Art criticism in the Pre-Raphaelite era

26 February 2016 by Lisa

Ann bukantas pre-raphs

Ann Bukantas being interviewed about ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion’ for BBC North West Tonight.

Our Pre-Raphaelites exhibition seems to have got journalists very excited. We’ve seen national previews, a four-star review in the Liverpool Echo and a flame-haired beauty adorning the cover of The Big Issue North!

While Pre-Raphaelite art is very popular today, it was not always warmly received by the media of its time, with the movement’s bold and imaginative work often regarded as challenging or outrageous.

‘They were the punk rockers of their day – subversive, rule-breaking, dangerous’ – Mark Brown, The Guardian, 2016

Here our curator, Ann Bukantas, looks at some of the art critics and publications that surrounded the Pre-Raphaelite movement:

“The Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion exhibition and catalogue give an insight into what contemporary critics had to say about Pre-Raphaelite art. But who were the main writers and where could audiences read their reviews?

Art criticism thrived in the second half of the 19th century. Among the critics of the time were Frederic George Stephens, who wrote for the ‘Athenaeum’ and Tom Taylor who worked for ‘The Times’. William Michael Rossetti – the brother of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti – wrote for various periodicals including the ‘Spectator’.

It is in part thanks to Stephens’s detailed reviews of a number of Liverpool and Birkenhead’s private art collections, published in the ‘Athenaeum’ between 1875 and 1887, that we have such an insight into local collecting.

‘Liverpool has, next to London, the highest place in regard to connoisseurship…’ – FG Stephens, Athenaeum, 1884

There were many other newspapers and periodicals operating and most featured art criticism, including ‘Saturday Review’ and ‘Fortnightly Review’. Perhaps the best known is the conservative and anti-Pre-Raphaelite ‘Art Journal’, published monthly from 1849 until the early 20th century.


Later in the 19th century, more liberal publications including ‘Magazine of Art and Studio’ emerged. ‘The Times’ gave very complete accounts of exhibitions, while across the UK local newspapers chronicled provincial exhibitions. In Liverpool these included ‘The Liverpool Mercury’, which contained reviews with frequent discussion about Pre-Raphaelitism and the activities of the Liverpool Academy, and from 1860 the satirical ‘Porcupine’ journal included commentary on the town’s emergent middle classes and their cultural pursuits.

John Ruskin, whose writings influenced the Pre-Raphaelites, was also a critic, although not attached to any publication. His reviews of the Royal Academy exhibitions and occasionally other London exhibitions were issued as pamphlets and distributed in a series of revised editions while the exhibitions were running, between 1855 and 1859, and on one further occasion in 1875.

If you are interested in reading these reviews and commentaries at first-hand, major reference libraries often have copies of publications such as ‘Art Journal’. Specialist art libraries like the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum  have wide collections of relevant material, while reference and local studies libraries and online archives are ideal sources for newspaper reviews.”

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