Dr John Holmes’s AHRC Research Fellowship on the Pre-Raphaelites and Science

Since the start of October, I’ve been working on an AHRC Research Fellowship on the Pre-Raphaelites and science. Over the project as a whole I am going to be looking at Pre-Raphaelite poetry, painting and art criticism, but I’m starting off looking at how Pre-Raphaelite artistic ideals and practices shaped the decoration and design of Victorian natural history museums. I’ve been looking at two key buildings in particular.

Dr John Holmes at museum for pre-raphaelite art and science research project

Dr John Holmes scrutinizes woodwork in museum for his pre-raphaelite art and science project

First, I spent a few weeks reading through the archives of the Oxford University Museum, and looking closely at the museum itself. When the leading Oxford scientists finally persuaded the University to build them a science faculty (as we’d now call it) in the 1850s, they held a competition for the building. They ended up making an audacious, eccentric and ultimately brilliant choice, opting for Gothic architecture as the best style for their modern science museum and laboratories. The architects they chose were the Irish firm of Deane and Woodward, who had been inspired by the ideals of John Ruskin. The scientist who gave the project its momentum, Henry Acland, was an old friend of Ruskin’s, and a friend and patron of Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Lizzie Siddal. Ruskin introduced Woodward to Rossetti, and Rossetti put him in touch with the Pre-Raphaelite sculptors Thomas Woolner, John Lucas Tupper, and Alexander Munro, who went on to carve the dynamic statues of scientists who surround the museum’s main court. Meanwhile, Woodward’s stone-masons who had come over from Ireland – the brothers James and John O’Shea, and their nephew Edward Whelan – were carving some of the most beautiful, vibrant and intricate decorative stonework done since the middle ages. Between them, Woodward, the Pre-Raphaelites, the O’Sheas and the Oxford scientists created not only a rich and continually surprising building, but one of the most original and imaginative symbolic representations of the natural world and the scientific project ever created. (I’ll be giving a talk on the Oxford University Museum as a Pre-Raphaelite museum in a couple of weeks – please click on this link for the flier if you would like to come along.

The second building where Pre-Raphaelite ideals came into play in representing science and nature was the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. Another triumph of Victorian Gothic (or more precisely Romanesque) architecture, the Natural History Museum was the brainchild of the great comparative anatomist Richard Owen and the architect Alfred Waterhouse. In the 1850s, when the Pre-Raphaelites had been arguing for an art modelled on science in its close observational accuracy and commitment to truth, Owen had become keen on Holman Hunt’s paintings in particular. While Owen went on to become friends with Hunt and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, Waterhouse employed Woolner and the O’Sheas to carve the sculptures and decorations for the Manchester Assize Courts and Ford Madox Brown to paint the murals for the Manchester Town Hall. When they came to design and build the Natural History Museum, Owen and Waterhouse had the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of an art grounded in science and giving a true image of nature in their minds. The result is another building that is at once fantastic in its richness and decorative exuberance, and meticulous in the accuracy with which it depicts the animals and plants that adorn its walls, windows, roofs and arches.

Both museums look to represent nature, both are masterpieces, and both were born from a combination of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics and Natural Theology (the view of science as revealing God’s work in Nature). Even so, they offer very different aesthetic experiences and even intellectual experiences. What I am moving on to think about now is why this should be, and how, in particular, the different materials, plans, styles and techniques of the two buildings give us subtly but very significantly different interpretations of the natural world.

Dr John Holmes, Department of English Literature, University of Reading.