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The Pre-Raphaelites in Oxford: Introduction

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, consisted of seven young men, including John Everett Millais (1829--1896), William Holman Hunt (1827--1910), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882); this gave birth to a wider movement, which brought in the critic, John Ruskin (1819--1900), and the younger artists, William Morris (1834--1896) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833--1898). The Pre-Raphaelites started out with the aim of revitalising British painting and sculpture by returning to the careful study of nature, which they found in medieval and early Renaissance art. But as the movement grew it came to affect all the arts -- including architecture, stained glass, textiles, furniture, wallpaper -- as well as poetry and politics. Burne-Jones and Morris were students here at Exeter College, and the Oxford they knew was a small, medieval city, bordered by meadows on one side and woods on the other. College life stimulated ideas of brotherhood which led to artistic cooperation and ultimately to blueprints for an imagined socialist future, when workers would be free from dependence on the machine and able to enjoy making and appreciating art of all kinds.Thomas Combe, superintendent of the Clarendon Press, befriended Millais and Hunt and built up a fine collection of their paintings and drawings, which is now in the Ashmolean Museum. When Morris and Burne-Jones were at Exeter College from 1853, it was the Combe collection which attracted them to the Pre-Raphaelites, and particularly to Rossetti. Rossetti was the instigator of the most ambitious project the artists undertook in Oxford, the decoration of the debating chamber in the Oxford Union in 1857.John Ruskin came to Christ Church as a student in 1837. His volumes, Modern Painters, published anonymously by "a graduate of Oxford" had a profound influence on the artists, and his art criticism ensured their success. His injunction to young artists to "go to nature -- rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing" had a particularly strong impact on landscape painters. He kept up his links with Oxford later in life, becoming Slade Professor and establishing the Ruskin School of Drawing.
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