- Interdisciplinary Pre-Raphaelite Cambridge Companion
The new Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites brings scholarship on the Pre-Raphaelites in line with the precedent set over 250 years ago by the group itself. That is, the PRB painted and wrote poetry, and painted about poetry, often combining the two in a single “double” work. They wrote, illustrated, and designed—furntiture, frames, pages and books. In practice and in theory, the Pre-Raphaelites as a group were avowedly, explicitly, even aggressively cross disciplinary. It makes sense, then, that the scholarship devoted to their work would have analogously interdisciplinary practices and traditions—but by and large, this simply hasn’t been the case. As volume editor Elizabeth Prettejohn explains—and as a prolific scholar on the group [End Page 400] from the art historical side as well as an accomplished curator, she would know—art historical and literary scholarship on the Pre-Raphaelites has instead been characterized by “a regrettable segregation.” Her volume is clearly designed to bridge this gap. The fact that it does so ensures its usefulness not only to the target audience of advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate students—for whom a Cambridge Companion is often a first stop—but to more advanced scholars of art history and literature whose background in the other relevant discipline may be more cursory than scholarly.
The range of topics and contributors is admirably balanced, if slightly skewed towards the art historical in terms of a disciplinary home (seven from literature, ten from art history, including the volume editor). Many though not all of the individual essays furthermore take an interdisciplinary approach themselves, with literature scholars addressing elements of visual arts and vice versa. Thus the volume has the added side benefit of illustrating how different disciplines approach the interaction of their respective fields. In historicizing the particular visual and verbal techniques and approaches various PRB members employed, at its best the volume provides discipline-specific insights on a range of quite specialized topics—drawing, for example, furniture design, or metrical variation—and in collecting them in a single volume makes them valuable to an audience who might well have expertise in one of these areas but not another.
The Companion is divided into two parts. The first addresses topics that concerned the group as a whole—their relationship to historical precedent and contemporary visual, verbal, and intellectual culture as well as Andrew Stauffer’s introduction to the collaboration that produced group’s short-lived but influential magazine The Germ. A common thread for the volume—apparently by coincidence rather than design—is found in Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt’s 1848 “list of Immortals,” reproduced in an appendix. The different uses contributors make of this list of influences illustrate the variety in approach, topic, and scope to be found among the volume’s essays. So Isobel Armstrong, the leading critic of Victorian poetry of the past several decades, reads this list as indicative of the early Brotherhood’s republican and feminist politics and of “an attempt to unite an English literary tradition with a continental tradition” in addition to uniting the visual with the verbal. Armstrong concentrates on members’ interactions with one another and with individual literary precedents; her critical points are broader and (as she points out) do more [End Page 401] to suggest paths of further study than to follow them. Art historian Jenny Graham’s essay, by contrast, though paralleling Armstrong’s use of the Immortals list to explore the Pre-Raphaelites’ relationship to historical precedents, focuses on understanding the group’s interest in early Renaissance art in terms of the artistic training members would have received as students and trends in the emerging (critical, textual) discipline of art history. Members’ “encounters with literary and textual sources preceded the group’s experience of particular works of early Renaissance art” such that “Pre-Raphaelitism represented the culmination rather than the origin” of a cultural turn to artists before Raphael and transformed “what was previously tolerated as a quaint fashion for the ‘primitives … into a polemical...