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Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 432 Volume 17, New Series, April 10, 1852   By:

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NO. 432. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, APRIL 10, 1852. PRICE 1 1/2 d.


History is said to be a series of reactions. Society, like a pendulum, first drives one way, and then swings back in the opposite direction. At present, we may be said to be returning at full speed towards a taste for everything old, neglected, and for ages despised. Science and refinement have had their day, and now rude nature and the elemental are to be in the ascendant. In our boyhood, we learned the Roman alphabet; but youngsters now had need to add a knowledge of black letter, which is rapidly getting back into fashion. Perfection is only to be found in the darkness and ignorance of the middle ages.

It is proper, no doubt, to get rid of what is tame and spiritless in art; and it must be owned that nearly everything that was done in architecture and decoration during the Georgian era was detestable. But it is one thing to reform, and another to revolutionise. Let us by all means go to nature for instruction; but nature under the exercise of cultivated feeling selecting what tends to ennoble and refine, not that which degrades and sends us back to forms and ideas totally out of place in the nineteenth century, and which, for that very reason, can have nothing but a temporary reign, to be followed in the succeeding age by a violent reaction.

On a former occasion, we drew attention to this tendency towards mediævalism as regards ornamental design, and took the Great Exhibition to witness the fact. We have also pointed to that strange phenomenon, the rise anew of monastic institutions among us, long after their object is accomplished, giving a spectre like expression to an obsolete idea; we have exposed, likewise, the inclination of the working classes to trust to the protection, and, on every emergency, claim as a matter of right the aid of the wealthy, thus wilfully and deliberately returning to the condition of serfdom: we have now to trace the mediæval mania in a department where, notwithstanding all this ominous conjunction of symptoms, its appearance is truly surprising in the department of high art in painting.

Our readers need not fear that we are about to inflict on them a scientific dissertation. All we wish to do, is to explain to them a word, with the meaning of which many of them are very imperfectly acquainted, and by the mere explanation, to enable them to determine upon its claims to designate not merely a school, but the school of art, destined, if founded in truth and nature, to overturn every other. This word Pre Raphaelitism is taken from the name of one of the Italian masters, and it is necessary, in order to understand the question, to ascertain what were the circumstances and the genius that have thus set him up as a landmark in the history of art.

After the fall of the Western Empire, the fine arts were lost, and their productions literally buried in the wreck. The minds of the composite nations that arose in Europe had no guide. Men were left to their own instincts, only faintly aided by the ruins and traditions of degenerate Rome; and each series of countries had its own style of art, framed or adopted by the genius of the people. During the middle ages, the style most general in Northern Europe was the Gothic; and by that term the whole system of art during the period is popularly known in England. The state of painting, under the Gothic régime, may be seen in the stained windows of the cathedrals; in which strong outlines and bright colours are laid down without any reference to chiaro scuro, or the scientific arrangement of light and shadow. This seems a natural stage in art development, and at the same moment it was seen in equal perfection in China and Europe... Continue reading book >>

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