A Buyer’s Market (BM) opens with our introduction to the inimitable Mr. Deacon––painter, antique dealer, and enthusiast of radical leftist causes. Long after Mr. Deacon’s death, Nick comes upon some of his canvases at an auction of items of dubious value near Euston Road: “All four canvases belonged to the same school of large, untidy, exclusively male figure compositions, light in tone and mythological in subject: Pre-Raphaelite in influence without being precisely Pre-Raphaelite in spirit: a compromise between, say, Burne-Jones and Alma-Tadema, with perhaps a touch of Watts in method of applying the paint. [BM 2/6]”
The Pre-Raphaelite influence Nick cites refers to the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, and much championed by the Victorian critic John Ruskin. The founding generation of the Pre-Raphaelites included the English painters John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and James Collinson. Their manifesto revolted against the soulless neo-classical formalism they perceived in the paintings of Raphael and his High Renaissance successors and argued for a return to the more deeply felt values that they attributed to medieval painting and to what they saw as realist painting. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s understanding of those terms––medievalism and realism––is different than that of audiences today, which is why we now perceive their paintings as having an exotic romanticism, more associated with fantasy than their creators might have expected.
Edward Burne-Jones A.R.A. (1833-1898) was not in the first wave of Pre-Raphaelites though he is generally associated with them. Like Mr. Deacon, Edward Burne-Jones often painted mythological themes, but he did not share Mr. Deacon’s preference for exclusively male compositions. Burne-Jones pictorial goal was beauty, rather than story telling or moralizing. “I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful – and then I wake up, with the waking of Brynhild.” (from a letter to a friend quoted in Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911)
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema R.A. (1836-1912) was a Dutch-born painter who settled in Britain in 1870 and remained there for the rest of his life, enjoying immense success as a painter of scenes from classical mythology and history. Alma-Tadema is not associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, but he shared their obsession with hyper-realist rendering of three-dimensional forms and added to it an astonishing command of linear perspective and the depiction of classical architecture. His particular brand of pictorial realism and his use of bright color seem more in the spirit of the Hollywood epics to come than in medievalist fantasies of his Pre-Raphaelite forebears.
George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) was a well-known Victorian painter and sculptor, sometimes associated with the Symbolist movement, and in some ways a painter more modern in spirit than either Burne-Jones or Alma-Tadema. He was adulated at the height of his career, in eclipse by 1930, and back in favor by 1960 (Powell, SPA... p. 219-220). Nick cites Watts in regard to his brushwork, which may refer to Watt’s somewhat looser paint handling, a greater willingness than is visible in either Burne-Jones or Alma-Tadema to let the movement of the painter’s hand become a part of the picture. And, in the accompanying painting, “Hope” (1886), Watt’s brushwork is sufficiently loose to allow the complimentary color of the underpainting to show through, a technique of optical color mixing more common in the work of the Impressionists than in that of more academic painters of the era.