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Latest News

21/03/14 08:23pm
In April and May a series of exciting events will be taking place celebrating the industrial and cultural heritage of the Oxford Canal. Organised by the Heritage Lottery funded Oxford Canal Heritage...
28/03/13 09:58am
The Jericho Living Heritage Trust is seeking a part-time manager to lead a project which is ‘Celebrating the heritage of Oxford’s canal’. The post-holder will oversee implementation of a grant...
28/03/13 09:45am
Today, the Jericho Living Heritage Trust, working on behalf of the Oxford City Canal Partnership has received a £65,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for an exciting project in Oxford....
30/03/12 10:34am
We have reached another key point in the campaign to acquire and develop the boatyard site for the community, and would like to bring everyone up to date. In the first stage of this project you...

Jericho and the Pre-Raphaelites

The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.
William Morris

Few people are aware that the area of Oxford known as Jericho has a number of striking connections with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which, as well as being the only British art movement to take on international significance, has claims to being the best-loved art movement of all. The Pre-Raphaelites' patron Thomas Combe, in company with his wife Martha, presided over what became a kind of ‘good-humoured salon’ in Jericho at the Combe's residence in Walton Street and the existence of this Jericho base led to the creation of a series of memorable paintings which were first of all painted, then hung and exhibited in Jericho. 1

In 1850 Combe, who was then printer to the university, came across John Everett Millais in Botley Wood where, together with Charles Collins - Wilkie's brother – he was engaged in painting. Combe took an interest in what they were both doing and invited them back to Jericho for lunch. Millais and Collins declined the invitation on the grounds that they were too busy. Undeterred, Combe sent them over a hamper of food on his return and this was how the relationship began – one which would establish Jericho as a stamping-ground for Collins and Millais, later to be followed by other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. By the end of September, 1850, Collins and Millais had both moved into Combe's house in Walton Street where Millais painted Combe's portrait and Collins finished the garden in the background of his Convent Thoughts.2

Combe suggested ideas for and bought a considerable number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings notably Dante Drawing an Angel; The School-Girl's Hymn; The Afterglow in Egypt; A Converted British Family Sheltering from Druids; The Return of the Dove to the Ark; London Bridge; and The Light of the World. William Holman Hunt would also come to live in the Combe's residence – Printer's House in Jericho – where he painted his allegory The Light of the World. It depicts the glowing figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long un-opened door; the door is thought to symbolise the human conscience and, significantly, cannot be opened from the outside but only from within. Hunt told Combe while he was painting it in Jericho that he was sustained by the thought that 'it might find its resting place in Oxford'. Combe duly bought it – for four hundred guineas – and a side-chapel at Keble College Chapel would later be funded by Martha Combe in order to house it. Martha, or 'Mrs Pat' as she was affectionately (though inexplicably) nicknamed by Millais was a maternal figure to the young group of Pre-Raphaelites. She was an accomplished painter in her own right and had been a pupil of the water-colourist David Cox. Millais would frequently ask her to help him find props for his pictures and she was clearly quite as influential a patron as her husband. 'Mrs. Pat' persuaded her uncle, a Mr Bennet, to buy Holman Hunt s work and, throughout her lifetime, she was a regular recipient of letters from Millais who, on one occasion, commented on the reaction to himself and to his fellow painters by the inhabitants of Oxfordshire who were ‘given to that wondering stare, as though we were as strange a sight as a hippopotamus.’3

When Edward Burne-Jones happened to see Hunt's picture The Light of the World exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855 and when he later learned of the Combe's patronage he determined, together with William Morris, to visit Jericho in order to see the rest of Combe's collection. It was here that ‘the picture that impressed the friends most was a watercolour by Dante Gabriel Rosetti that had only recently entered the collection, The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice. This, Burne-Jones later recalled, was our “greatest wonder and delight, and at once he [Rossetti] seemed to us the chief figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.”’4

As a medieval town, Oxford fulfilled Burne-Jones' fondest dreams and he would often make pilgrimages along the river to the ruins at Godstowe and the burial place of Fair Rosamund, the beloved mistress of Henry II, where ‘he saw so intense a vision of the Middle Ages as he walked beside the river that he had to throw stones into the water to break the dream.’ The Combe's collection of paintings with their intensely poetic evocations of the Middle Ages, and most particularly their recently acquired Rossetti evidently struck a powerful chord with Morris and Burne-Jones, who found that Rossetti's picture ‘corresponded exactly to their own ardent romanticism, and they were captivated by the artistic personality behind it.’5

Such was the spell which Combe's painting cast upon them that Morris and Burne-Jones left Jericho apparently determined to track down Rossetti and apprentice themselves to him. Rossetti agreed and Burne-Jones would subsequently spend every day in Rossetti's studio with Morris joining them both at the weekends. It was thus at the Combe's house in Jericho that the most productive ingredients of the Pre-Raphaelitism movement were first assembled. In the summer of 1857 Burne-Jones and Morris, in company with Rossetti, returned to Oxford in order to engage in a huge collective work - painting ten Arthurian frescoes in the Oxford Union debating chamber (now the Library):‘The artists called this period “the Jovial Campaign” and Val Prinsep described this extremely relaxed atmosphere and the general veneration for Rossetti as follows: “What fun we had in that Union! What jokes! What roars of laughter! ...He [Rossetti] was the planet around which we revolved. We copied his very way of speaking... Medievalism was our beau ideal and we sank our own individuality in the strong personality of our adored Gabriel.”’ As Tim Hilton has noted ‘...the group did develop a collective personality that was an extension of Rossetti's own; boisterous, yet touchingly Romantic; fun-loving yet deeply idealistic. It was perhaps not the right combination to deal with the job in hand, and actually the project was never completed.’6

One evening towards the end of the summer Burne-Jones interrupted their fresco painting (and also his own stint at modelling for a portrait of the sleeping Launcelot), and he and Rossetti paid a visit to the theatre in Oxford where they met a17-year-old girl called Jane Burden, the daughter of a Holywell Street stable-hand. Burne-Jones and Rossetti declared her to ‘a stunner’ and persuaded her to model for them. Jane promptly inspired a rash of activity and would quickly come to typify the face of Pre-Raphaelite beauty – turning into a kind of Victorian English equivalent of France's 'Marianne'. Jane modelled for Rossetti's painting The Blue Silk Dress together with his Proserpine, and when Bernard Shaw met her he reflected ‘When she came into a room in her strangely beautiful garments, looking at least eight feet high, the effect was as if she had walked out of an Egyptian tomb at Luxor.’ She also modelled for Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin; for William Morris's Queen Guinevere and his La Belle Iseult; for Rossetti's A Vision of Fiammetta and his Blanzifiore or Snowdrops; as well as Burne-Jones' window in Christ Church Cathedral of St Catherine with Two Angels, and his tapestry, The Star of Bethlehem, in Exeter College Chapel. Salvador Dali referred to these paintings of her as ‘lunar legends’ and (speaking of himself in the third person) he described the extraordinary impact of this Pre-Raphaelite paradigm who was so often to find her way into Jericho and the Combe's house in order to pose.

And how could Salvador Dali not be overwhelmed by the flagrant Surrealism of English Pre-Raphaelitism? The Pre-Raphaelite painters serve us up resplendent women who are at once the most desirable and most frightening ever seen: ‘Pre- Raphaelitism puts on the table this sensational dish of the eternal feminine.’ Jane, who would later marry William Morris in Oxford, expressed the wish before her death that Rossetti's painting of her as Proserpine be presented to the Ashmolean Museum where it still hangs. For the most part the Pre-Raphaelites were free to paint whoever they wished and sell on their paintings later rather than being dependant on commissions, with the result was that they were able to carry out something of a realignment, if not a subversion, of the whole system.

With rare exceptions, their predecessors such as Reynolds and Gainsborough merely serviced a stagnant class-system by aggrandising the aristocracy with courtly paintings, whereas the Pre-Raphaelites were able to forge a new kind of contract between painter and model. In the words of Andrea Rose:

‘Painter and model sit as more equal partners, and within this artistic democracy the painter is free to create his own imaginative hierarchies. Where Reynolds painted his patrons in the dress appropriate to their status, Rossetti can make a queen out of a shop-girl, a goddess out of a stable-groom's daughter, a deity out of a cockney trollop. Elizabeth Siddall, the milliner's assistant becomes Regina Cordium, the Queen of Hearts; Jane Morris is Proserpine; Fanny Cornforth [a Soho prostitute] is Lilith. In this new contract, the traditional constituents of aristocracy - blood, breeding, estate - are cancelled.’7

In Lyra's Oxford, Philip Pullman called Jericho as 'the coastline Oxford shares with Bohemia' and the Pre-Raphaelites could certainly lay claim to having made a contribution to Jericho's Bohemian atmosphere. If nothing else the Pre-Raphaelite movement – whose Arthurian and gothic dress was destined to be mimicked in a quite different social context - has stood for a certain nobility of soul, intensely concerned to honour the aspirations of John Ruskin, the movement's Oxford mentor and - as Morris and Burne-Jones both referred to him - 'a Luther of the arts' who declared in The Arts of England that 'the Pre- Raphaelitism common to us all is in the frankness and honesty of the touch'. Ruskin required his disciples to 'Go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction...'8

Despite its industrial past, the Jericho canal still retains a lush and magical flavour, full of ‘the poetry of the things about us’ to use a phrase from the Pre-Raphaelites' magazine, The Germ, and on a balmy summer's evening it is no great stretch to see Tennyson's Lady of Shallot, as visualised by John WilliamWaterhouse, floating through Jericho in her barque, bedecked with exotic hangings; or indeed to detect Millais' flower-strewn Ophelia lying just beneath the watery surface – the painting's richly burgeoning detail prompting John Ruskin to describe it as 'the loveliest English landscape; tinged by Sorrow.' Millais had used the daughter of an Oxford auctioneer, Elizabeth Siddall, as his model for Ophelia and in March, 1852, he wrote to Mrs Combe ‘To-day I have purchased a really splendid lady's ancient dressall flowered over in silver embroidery-and I am going to paint it for 'Ophelia'. You may imagine it is something rather good when I tell you it cost me, old and dirty as it is, four pounds."9

But the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood stood also for a staunchly high-minded political radicalism - an aspect that has often been overlooked, due in all likelihood to the movement's beguiling and often mysterious medievalism. William Morris, however, made no bones about the movement's utopian philosophy, declaring, for example, that 'No man is good enough to be another's master.' In Ford Madox Brown's painting Work, which depicted workers tearing a hole in the ground (a symbolic hole, it has been suggested, that tears through the class-bound social fabric of the period), a crowd is being urged to 'Vote for Bobus' through .an election campaign which Brown indicates by people carrying sandwich boards and posters in the streets displaying the name of the candidate 'Bobus'. The fictitious name of the political candidate which Brown had chosen for his painting was a sly reference to the name of a character in Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present: Bobus Higgins, was a corrupt sausage maker who used horsemeat in his products in order to undercut competitors. At the left of the painting Ford Maddox Brown shows a 'Vote for Bobus' poster. However, closer inspection reveals that it has been hit by a ball of mud or even faeces and has the word “don't” chalked onto it.

As things presently stand, British Waterways, a public body responsible for the Jericho canal and its adjoining land, has chosen to evict Jericho's boating community (which, until now, it has been responsible for), and to do so by force, in the company's quest for any old 'Bobus' to sell the site to. In sweeping aside the interests and affections of Jericho's residents, both land and water-based, they swiftly earned for themselves the unwelcome sobriquet 'Brutish Waterways'. Jericho's intensely local and distinctive nature currently threatens to be sacrificed to the mercantilism of property privateers and ribbon developers whose plans, on close examination, amount to no more than a jobbing architect's hand-me-downs: atmosphere-proof, Lego-like dwelling-units predictably built not to house the needy but to satisfy the inexorable greed of 'buy-to-let' property investors; and which, were such plans to be approved, would go towards rendering Jericho indistinguishable from Milton Keynes in an insidious erosion. It now seems astonishing that yet another predatory beast from Mammon's sickly abyss should surface and yet again threaten a unique place such as Jericho with being buried alive beneath breeze-block service-station architecture and all because the city council seems only to be fulfilled when cravenly pleasuring ruthlessly commercial outside interests. In the words of Karl Kraus, ‘Progress is a Pyrrhic victory over nature’, and it is a short-sighted form of progress that requires the destruction of a place where people feel happy, and where once a group of seminal artists enjoyed a ‘spiritual fling’ and whose work was devoted to celebrating a kind of ethereal, but enduring goodness.

 

  1. Jon Whiteley, Oxford and the Pre-Raphaelites (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1989), p.26 
  2. Jon Whiteley, Oxford and the Pre-Raphaelites (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1989), p.25 
  3. Andrea Rose, Pre-Raphaelite Portraits (The Oxford Illustrated Press: Oxford, 1981), p.58 
  4. Georgina Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones (London: 1904), vol. I, p.110 
  5. Memorials, vol. 1., p.97, cited in Stephen Wildman and John Christian, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), p.45 
  6. Tim Hilton, The Pre-Raphaelites, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970) p.164 
  7. Andrea Rose, Pre-Raphaelite Portraits (The Oxford Illustrated Press: Oxford, 1981), pp12-13. 
  8. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol.1, 1843. 
  9. John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, vol. 1, 1899, p.162. 
Last modified: 3 November, 2009