Pre-Raphaelite Exhibit at the Tate Britain (More)

An article in The Times reviews the upcoming exhibit of the Rossettis. (See previous post.) This is by Laura Freeman who cites Waugh’s earliest published work. Here’s excerpt from the beginning paragraphs:

…I’m not alone in my pre-Raphaelite prejudice. Evelyn Waugh, in an extended essay on the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, one of his earliest literary efforts, characterised the general view of the movement thus: “Young women who will prattle with assurance of Pruna or Poussin, will say, should the topic ever arise, ‘The pre-Raphaelites — Burne-Jones and people like that — my dear, you can’t admire them.’ To the great mass of more or less educated people the movement means Keble College Chapel, the poems of Christina Rossetti (in limp calf) and the line of Miss Siddal’s neck; to the more enlightened it means a meticulous care of detail and a vividness of colouring which has long ceased to be courageous.”

The contempt in that limp calfskin! Waugh was writing in 1926 when the names on discerning lips, rosebud or otherwise, were Picasso, Braque, Mondrian and the elliptical TS Eliot. It was the age of bob haircuts and slim sheath dresses. The peacock feathers, tumbling tresses, voluminous bath gowns and still more voluminous verse of the pre-Raphaelites were terrifically old hat. That was then. But as sure as buds become blooms and seeds pomegranates, the pre-Raphs come back in fashion. The pre-Raphaelites may not have been right for the bright young things, but they are right for now. Christina, with her pantheistic poems of nature, could be a voice against the present ecological crisis. Gabriel, with his sumptuous scene-setting, a poster boy for the new maximalism seen on the accounts of Instagram’s interiors influencers…

The “early extended essay” from which the article quotes would be Waugh’s P.R.B. An Essay on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1847-1854. This was self published by Waugh from a printing press available to his college friend Alastair Graham. The publication was in late 1926 arranged during the period of Graham’s apprenticeship to a printer in Stratford-upon-Avon. A few months later Waugh used a copy to impress Duckworths when Anthony Powell introduced him to Thomas Balston at that London publisher in 1927.  Balston was looking for a writer who could produce a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his centenary year and, according to Powell, Balston liked what he saw in Waugh’s extended essay.  Much of the essay was incorporated into the resulting book Rossetti: His Life and Work, published by Duckworths on 11 April 1928. P.P.B. itself was not reprinted in its entirety until 1982 in a limited edition. It was most recently reprinted in the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, v. 26, Essays, Articles and Reviews 1922-1934 (Oxford, 2018).

The Tate-Britain’s exhibit “The Rossettis” opens on 6 April and closes 24 September. Details at this link.

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