The Pre-Raphaelites were part of a scientific culture, one that believed in classification according to recognisable physical attributes and within encompassing systems. Men and women inspected the landscape in a search for rational explanations of its origins.
Conflicting theories remained about the age of the Earth and the geological process that had occurred, but there was general agreement that the actual landscape bore evidence of past events. There was also a dawning realisation that the world was only incidentally the familiar setting of man’s existence.
Painters set themselves the task of showing the landscape in a way that depended on their own understanding of its mechanisms, enabling viewers to gather information about places and phenomena. Processes of erosion became staple motifs of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape. These could be seen on shores and coasts, riverbeds and upland torrents, or in glaciers and the evidence of glaciation in past epochs.
Most of the artists remained believers in a divine ordination, and reconciled the complexity and infinity of nature to the immanence of God. But some were carried away by what Matthew Arnold called the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith’.