Room 2 The Mere Look of Things

William Holman Hunt, ‘Our English Coasts, 1852 (‘Strayed Sheep’)’ 1852
William Holman Hunt
Our English Coasts, 1852 (‘Strayed Sheep’) 1852

At first, the Pre-Raphaelite practice of working out of doors served the purpose of recording nature accurately. But for several artists, seeing and painting nature directly, en plein air, soon letthem in other directions. Hunt and Millais had set out to paint serious pictures, whose details embodied their devout study of nature, and Ruskin had called for art explicating nature’s principles. But Ford Madox Brown professed a more modest motivation: ‘love of the mere look of things’. After a puzzled Ruskin asked him why he had painted such a ‘very ugly subject’ in An English Autumn Afternoon, his reply was ‘Because it lay out of a back window’.

Question and answer signal a departure from Ruskin’s ideas, and the emergence of a Pre-Raphaelitism based on the conviction that a humble subject is as worthy as any other. The artist’s taste and feelings in choosing a subject and the manner of treating it then become the main content of a work, not what is depicted. Association with a place, pleasure in its unprepossessing appearance, or delight in observing an effect of colour or light, prompted memorable landscapes by Brown, George Price Boyce, William Davis, and others who abandoned earlier high-minded commitments.