This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.
Guest post written by Georgia Lockwood Estrin, digital volunteer
What was it that influenced the Pre-Raphaelites? John Holmes, from the University of Reading, successfully persuaded his audience at the One Culture festival, that the works of this famous group of artists were influenced, whether directly or indirectly, by science. The link between the Pre-Raphaelites and science has not been much explored, though the Pre-Raphaelites were working in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and science was constantly in the background.
Pre-Raphaelite art is characterised by their minute description of detail, and this hugely detailed observation of nature was something that only painting could capture at this time – photography and other technologies were nowhere near the advanced level they are today. John Holmes took us through the different characters from the Brotherhood, illustrating each one’s personal interests and preoccupations with nature and science. John Ruskin, for example, was hugely interested in Geology and his paintings are full of incredible detail of rocks and stone; whilst the movement of water is extraordinarily technically observed and captured on his canvas. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, on the other hand, scorned the sciences stating ‘what could it matter whether the earth moved around the sun, or the sun travelled around the earth?’ however; even he still illustrated the use of the principles of science, such as the earth spinning, in his poems.
In 1850, The Germ – a periodical published by the Pre-Raphaelites to disseminate their ideas – boldly stated that sciences may ‘greatly assist the moral purposed of the arts’, as it is ‘precise in the search after truth’. Art, therefore, for the Pre-Raphaelites operated in a scientific way – it was all about observation.
In 1860, Oxford University Museum began to be built, which is a living testament to the how the principles of science and importance of detailed observation were encompassed in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. Carvings at the top of the pillars were worked on by observation of specimens from Oxford Botanic Gardens, and are hugely precise and detailed. Here, in their sculptures, they illustrated scientists in the act of thinking – not in the customary laboratory setting. Their work showed an inspired vision of science and portrayed scientists as artists. Newton can be seen looking down at his apple, at the moment of inspiration; Galileo is looking up at the stars, and Hippocrates is thinking. The Pre-Raphaelite art in the museum illustrates a sense of individuality and uniqueness as a part of the natural world, placing scientists as artists in their own right. The museum, therefore, represents the reciprocal relationship between arts and scientists, as realised by the Pre-Raphaelites.
After John’s talk I caught up with him to talk about this further – click here to listen to our conversation.