8th March 2022
On International Women’s Day, it’s important to us to celebrate strong women both past and present, so today we’re turning our attention to the Pre Raphaelite women. There’s quite a few to note, but for today, we’re going to focus on some noticeable talent within the group, including May Morris and Christina Rossetti. There’s a whole bunch we could write and chat about, it’s always interesting to look through the women who were successful in their own right, with the societal background not as empowering towards them as it is today.
A well known artist, Christina Rossetti is known for modelling in several of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings. Not to be overshadowed by this, she is a hugely famous writer. You might even have been singing her Christmas carol, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ every year.
Writing from 1842, Christina mostly imitated her famous poets and it wasn’t until 1847 she began her own style of work with experimentation of verse forms. At the age of 18, she published two poems, ‘Death’s Chill Between’ and ‘Heart’s Chill Between’ both of which appeared in Athenaeum in 1848. Under her pen-name ‘Ellen Alleyne’ she also began her public career in The Germ- a literary magazine which was published by the Pre-Raphaelites (edited by her other brother, William.)
Goblin Market and Other Poems is her famous collection and is the work she is best remembered for, which was published in 1862. The reviews placed her as the foremost female poet of the time. In the time from then, many critics have debated the title poem’s meaning, many see it as a commentary on Victorian gender roles and female agency- give it a read and see what you deem from the poem!
Indeed it could be from personal experiences she encountered; from 1859- 1870, Rossetti was a volunteer worker at the St. Mary Magdalene ‘House of Charity’ based in Highgate. This charity worked as a refuge for former prostitutes which she felt passionate about- opposed to many issues in society before the time they were addressed, she very much opposed the exploration of girls in under-age prostitution. There was also feminist themes running through her poetry. Whilst many may think of Pre-Raphaelite women as simply those that posed for their brothers/friends and husbands paintings, Rossetti very much bucks the perceived image and shows that not only can a woman be an image of beauty, but work to become hugely successful- and remembered- in her own right, but also have time to work for the rights of others.
“Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.”- Christina Rossetti
May Morris is a really interesting woman. Aged just 23, she took over, and ran, the entire embroidery section of her fathers company, Morris & Co. after completing her studies at Kensington School of Design. It was from this point on that all designs were done by both her and John Henry Dearle- what a huge accomplishment at any time, but especially during this era when the vast majority of women did not work or weren’t taken seriously in the work place.
May also founded the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907; remaining the president until 1935. May saw that there was an ‘Art Workers’ Guild’ for men, established in 1884, May pushed the boundaries and formed the women’s equivalent. Only from 1960 have women been allowed into the original Guild, however this fact alone shows that May was years ahead of the changing attitudes to gender equality- seeing she couldn’t be admitted into a society which were inspired by her fathers ideas and the Arts and Crafts Movement, she showed her determination by doing it herself!
When you think of Pre-Raphaelite women, you may immediately think of their pale skin and flowing tresses, both of which are focused on in literature. However- we’d challenge you to look further at these women and look into their successes- we know we’re sometimes guilty of it on this blog at giving a heavy focus on the men and their achievements, and we’re working on changing this; the women showed just as much talent, and in the Victorian era when the women were much more suppressed than today’s society, it’s hard to not be in awe of all they achieved!