and the emphasis on chivalry and gallantry from former ages all show that Pre-Raphaelitism was a true descendant of the Romantic movement; yet paradoxically the emphasis (in Hunt especially) on truth to nature linked it to the scientific realism which emanated from the Enlightenment. The earliest pictures, dating from 1849, varied in quality, and met with considerable criticism, more than anything because of the dislike of the secrecy behind the initials 'PRB' which they added to their signatures on the paintings. The following year they produced a magazine called The Germ, which contained literary as well as artistic contributions. Various outsiders were asked to contribute, including Rossetti's sister Christina, the poet Coventry Patmore, and fellow artist Ford Madox Brown. The intention was to enshrine the values of the Brotherhood, but it lasted for only four issues. That same year saw the appearance of Millais' Christ in the House of his Parents, which was vehemently attacked on all sides for its portrayal of the Holy Family as ordinary peasant folk. The Times called it "revolting" and "disgusting", and Charles Dickens launched an oft-quoted diatribe in Household Words. In fact, the critics were now in full flow, and because of this the three Pre-Raphaelites became the most famous, or possibly notorious, painters in the country. However, the tide of public opinion began to change when John Ruskin, the most influential art critic in Britain, wrote two letters to The Times in their defence in 1851. In the second he opined that the Pre-Raphaelites "...may as they gain experience, lay in our England the foundation of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for three hundred years".
But growing fame and fortune caused the Brotherhood to grow apart rather than together. Members left and were not replaced, and meetings became more infrequent. In 1851 Rossetti began his ill-fated love affair with Elizabeth Siddall and his preoccupation with his namesake, the poet Dante. In 1853 Millais was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and that same year went for a holiday to Scotland with the Ruskins. Their marriage was already in disarray, and Millais and Effie Ruskin fell in love. This led eventually to a scandalous divorce, and Millais' marriage to Effie two years later. In 1854-55 Hunt paid the first of three extended visits to the Holy Land (the other two were 1869-72 and 1875-78). The Brotherhood as a body was a thing of the past, but the fame of its three main figures, and its influence on the artistic world of late Victorian Britain, was only just beginning. 1857, the year of Elgar's birth, was in many ways a turning point in the artists' fortunes. Ford Madox Brown organised a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Russell Place in London; the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition included PRB paintings; and an Exhibition of British Art (which was largely Pre-Raphaelite) was shown in New York (and in Philadelphia and Boston the following year). Also in 1857, Rossetti was asked to paint a series of murals at the Oxford Union building. To fulfil this commission he collected a group of artists, again seven in all, including Arthur Hughes, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. In effect this began what is sometimes referred to as the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism, but it was actually based on different principles and eventually metamorphosed into Aestheticism and Symbolism. Indeed, the very word "Pre-Raphaelite" conjures up to many what Evelyn Waugh called "picturesque medievalism", plus the image of the voluptuous women of Rossetti's later period, and the expressionless, often androgynous women of many of Burne-Jones' paintings, all of which are far removed from the movement's original ideals. It is important to be aware of this divergence of meaning; for instance, Jaeger in referring to the Angel's opening Song in The Dream of Gerontius, says that "our thoughts seem to wander, we know not why, to some saintly picture by a pre-Raphaelite painter" (Dream of Gerontius, analytical notes, p 25). It is impossible to say what exactly Jaeger had in mind; yet angels are remarkably absent from the work of Millais and Hunt (if one excepts the souls of the children in The Triumph of the Innocents, and about them Hunt wrote to William Bell Scott in 1882: "The children must be so treated that they shall not be mistaken for infantine angels of heaven or amoretti, which previous illustrations of the subject would lead people to expect them to be" (quoted in Amor, p 231.)
Apart from his first two PRB pictures — The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini — they are usually only background figures in Rossetti. Yet angels are common in Burne-Jones' output, often in connection with designs he did for William Morris's firm. However, Canon Gorton linked Elgar very definitely with the first phase of the Pre-Raphaelites in a letter to Alice Elgar written in October 1903 after the first performance of The Apostles:
...While you are in Birmingham I hope you will go to the Art Gallery - & see three of the noblest works of the Preraphaelites [sic], recognising the kindred spirit — First Ford Madox Brown's Exiles [ie. The Last of England] — He painted it when the indifference of English patrons led him to resolve to leave England — it is his wife who holds his hand, and faces the future with sad courage - Dr.Elgar will recognise the wife — The two others are the Two Gentlemen of Verona [Valentine rescuing Sylvia from Proteus] & the Christ in the Temple [The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple] - In the latter, a work of five or six years I think Dr.Elgar must here recognise fellowship in work — all perfection of skill, all mastery of form & colour subordinated to the gaze in the eyes of the child Christ ["] Wist ye not [...?"] — I am sure it will rest Dr. Elgar to see it. [Hereford and Worcester Record Office 705:445:2441. Five years earlier Gorton had written an article on Hunt for The Parents' Review]
There was not time to visit the Birmingham Gallery before leaving, but they did go to the Cathedral, as Elgar noted in a memorandum in his notes on The Apostles:
On leaving Birmingham after the Festival we (Alice & I) went into St.Philip's Church, walked up it to see the stained glass and on turning round were struck by Burne-Jones' 'Ascension' ...the sun shining thro' it. Very impressive ending to our glorious week E.E. [In fact, Elgar was mistaken; the Ascension is celebrated in the East Window triptych. As they �turned round� they saw the sun shining through the West Window, which depicts the Last Judgement.]
Alice Elgar had cultivated an interest in art since her early years. So impressed was she by Burne-Jones' The Golden Stairs at its exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1880 that she wrote a poem on it (See Young, Alice Elgar, p 65). In 1882 she and her mother visited Italy, a country whose artistic treasures would later give such pleasure to her and her husband. When she and Edward moved to London after their marriage in 1889, Alice took advantage of the opportunity to visit galleries and exhibitions; for instance, the Burne-Jones' Briar Rose murals in July 1890, when she was eight months pregnant! The following April, with their move back to Worcestershire pending, was a hive of artistic activity. Elgar "bought pixtures", some Lacroix lithographs for _d each; they visited Watts' studio and gallery; the Sir John Soane Museum; an exhibition of Raphael's cartoons; the National Gallery; the Dulwich Gallery; and "commenced a Chart of Painters". The house they took in Malvern Link was named after the painter Melozzo da Forli (1438-94); a framed photograph of an angel by Forli "was always in any house where E lived", according to Carice. It is not entirely clear whether the house was so named by the Elgars. (Alice's diary on 22 May 1891 notes: "E & A... seeking a house. Isabel Fitton & A saw Forli". Yet the Malvern News only refers to it by that name after the Elgars moved in; previously it was known as 5 Park Villas. Possibly the diary entry was completed later.)
Foreign holidays always included a visit to a gallery or museum — Dürer's house at Nuremberg in August 1892, the Schack Gallery at Munich in September 1894, Bruges (to see paintings by Hans Memling) and the Louvre in 1895, amongst many others. As Elgar's fame grew, there were visits to Novello's in London, and whilst he was busy there Alice often took the opportunity to visit a gallery. Later visits to Italy included numerous trips to churches, museums and galleries.
As with chemistry, heraldry, and theology, Elgar spent considerable time and effort in becoming knowledgeable about a new subject, and became sufficiently confident to speak on Italian art at a meeting in Hereford on 23 January 1906. Elgar attended the Royal Academy Banquet in 1905, where the Prince of Wales (later George V) "took him off through 2 or 3 rooms & discussed the pictures & talked". In March 1905 Elgar gave his inaugural lecture, entitled 'A Future for English music', as Professor of Music at Birmingham University, and there are numerous references to art in it, including (importantly) the following : "...The younger men should draw their inspiration more from their own country, from their own literature — and, in spite of what many would say - from their own climate" (in the margin of his notes he wrote "Turner") (A Future for English Music, p 51). In the second lecture (in November 1905) entitled 'English Composers', he said : "I would like to sketch an education necessary for a musician in case he should develop (or dwindle) into a composer". This education should comprise "..Literature, the study of Art, and LAST of all music..."(pp. 91-93).
He took great delight in collecting engravings, and they were clearly a spiritual and artistic refreshment to him. On 4 April 1919 he took possession of some Italian engravings and Alice wrote : "E. said [that] after tiresome letters about trivial things looking at these made one think great again". An inventory of Elgar's pictures made by Carice after his death listed eleven engravings which "were part of a large collection made by EE when living at Hampstead".
There are several indications that the Elgars were discriminating in their approach to art, such as this from the Birmingham inaugural lecture:
I have spoken of the want of inspiration in English music. Many respectable and effective works have been written during the twenty years 1880-1900. To me they represent more or less — I will not particularise — such a phase of art as in another way was represented by Lord Leighton. There you had a winning personality, a highly educated man, a complete artist, technically complete, but the result was cold and left the world unmoved. [A Future for English Music, p. 55. These comments on Leighton are similar to some by William Rossetti, which may have been known by Elgar.]
The 1860s and '70s in Britain had seen the rise of Aestheticism through such artists as Leighton, Whistler and (having deserted the principles of Pre-Raphaelitism) Rossetti. This movement had its origins in the 1830s in France as 'l'art pour l'art' — art for art's sake; in other words colour, line, and tone were rated as more highly valued aspects of art than subject matter. Aestheticism rejected not only Ruskin's interpretation of art as an imitator of nature and a means to convey moral and spiritual truths, but also the genre, narrative and anecdotal paintings so beloved of the early Victorians. When Swinburne wrote in 1867, "Handmaid of religion, exponent of duty, servant of fact, pioneer of morality, [Art] cannot in any way become", he was really saying that art's purity or integrity depended on the rejection of all conventional rules, and certainly there are signs in the final third of the century of flood gates opening. For instance, there was a considerable increase in the erotic content of much British painting, especially from Albert Moore, Leighton, Watts, Simeon Solomon, and Burne-Jones, leading ultimately to Beardsley; although Leighton's great friend Watts escaped Alice Elgar's censure due to the allegorical nature of his later paintings (Young, Alice Elgar, p. 146).
To Watts also belongs the rare glory that in the representation of the nude female figure, he clothes it with such a noble ideality that far from its having a debasing influence, or appealing to any lower side of human nature, it stands vested with a sacred purity, an Emblem as it were, of what should be encompassed with reverence.
Clearly, the Elgars tended towards the Ruskinian view, as two further quotes from Edward's inaugural Birmingham lecture demonstrate:
A work of art is none the less a work of art if it is never seen; and a piece of sculpture of Michael Angelo (sic) or a Symphony of Beethoven would be just as great if buried in a cellar as if in its proper place educating, helping and improving mankind generally by being placed before an audience.
. . .the [future] I want to see coming into being is something that shall grow out of our own soil, something broad, noble, chivalrous, healthy and above all, an out-of-door sort of spirit. [A Future for English Music, pp. 33, 57]
Alice, too, in the same essay quoted earlier, aspires to an 'ideal' in subject matter:
...Yet in the midst of our hurried life and massive incomprehension of lofty art, we must remember with joy and astonishment that there is an ideal side even to this age, weary, worn out and sordid as it seems in many respects. The 'ideal', however, is still manifested in art, and...it is one of the glories of the time and a hope of salvation amongst the darker aspects of the age that this is true, though alas! its influence is far from all pervading. To see that we need only to go round the rooms of the Academy or those of any other Exhibition. The appalling commonness of subjects will oppress the mind with a weary weight. To what a vast mass of people the pictures with their terrible suburban flavour must appeal. Drawing room and nursery scenes without an intuition of poetic story or artistic teaching prevail, scenes void happily of harm, but replete with common domestic vulgarity. [Young, Alice Elgar, p. 145]
Though Leighton's paintings were generally in a classical setting, there was certainly an "appalling commonness of subject... without an intuition of poetic story or artistic teaching". Alice was echoing Ruskin who, as already stated, believed that the business of art was to interpret and to edify, and no work designed as pure ornament was worthy of serious consideration. Elgar seems to have tried to live up to similar ideals, though it was more of a curse than a blessing to him. He wrote in a particularly depressed state to Jaeger: "I am not allowed to beg a dispensation of a benevolent providence who objects to the world being saved or purified or improved by a mere musician".115 And in setting O'Shaughnessy's words in The Music Makers he identified with "the movers and shakers of the world", despite the loneliness and rejection that such a status brought. Yet he tried. Elgar wrote to Canon Gorton about the libretto of The Apostles on 17 July 1903 :
In these days, when every 'modern' person seems to think 'suicide' is the natural way out of everything (Ibsen &c.&c.) my plan, if explained, may do some good. [Moore, Letters of a Lifetime, p 131]
And to the Rev W E Torr on The Apostles project :
I am not at all sure if I shall ever complete my task, but it is the one work to which I devote my best thoughts [BL Add MS 47906 fo. 122; the draft letter is in Alice Elgar�s hand, and dates from late October 1905.]
Such a statement links Elgar closely with Holman Hunt. Hunt was the only one of the original Pre-Raphaelites to remain faithful to the movement's principles, and although he lacked the talent of Millais and the personal charisma of Rossetti, he was blessed with tenacity and singleness of purpose, often spending years in completing a picture. He was the most religious of the three, and saw his career almost as a mission. He believed that art must be "a handmaid in the cause of justice and truth". In our own time, Hunt's religious paintings have come in for a good deal of criticism and neglect, possibly due to the decline of Christian influence in society, or more likely a reaction against the immense acclaim accorded to paintings such as The Light of the World during the last century. But in the same way that other eminent Victorians such as Mendelssohn and Sir George Gilbert Scott have been re-assessed favourably over the last thirty or so years, it is surely time now for an objective and unprejudiced re-evaluation of Hunt's work. For Hunt was more in touch with "real" life than Millais, who was drawn towards society portraits, and Rossetti, whose last twenty years were spent in an increasingly dream world of his own making. More than the other Pre-Raphaelites, Hunt produced pictures with a moral message, often in a contemporary setting, such as The Awakening Conscience and The Hireling Shepherd.
Like Elgar, Hunt found inspiration in the natural world. As a young man, he said, "I revelled in the blossoming trees showing their loveliness to the rising sun, and turned into secret lanes, and leas... beside a rushy river... I spied out the shy fish, and rejoiced with the happy birds, and summoned courage for my novice hand to interpret the rapturous charms" (quoted in Diana Holman Hunt, p. 35): while Elgar "used to be found in the reeds by Severn side with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds". There are many other similarities between Hunt and Elgar. Both escaped in their mid-teens from their fathers' attempts to force them into jobs which would bring financial security. They were early risers, and disciplined in their approach to work. Both men were avid readers, and loved dogs. Both could be full of fun with intimates; Gabriel Rossetti, who loved giving people nicknames, referred to Hunt as "the Mad" or even "the Maniac", while William Rossetti said Hunt had "a full gusto for the humorous side of things". Yet both were prone to paralysing bouts of depression, especially over the completion of works; Hunt's comments on The Shadow of Death are remarkably similar to Elgar's on The Kingdom. Hunt, according to William Rossetti, "was the only PRB who had some notion of music as an art: he enjoyed it much, and could speak of it with intelligence" (The Pre-Raphaelites and their world, pp. 39, 44.)
Hunt painted many of his pictures in the open air, in obedience to Ruskin's dictum of "truth to nature". The development of The Light of the World is well-known; it was begun in November 1851 at a farm in Ewell in Surrey, when Hunt painted from 9 pm to 5 am to get the correct effect of the moonlight. Similarly, the creative stimulus to Elgar of the natural world, especially when he was walking, cycling, etc, is well attested, and perhaps no more so than in the case of The Apostles, which has at its heading "In Longdon Marsh, 1902-3". This low-lying area lying south-east of Malvern was often flooded, and abounded in wildlife. This, and its remoteness, attracted Elgar. As W H Reed later wrote: "He loved it because it was off the main roads and very unfrequented...He told me...he had to go there more than once to think out those climaxes in the Ascension" (p. 99).
The solemnity of what they saw as their calling meant that in their religious work, both Hunt and Elgar were intent on absolute accuracy and faithfulness to detail. (This link was first recognised by Dr Percy Young in Elgar O.M., pp. 307-8). Strangely enough, in The Light of the World, his most famous painting, Hunt actually departs from the principle of "truth to nature" and produces a picture based on allegory and symbolism. This devotion to absolute accuracy was the reason for Hunt's visits to the Holy Land, mentioned earlier. He was determined to paint the actual locations and to use only Semitic models for the purposes of accuracy; but initially he met with opposition, hostility even, from both Jews and Muslims, who were scandalised by the notion of breaking the Second Commandment so flagrantly. His first picture — with no human content — The Scapegoat, dates from 1854-5 and is based on a passage from Leviticus 16. He painted it against a background of the Dead Sea.
On that same visit he began The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 41-51). On 10 July 1854 he wrote to his patron Thomas Combe: "For three or more weeks work I have made but little progress but then I have read and learned a great deal about the design of the temple and also about the ceremony with which the event is connected [the Passover] and now I feel nearly prepared".122 The reading included the Talmud (also used by Elgar in The Apostles), and Josephus, as well as the Bible. Elgar approached literary subjects in a similar fashion, as he told his earliest biographer: "When I propose such a work as this [The Apostles] I first of all read everything I can lay my hands on which bears on the subject directly or indirectly, meditating on all that I have sifted out as likely to serve my purpose, and blending it with my musical conceptions" (Buckley, p. 75).
Like most of Hunt's biblical pictures, The Finding of the Saviour is full of imagery. The blind beggar on the right balances the old Pharisee on the left, who is also blind spiritually. At the far right a group of masons are looking quizzically at a large piece of stone; the rejection of Jesus by the Jews is picked up in Psalm 118:22, "The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner", a verse which Elgar set to music in The Kingdom.
Hunt's second visit in 1869 produced The Shadow of Death. It shows Christ in the carpenter's shop stretching from tiredness at the end of a day. The setting sun throws the shadow of his head and arms on to a cross beam on the wall, thus prefiguring the Crucifixion. The subject, although realistically portrayed, is not based on a biblical incident, unlike its predecessor. Hunt had read Renan's scandalous book La Vie de Jésus, published in 1863, which repudiated the supernatural aspects of Christ's life and presented him as a charming and amiable Galilean preacher. Although it did not undermine Hunt's belief, it strengthened his resolve to show religious subjects in a new way, as he said : "With my particular picture and old religious priest teaching I see nothing at all in common, and I should think that so far from any ecclesiological school being pleased with it, that it is more fitted by itself for the Renan class of thinkers who have been studying the life of Christ as one particular branch of history - ...my picture is strictly — as the temple picture was — historic with not a single fact of any kind in it of a supernatural nature, and in this I contend it is different for [sic] all previous work in religious art" (Letter of 30 October 1872 to an unidentified correspondent, Bodleian Library, quoted in The Pre-Raphaelites, p 221). As adults, both Elgar and Hunt eschewed links with formal Christianity.
It is interesting to note that in Elgar's notes on The Apostles, one of the "books referred to" is Renan's book, The Apostles. However this later book in fact begins only after Jesus' death — it is a sequel to La Vie de Jésus — and mostly deals with the development of the early church, ie. the passages treated by Elgar not in The Apostles, but in The Kingdom. Whether Elgar read Renan's Life of Jesus we do not know, but it seems likely in view of its notoriety and the fact that it was written by a former Catholic.
Hunt's last major Biblical painting is The Triumph of the Innocents, which caused him much trouble and for various reasons took him more than ten years to complete. It is atypical of his work in many ways, being much influenced by Italian art and sculpture. The subject is the Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18), and once again Hunt was anxious to be authentic in his portrayal. He used a Mecca donkey; and painted the background landscape at Gaza where he found "a handsome group of trees over a water-wheel" at a distance of about thirty miles from the Holy Family's point of departure at Bethlehem.
This same concern for conveying certain biblical scenes accurately can be found throughout The Apostles and The Kingdom. The description of the dawn and the singing of the Morning Psalm in the Temple Elgar found in a book by Franz Delitzsch entitled Jewish Artisan Life in the Time of Christ. He also wanted to use authentic music for the psalm, and consulted a friend of the critic Alfred Kalisch, Rabbi F L Cohen, who provided him with Pauer's book Traditional Hebrew Melodies. (Elgar's copy of Pauer's book can be found in British Library Add MS 49974B fos. 37-57.) Other tunes from this book found their way into parts of The Kingdom, notably 'The sun goeth down'.
As already noted, Elgar's choice of texts was greatly influenced by the vast background reading he had undertaken, indicated by the large number of theological books in his library. On 15 January 1906, when composing The Kingdom, he wrote to Canon Gorton: "I wd. rather have done without the late Hellenism 'Lord Jesus' but I could not help it & Luke uses it early in Acts although it is, I suppose, a much later expression". The phrase appears twice in the first scene, 'In the Upper Room', quoting from Acts 1:21 and 20:35. The expression occurs ten times altogether in Acts, but Luke was writing at a much later date (probably between 60 and 75 AD), and some commentators believe that it would not have been used in the early church in Jerusalem, which was entirely Jewish. It is surely amazing that Elgar, already way behind schedule on The Kingdom, was taking such trouble over a minor point which would anyway have gone unnoticed by the vast majority of his listeners.
Parallels can be drawn between Elgar and the Pre-Raphaelites in their subject matter. The theme of his first major work — the overture Froissart of 1890, with its motto from Keats "When Chivalry lifted up its lance on high" — would have been thoroughly acceptable to the young idealists in 1848. Their list of 'Immortals' coincided with Elgar's in many respects. Elgar loved Shelley, and set to music O wild west wind as a part-song, and In moonlight as a solo song to the tune of the 'Canto popolare' from In the South; while lines from Shelley's poem Song are found at the head of the Second Symphony. Poetry from the Pre-Raphaelite circle was also set: Coventry Patmore (Evening scene), Philip Bourke Marston (After), and Christina Rossetti (A song of flight). What is generally regarded as Elgar's greatest part-song Go, song of mine is set to words by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a translation of the Italian poet Cavalcanti (from Rossetti's book of translations The Early Italian Poets, published in 1861). And from William Morris (although Elgar as a Conservative would have deplored his political ideas!) came the epigraph written at the end of The Apostles: "To what a heaven the earth might grow, if fear beneath the earth were laid, if hope failed not, nor love decayed". As Brian Trowell has pointed out (in Monk, pp 237-8), these words from The Earthly Paradise are in a pagan context, but there is no reason to doubt that Elgar applied them in a spiritual sense here.
At first there seems little similarity between Elgar and Rossetti. They were both fascinated by Italy, from where Rossetti's father had fled as a political refugee in the 1820s. As already mentioned, Dante features prominently in Rossetti's work in the 1850s; and many of his later portraits of women were given Italian or Latin titles. His translations of early Italian poets furnished Elgar with words for Go, song of mine. Yet Rossetti never visited Italy, whereas the Elgars went there on several occasions. Both men were inspired by heroic and chivalric episodes from the past; Elgar wrote incidental music for Binyon's play Arthur in 1923, and Rossetti produced a number of watercolours on this theme. The legend of St George also found expression in the works of both men — Elgar's Banner of St George (1897), Rossetti's Wedding of St George and the Princess Sabra (1857), a further watercolour in 1862, and a series of six cartoons for stained glass for William Morris. Like Rossetti, Elgar idealised women, although the expression of this is less obvious perhaps in music than in the visual arts. Both of them were sensitive to criticism. Elgar always said that he never read the critics after 1900, presumably as a reaction to the poor performance of the premiere of The Dream of Gerontius (although as we now know, the critics generally were very impressed with the work itself, and said so). It has often been alleged that Rossetti never exhibited after 1850; this is in fact not so, but he was certainly very circumspect, especially when exhibitions of his work were given without his permission. He had originally planned to complete a triptych on the Virgin Mary with a third painting dealing with her death, but this was almost certainly abandoned after adverse criticism of Ecce Ancilla Domini. And of course the notorious attack by Robert Buchanan on his poetry in the article, "The Fleshly School of Poetry" (text), in the Contemporary Review in 1871, wounded him deeply.
Millais, the most naturally talented of the artists in the Brotherhood, painted some of the finest and best-known Pre-Raphaelite pictures during the early 1850s, such as Ophelia and Autumn Leaves. However, he found the Pre-Raphaelite insistence on detail very laborious, and it slowed up the rate at which he could produce paintings. By the late 1850s he and Effie had a growing family, and he claimed they needed the money which a greater output would bring, describing 'truth to nature' in a letter to Hunt as "disgustingly laborious and unremunerative". He moved to a looser style; turned to more popular and sentimental subjects (such as The Order of Release and The Black Brunswicker, and later Cherry Ripe and Bubbles); and spent his last years largely doing portraits of the great and good. This brought in a vast income, and he lived in great style and was the first English artist to become a baronet.
Millais' first Pre-Raphaelite picture was begun in the autumn of 1848. Entitled Isabella, it was based on Keats' poem of that name, taken from a story by Boccaccio. (Hunt introduced Millais to Keats' work; his own painting from this story is usually known by the poem's subtitle — The Pot of Basil, and dates from 1868). The poem tells of the love of Isabella for Lorenzo, an employee in her brothers' business. The brothers are angry as they hope to make a profitable marriage for her. They murder Lorenzo, bury him in a forest and tell Isabella that he has been sent away urgently on business. In a dream Lorenzo's ghost tells her what really happened, and the whereabouts of the body. Isabella exhumes the body, cuts off the head, and conceals it in a garden pot covered with basil, so that she can have her loved one's remains near to her always. The brothers discover it, steal it and flee; Isabella dies brokenhearted. Millais' painting is based on the early part of the poem : the 1849 Royal Academy exhibition catalogue quoted an extract from the poem, including the lines, "They could not sit at meals but feel how well/It sooth�d each to be the other by". But there is foreboding everywhere. The lovers share a blood orange, and the plate on the table in front of them shows a beheading scene. On the balcony behind are two passion flowers and an ominous pot. The hawk to the left tearing at a feather is an image of the brothers, described by Keats as "the hawks of ship-mast forests". One brother holds up a glass of wine - to ascertain its quality, or to allow him to better see what the lovers are doing? The other brother, while cracking a nut, is vindictively kicking Isabella's dog.
The picture was well-received, some critics commenting on the early Italian style. The technique is excellent, and there is strong characterisation in the figures. Yet there is (deliberately?) a poorly developed sense of perspective, and a rather 'stagy', mannered feel to the picture; as someone has pointed out, thirteen figures round a table is a Last Supper.
One of Elgar's closest friends and a major source of inspiration was Alice Stuart Wortley (1862-1936), to whom he gave the name 'Windflower'. She was the third daughter of the marriage between Millais and Euphemia (Effie) Ruskin (nee Gray). In 1904 after the performance of Gerontius at the Covent Garden Elgar Festival, Alice sent Elgar an engraving of her father's portrait of Cardinal Newman of 1881. He wrote to thank her : "Your lovely present came just as we were in the midst of tearful adieux... Nothing could have given us more real pleasure than the possession of the portrait & we value it the more as it comes from you" (Moore, Windflower Letters, p 16). Whilst in Liverpool in December 1910 to conduct the Violin Concerto for Kreisler on New Year's Eve he went to the Walker Art Gallery especially to see Isabella (also known as Lorenzo and Isabella). On 6 January 1911 he wrote to Alice : "I love Lorenzo & Isabella — wonderful" (Windflower Letters, p 71). His own Alice wrote in her diary on 31 December 1910: "E. at Liverpool. Saw Art Gallery & his favourite picture of the Pot of Basil Millais". When in Manchester in November 1911 Elgar visited the Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition which contained Isabella. In March 1914 the Elgars went to the Isle of Man where Edward was adjudicating at a competition festival. Before sailing, he went to see the painting again, as he wrote to the 'Windflower' from Douglas on 31 March : "At Liverpool I ran in to see the dear, dear Lorenzo & thought of you - it is hidden away for fear of Suffragettes — but I got in by persuasion & a card : bless you for having such a father & bless him doubly for having such a daughter" (Windflower Letters, p 131). In early 1916 Elgar undertook a short tour of northern England with the LSO, and before he left he wrote to the 'Windflower' : "...I shall go to see Lorenzo at Liverpool but I fear it is hidden away in these troublous times" (Windflower Letters, p 162; the Liverpool concert took place on 1 March.).
Of course, a predilection for a work of art is a very personal thing, and it is possible, indeed likely, that his attachment to the painting was strengthened by his deep feelings for Alice Stuart Wortley. But it seems rather strange that Elgar was so taken with Isabella that his wife referred to it as his "favourite". Though as already stated it was well conceived and executed technically, it is in many ways a disturbing painting, with its latent menace and hints of impending disaster. One can appreciate its considerable merits, certainly; but why his "favourite"? There were certainly more uplifting paintings he could have seen while at the Walker — Rossetti's Dante's Dream, Ford Madox Brown's Coat of Many Colours, Holman Hunt's Triumph of the Innocents, and Millais' own The Good Resolve (though this last was probably a little pious for Elgar's taste); to say nothing of paintings by the great masters. Was there something in the tragedy of Isabella that affected him and appealed to him on a deeper, possibly unconscious, level?
Rossetti's brother William was the model for Lorenzo, but looking at him carefully, with his long thin face, deep-set and piercing eyes and strong nose, he is not too dissimilar to photos of the young Elgar. If Elgar did identify, even subliminally, with Lorenzo (and notice that that is how he often referred to the painting, though Isabella was the correct and more usual title), where does this take us? Clearly and very definitely into the realms of conjecture; nevertheless, we come up against a theme which recurs throughout Elgar, especially in his word settings — young love, true love which is never, or at best briefly, fulfilled. The theme of marriage — or intended marriage — across barriers of wealth, religion, class or ancestral enmity is a common one in Pre-Raphaelite works, eg. The Death of Romeo and Juliet, The Eve of St Agnes, The Long Engagement, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, A Huguenot, etc. From what we now know of Elgar's relationship with Helen Weaver in the 1880s, it is clear that their parting was deeply painful to him, and something which continued to influence him. He used the closing notes of one of her polkas, Helcia, from 1883, to begin the song 'Sabbath Morning at Sea' from Sea Pictures, a work written sixteen years later, and long after he was married. Mrs Browning's poem deals with the pain of parting caused by a sea voyage — Helen Weaver emigrated to New Zealand in 1885. The cause of the breakup of Elgar's engagement to Helen is not known. It has been suggested that there were family objections due to religious differences — the Weavers were Unitarians — but we just don't know. However, it is worth mentioning that Helen Weaver, like Isabella, had two brothers.
Among Elgar's closest friends of his later years was Sir Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), the dedicatee, with his wife Frances, of the Cello Concerto. Colvin had been Slade Professor of Art at the University of Cambridge, and later Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. He was a friend of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many others. Elgar read Colvin's book Memories and Notes of Persons and Places 1852-1912 when it was published in 1921 and wrote to say how delightful it was to read of "men about whom & about whose works we talked over" (Moore, Letters of a Lifetime, p. 358). So far as we know Elgar never met any of the Pre-Raphaelites; Rossetti and Millais died before he became famous, and Hunt, though he lived until 1910, was very much a recluse in his final years. Elgar had much in common with them, not least the fact that they were all largely self-taught so far as general education was concerned, as William Rossetti later wrote:
All the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood belonged to the middle or lower-middle class of society. Not one (if I except my brother and myself) had had that sort of liberal education which comprises Latin and Greek, nor did any of them — not even Millais, though connected with Jersey — read or speak French. Faults of speech and of spelling occurred among them passim. Of any access to 'the upper classes' through family ties there was not a trace. [Quoted in The Pre-Raphaelites and their world, p. 44]
This would have increased their appeal so far as Elgar was concerned; as he said at Birmingham:
The commonplace mind can never be anything but commonplace, and no amount of education, no polish of a University, can eradicate the stain from the low type of mind which is the English commonplace. This applies to other arts besides music. [A Future for English music, p 49]
Though other than Rossetti in his post-Brotherhood phase, they left no disciples and founded no school, Elgar and the Pre-Raphaelites were gifted and original artists who raised the profile of their particular art. As we celebrate the sesquicentenary of the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and approach the centenaries of the two works which established Elgar's greatness, we can be grateful that the seminal role played by these four men in British culture is increasingly recognised and accepted.
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Last modified 9 May 2007