18 September 2023

An afternoon with Ruskin
and the Pre-Raphaelites
in Oxford, inspired by
a family photograph

‘A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids’ by William Holman Hunt in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During one of my visits to Oxford this month, I went in search of the Oxford of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.

I began my escapade in the Ashmolean Museum, which has an important and impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, many from the collection of Thomas Combe, the superintendent of the Clarendon Press in Oxford and an important figure in the stories of both Saint Paul’s Church, facing the campus of the Oxford University Press, and Saint Barnabas Church in Jericho.

The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin (1819-1900) was an important book as I was developing my interests in architecture and later as I developed my interests in Venice. But I was also interested in Ruskin’s Oxford for another reason: for the past ten years, the Ashmolean has held the formal portrait of John Ruskin by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896).

This portrait, painted 170 years ago in 1853, captures Ruskin in a style that fulfils Ruskin’s ideals. But I have family reasons too for wanting to see this portrait of Ruskin. When my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), was young and successful, he had his portrait taken in a way that presented him as a young Victorian man with confidence looking forward to the future.

I had always imagined that the photograph was taken in a Victorian photographer’s studio, but with the intent of creating the impression of an ideal rustic background, with a cascading waterfall, rocks, rich vegetation, and a clearing in a former thicket. Stephen is dressed in a three-piece suit and wing-collar shirt, holding a walking cane in one hand and a hat in the other. But his shoes are well-made and highly-polished, so this is clearly a studio scene rather than a setting at the Powerscourt Waterfall near Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, or at a waterfall in Killarney, Co Kerry. It is certainly not in the Scottish Highlands.

It seems like a photograph that a man confident a full and successful career lay ahead of him would like to have taken. I only have a copy of the photograph, from the house in Terenure where my grandmother lived, rather than the original. So I have no idea of the original date of the photograph, or of the name of the photographer. When it was announced in 2013 that the Ashmolean had acquired Millais’s portrait of Ruskin, I realised that my grandfather’s photograph was modelled on this celebrated Pre-Raphaelite painting.

This is the painting that led to the breakdown of Ruskin’s marriage, and until it was acquired by the Ashmolean it was ‘one of the most important Pre-Raphaelite paintings’ that had remained in private ownership.

The Ashmolean has such a rich collection of Pre-Raphaelite works because of the many connections members of the movement had with of Oxford. A number of them – including Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Alfred William Hunt and John Ruskin – studied at the University.

Ruskin left much of his collection, including his teaching collection, to the university. He was an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1836 to 1842, when he lived with his mother on High Street. His Modern Painters, published anonymously in 1843, was credited to him as ‘a graduate of Oxford’. His writings were highly influential and he became irrevocably associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, befriending Millais and Hunt, and then Rossetti, Siddal and Burne-Jones.

Ruskin was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1869. He was critical of the teaching methods at the art schools of his day, and founded the School of Drawing in 1871.

‘Convent Thoughts’ was painted by Charles Collins in Thomas Combe’s garden in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 by a group of young painters, sculptors and writers who wanted to restore to English art the freshness and close study of nature that they found in early Italian painting before Raphael. The original group included Edward Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and the sculptor Thomas Woolner. Later they were joined by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.

The most important connection the Pre-Raphaelites had with the city of Oxford was through the support they received from the wealthy superintendent of the University Press, Thomas Combe (1796-1872), and his wife Martha (1806-1893).

The Combes were a generation older than the Pre-Raphaelite artists, but with no children of their own they became like surrogate parents to the young artists, especially Holman Hunt and Millais. The young artists would come and stay at their home in Oxford while they supported them by buying and commissioning works.

A sketch by Pre-Raphaelite artist Charles Alston Collins depicts an evening at Combe’s house with the white-haired publisher reading by candlelight – perhaps from the Bible – as the household gathers round. Martha darns a sock while Millais sits on the floor.

These two patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites are commemorated in a pair of portraits by Holman Hunt, in which Thomas sparkles with wit and good humour, though Martha’s depiction is somewhat less flattering.

Collins and Millais, who were close friends, stayed with the Combes in Oxford from September to November 1850, when Collins and Millais worked on two significant paintings, both of which are now in the Ashmolean.

Collins’s ‘Convent Thoughts’, painted in the Combes’ garden, is a vibrant example of the early Pre-Raphaelite use of bright colours and intricate details. His depiction of a nun was of great interest to the Combes as they were keen supporters of Tractarians or the Oxford Movement.

Combe bought the painting and it hung in his home with two other religious works – ‘A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids’ by Holman Hunt, and ‘The Return of the Dove to the Ark’ by Millais – in a symbolic triptych of Hope, Charity and Faith.

All three now hang in the Pre-Raphaelite Gallery in the Ashmolean, thanks to the Combe bequest.

‘The Return of the Dove to the Ark’ by Edward Millais … part of a ‘symbolic triptych of Hope, Charity and Faith’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A Pre-Raphaelite group, including Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Morris and Arthur Hughes, decorated the Oxford Union with murals In the 1850s. The Old Library of the Oxford Union was built in Gothic style in the 1850s as the university’s new debating hall.

Seven artists worked together on a series of murals to decorate the hall’s upper walls of the hall in 1857. The ambitious project was organised by Rossetti, by then was a close friend of Morris and Burne-Jones and of the hall’s architect, Benjamin Woodward. Most of the group brought together by Rossetti were not very experienced and the whole endeavour became chaotic.

Rossetti offered to decorate the interior for free board and lodgings – and unlimited supplies of soda water. The other artists involved were Val Prinsep, John Hungerford Pollen, Arthur Hughes and John Rodham Spencer Stanhope. William Riviere and his son Briton painted the three panels that were left over when Rossetti and his friends abandoned the work at the end of the Long Vacation of 1857.

The paintings depict the Arthurian legends and the search for the Holy Grail, as told in Tennyson’s recently published epic poem ‘Morte d’Arthur.’ The artists sometimes feature as subjects in each other’s paintings, and the future wife of William Morris, then Jane Burden, was persuaded to model for the murals by both Rossetti and Morris murals after first meeting the artists during the project. Rossetti’s Lancelot and Queen Guinevere panel is probably the best-preserved, and Jane Burden was the study for Guinevere.

They painted straight onto the walls without preparation. Because their techniques were not long-lasting, the vivid colours of the murals faded quickly. The murals can no longer be seen distinctly during the day, but the colours emerge on a clear winter’s evening, and look very dream-like, just as were intended to be seen originally.

‘The Prioress’s Tale Cabinet’ was a wedding present from Edward Burne-Jones to William Morris and Jane Burden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Jane Burden was born into a poor Oxford family. She came to the attention of Rossetti and Burne-Jones while they were working on the murals, and she became a model and muse for the group. Burne-Jones used her as a model for the Virgin Mary on the ‘Prioress’s Tale Cabinet.’

The ‘Prioress’s Tale Cabinet’ was designed by Philip Webb and decorated by Burne-Jones with episodes from Chaucer’s ‘Prioress's Tale.’ Burne-Jones gave it as a wedding present to William Morris when he married Jane Burden. It now stands in the Pre-Raphaelite gallery in the Ashmolean.

When Jane Burden married Morris in 1859, she may already have been in love with Rossetti. She was a muse to both Rossetti and Morris and inspired many paintings and drawings by Rossetti, who painted her repeatedly until his death.

Other Pre-Raphaelites represented in the Ashmolean include William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). He was a precocious talent and his self-portrait, painted when he was just 14, hangs in the central section of the gallery.

His paintings, such as ‘A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids’ and ‘The Afterglow in Egypt’, illustrate his particular style, with bright, natural colours and meticulous attention to detail.

‘The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry’ by Ford Madox Brown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

‘The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry’ was painted by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) to illustrate the ennobling of the English language by Chaucer. It was planned in London, composed in Rome in 1845, and completed in Hampstead in 1853 after Brown’s return to England.

The central panel shows Geoffrey Chaucer reading at the court of Edward III, with his patron, the Black Prince, on his left.

The ‘fruits; of English poetry appear in the wings: Milton, Spenser and Shakespeare on the left; Byron, Pope and Burns on the right; Goldsmith and Thomson in the roundels; and, inscribed in the cartouches beneath, held by the children, the names of Campbell, Moore, Shelley, Keats, Chatterton, Kirke White, Coleridge and Wordsworth.

The Ruskin School of Art on High Street, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

I set out in search of Ruskin’s portrait by Millais in the Ashmolean, only to learn that it has been on loan for some months to another exhibition. Instead, I spent an educational and enjoyable afternoon in Pre-Raphaelite Gallery, but shall have to return soon again to find the portrait that may have inspired the pose in that Victorian photograph of my grandfather.

As for Ruskin’s institute, it was renamed the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in 1945, and then changed its name again in 2014, becoming the Ruskin School of Art, as it is known today.

It remains the University of Oxford’s Fine Art department and is one of the leading art schools in the UK.

Stephen Edward Comerford (left) like a cut-out figure at a waterfall, and John Ruskin (right) in the well-known portrait by John Everett Millais (Photomontage: Patrick Comerford)

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