" Egypt and Pre-Raphaelite Furniture"

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Egypt and Pre-Raphaelite Furniture”

Thomas J. Tobin • English Department • Duquesne University • Pittsburgh PA 15282

The title of my presentation is a bit disingenuous, as I will talk very little about Egypt, and perhaps less about furniture. Refunds may be had at the door, I suppose. Now, to it.

Pre-Raphaelitism, strictly speaking, ended between 1854 and 1855, as William Holman Hunt put it, in a letter to John Everett Millais from Cairo on 24 January 1855, with “no Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood meetings, of course. The thing was a solemn mockery two or three years past, and died of itself.”

In late 1853, the movement was in trouble, under attack from a number of different causes: Walter Deverell was dying from Bright’s Disease, Dante Rossetti had retired from the fray after the adverse criticism of Ecce Ancilla Domini, Charles Allston Collins had gone from Convent Thoughts to conventional genre pictures, his replacement James Collinson had entered a seminary, Thomas Woolner was on his way to Australia, and Holman Hunt was planning a trip to Egypt and the Holy Land. By 1855, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was effectively no more: Deverell had passed away, Rossetti had withdrawn from public life, Collins was painting poor genre pictures like The Good Harvest of ’54, Collinson was out of the seminary and painting trite subject like Temptation, Woolner had emigrated, Millais had been elected to the Royal Academy, and Hunt was in Egypt. No furniture had yet been produced.

However, one of the main causes of the downfall of Pre-Raphaelitism had to do both with Egypt and with furniture. “Egypt,” for the Pre-Raphaelites, wasn’t really Egypt at all, as Holman Hunt found out. He wrote to Millais on 16 March 1854 from Cairo that “there are palm trees about, which attract my passing admiration, but for all else one might as well sketch in Hackney Marsh” (Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1:380). The “Egypt” most useful for the Pre-Raphaelites already existed in the artistic iconography of England, as the mysterious Orient as Edward Said might have it: a strange culture held up like a reflector behind the lamp of “true” British taste. In forming the Brotherhood, the members originally set out to copy from Nature, the ultimate guide to external reality, but the Nature which they painted was filtered through a decidedly English lens. In early Pre-Raphaelite pictures, one finds English models in English approximations of period costumes posing on English furniture in front of English landscapes—all faithfully painted from Nature. However, many of the props used by the Pre-Raphaelites to represent oriental influence—especially that of Egypt—are actually copies of copies from the Sheraton, Regency and Hope furniture periods between 1780 and 1820, furniture plentiful and fairly inexpensive in the early 1850s.

Most importantly, furniture decoration was based on many classical forms­—Roman, Egyptian, Greek and Etruscan—often all used on one piece [Fig. 1]. Furniture designers such as Thomas Hope and Chauncey Jerome led English taste for stylized Egyptian motifs, which were fueled in turn by recent excavations of Egyptian tombs. In the Morning Chronicle for 8 January 1806 [Fig. 2], a lady complained in “Modern Antiques,” that “since this accursed Egyptian style came into fashion, my eldest boy rides on a sphinx instead of a rocking-horse, my youngest has a papboat in the shape of a crocodile, and my husband has built a watercloset in the shape of a pyramid, and has his shirts marked with a lotus.” The iconography of ancient civilizations had become stylized, Eurocentric, gentrified, and had been taken out of its “natural” context, primarily through the vehicle of English Regency furniture. The process of imperialistic translation (I use the term here in its sense of “apotheosis”) is one of the subcontextual flaws implicit in the theory of art drawn up by the original Pre-Raphaelite Brothers.

As a prime example of the pseudo-Egypt that would eventually help to break up Pre-Raphaelitism, let us look at William Holman Hunt’s Lantern-Maker’s Courtship. Begun from a sketch done in Egypt in 1854 [Fig. 3], the painting was completed in England in 1860, and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861 [Fig. 4]. The sketch shows that Hunt conceived the background of the painting with exacting verisimilitude. However, no sketch was made of any of the foreground elements (Wildman 132); indeed, Hunt was at pains to find suitable models on taking up the painting after a five-year hiatus. Compare the sketch to the finished work, and notice two small but telling details in the latter. First is the introduction of the European visitor in the street behind the principle figures. This “visitor” authenticates the gaze of the British spectator, and validates the “otherness” of the entire scene. Second, look closely at the work table upon which the lantern-maker sits: look familiar? The pieces of the lamp on the table were painted from real nineteenth-century Egyptian lamps, but the work bench is painted from an English hall table, which looks very out of place outdoors in Cairo.

Some smaller examples may be cited of the distancing power of imperialistic assimilation in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. Ford Madox Brown, in his painting diary for August 1854, remarks on his picture Beauty before she became acquainted with the Beast, that

It is near done, thank goodness; and the figure and face of beauty pleases me, though I shall not paint the picture. The idea is now safe and intelligible. I intend it for what the story is—a jumble of Louis XV and Orientalism. (W. Rossetti, Præraphaelite Diaries and Letters 127)

Holman Hunt, on returning from the Holy Land, had a set of “Egyptian” chairs made by a local joiner [Fig. 5]. Many years later, when Ford Madox Brown created some designs for Morris & Company, he concocted a typically “British” set of chairs [Fig. 6] which look suspiciously like those earlier “Egyptian” chairs in Holman Hunt’s house. The decoration and style are nearly identical in both chairs, yet it seems to have taken only time for the style, like that of Regency furniture, to have become almost completely Anglicized. Indeed, in Holman Hunt’s photo, the “Egyptian” chairs are displayed with an English sixteenth-century hall chair and an ornate German eighteenth-century sideboard, further suggesting an assimilative tendency.

Not only did the Pre-Raphaelites practice iconographic imperialism while preaching purity of scene, but they rationalized their practice. William Michael Rossetti wrote two manuscripts, “The Flowers of Ancient Egypt,” and “The Gardens of Ancient Egypt,” in which he described the relation of the decorative and the painterly arts:

Most important, of course, delighting not only the generations that expressed it but also the eyes of today, was the influence of flowers upon every kind of artistic product from tiny amulets and lotus-shaped cups to the prows of ships, to ceiling and wall decorations, and gigantic temple colonnades. In all civilised countries the forms of vegetation have affected to some extent the arts of design but only in Egypt did the architect and the joiner derive from them not merely ornamental motives and patterns but also great constructional features. (W. Rossetti, “The Flowers of Ancient Egypt” [15])

Thus, we see that Rossetti defines Egypt as an early civilized country, one in which practical craft and artistic expression went hand in hand.

Holman Hunt, too, asserts that “from the time of the Egyptians, all great artists have founded their beauty upon selection, and not upon the falsifying of Nature” (Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1:86), despite what we have just seen in The Lantern Maker’s Courtship. Hunt goes on to say that

With my practical experience in designing patterns for fabrics, I had grown to regard all decorative design as part of a true artist’s ambition, and I declared that until our craft again employed itself in devising beautiful forms, taste in furniture, in costume, and even in architecture would remain as bad as, or grow worse than it had been for the last fifty years, during which time the practice of design had been left to tradesmen only. (Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1:110)

Perhaps the reason for the discrepancy between Hunt’s views and his practice lies in an earlier statement:

Notwithstanding all the disadvantages suffered at the [British] Museum, it provided the opportunity essential to every student of art to trace the growth of Sculpture from Egypt and Assyria, Greece and Rome, with their national differences. (Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1:39)

So, then, the exotic is studied under controlled conditions, and may be understood from artifacts taken out of their original contexts. It is no wonder that Hunt had few qualms about introducing an English table into a Cairo street, yet could call it, with Ruskin, “absolute fidelity to Nature, selecting nothing and rejecting nothing.”

It is perhaps fitting to conclude with Holman Hunt in Egypt, where he began to realize why absolute fidelity to Nature was impracticable, if not impossible. He had “no ambition to illustrate modern Cairo; I was re-reading Herodotus, Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, the Bible, and Lane’s Modern Egyptians, and what I saw was for the time studied only to make the records of ancient history clearer” (Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1:377). Hunt’s study was conducted through the guiding English eyes of Wilkinson and Lane, and when Hunt’s Nile barge “once landed to inspect the extensive ruins of a Ptolemaic temple at Beit-al Hagar, [it] reminded me of our nineteenth-century Gothic, inasmuch as it proved to be a late date done in imitation of the ‘correct style’ of earlier days, although destitute of sincerity and vitality” (Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1:391).

In “Rossetti’s Aesthetic Economy,” John Barclay asserts that in “The Burden of Nineveh,” the narrator cannot truly assimilate the meaning of an ancient religious statue in the British Museum:

[t]he museum democratizes the image, making it available to the public and allowing it to be revalued by its viewers. Its value comes to be defined by its present place in a collection rather than by its original cultural context, as Rossetti implies in picturing it among the gods of Greece and Egypt. . . . What was once the god of Nineveh becomes the god of Britain in the eyes of some future archaeologist who finds London a “desert place.”

Although Barclay’s topic is Rossetti’s poem, we can see that Barclay’s assertion that “value comes to be defined by [a] place in a collection rather than by original cultural context” rings true. The Pre-Raphaelites, in an attempt to return to the simplicity of nature and to see through the eyes of artists from ages past, inadvertently followed the very sorts of imperialist cultural practices they professed to abhor, leading Rossetti to aestheticism; Hunt to realism; and Millais, Collins, Collinson, and Woolner to genre work. The lens through which they viewed the past was, as Holman Hunt put it, “a solemn mockery,” a glass through which a true but colored image was produced.

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