I was excited to hear about Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang, as I’ve long been a fan of Kirsty Stonell Walker’s brilliant website, The Kissed Mouth. I was even happier when the publishers kindly sent me a review copy.
The book includes 50 profiles of the oft-ignored women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, beautifully illustrated by both the art they created and inspired, and work by Kingsley Nebechi.
Some names are more familiar than others: Christina Rossetti and Jane Morris sit alongside Anna Blunden, Rosa Corder and Fanny Eaton – and many other people who were new to me.
The ‘girl gang’ is presented in chronological order, allowing you to see the connections between women. Some were friends, some shared lovers and all helped shape what we see as Pre-Raphaelite.
I turned straight to the section about May Morris, as I’m writing a novel based around her. I loved the way Stonell Walker deftly captured her essence, shedding light on lesser-known aspects of her life:
‘Life must have seemed very quiet for May until the arrival of Miss Mart Francis Vivian Lobb, steam-roller driving, hard-drinking, land-girl inventor.’
The chapter on Jane Morris was equally thorough and enlightening, with humorous touches:
“Jane… must have been delighted to be appreciated for the first time, especially as it was by someone who didn’t smell like horses.”
I was hooked on the book. I returned to the beginning (1815, when Julia Margaret Cameron was born) and immersed myself in a world of artists and muses, privileged and poor women.
Opening with a female photographer who received her first camera aged 48 shows this is not a book to focus on young, beautiful muses alone. I was fascinated to learn that Pre-Raphaelite photographs exist, having previously associated the movement with painting, stained glass, jewellery, furniture, textiles and other traditional arts but not photography.
The book offers so many glorious snippets that it creates a wonderful picture of the Pre-Raphaelite scene – and its impact on the world. It also shows the world wasn’t always as glamorous as the paintings depicted. Fanny Eaton modelled to support her ten children. Dickens’ cruel comments meant Mary Hodgkinson gave up modelling altogether. Rosa Brett let her brother take credit for her own paintings, and be sold as his art: and Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti featured in a Playboy photospread (which may have offended her strong Christian values, had she been around to witness it).
The women are frequently stifled, cheated on or suffer (often tragic) health issues. However, they also create theatres and embroidery schools, make art, and rise through society through their role as muses. (The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood loved ‘saving’ women: Pygmalion demonstrated this trend. However, they often seemed unable to limit their ‘saving’ when a new pretty, young woman ‘in need’ came along…)
Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang is no quick read. At over 250 pages, it’s information-rich but Stonell Walker’s light and humorous style means it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
If you’re interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, this book is a must-buy. Even if you’re not, there are enough tales of tragedy, romance, scandal and intrigue to keep you gripped.
The style also makes it ideal if you have limited energy (get the ebook if you need a physically light book). Each entry acts as a stand-alone story of four to six pages, with plenty of examples of beautiful art reprinted in full colour. This makes it ideal to dip in and out of, though reading it as a whole presents a vivid picture of the Pre-Raphaelite movement (and makes you realise quite what a cad Rossetti was!)
A great book to keep you entertained this autumn – and for £15 (or £11.25 from the Unicorn Publishing site at the moment), it should fill a lot of dark nights with beauty.