I have been working for just over a year now on science and the Pre-Raphaelites, and I’ve just been awarded an AHRC Fellowship under the heading of ‘Science in Culture’ to spend next year working on this project. Critics have often remarked that the Pre-Raphaelites said that they modelled their art on science in some of their early writings, but no one has really taken this claim very seriously. I want to pursue it across the full range of their work in painting and sculpture, poetry and art theory, even architecture and museum design, to see what difference it makes to how we look at a Pre-Raphaelite painting, for instance, and to see what difference the Pre-Raphaelites made to Victorian science itself.
From October I am going to be working with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Natural History Museum in London, looking at how Pre-Raphaelite principles of truth to nature in art shaped the buildings where we still go to learn about the science of life and to wonder at the natural world. In the case of the Oxford University Museum, the Pre-Raphaelites were directly involved, especially in the sculptures, including Thomas Woolner’s brilliantly alert and animated statue of Francis Bacon.
In the new year I am going to start work too with a team from the Manchester Art Gallery and the Manchester Museum to explore how we might be able to draw out the scientific underpinnings of Pre-Rpahaelite painting through public events and exhibitions. And next summer I am going to spend some time in the Anthropological Institute. The Pre-Raphaelite poet Algernon Swinburne was the enfant terrible of Victorian poetry, infamous for his erotic poetry which explored sexuality from all angles, including sado-masochism, homosexuality and hermaphroditism, and also for his defiant attacks on Christianity and his uncompromising revolutionary politics. At the same time, he was a member of the Anthropological Society, alongside his friend the famous explorer Richard Burton. By reading through the Anthropological Society papers, I hope to find out how far Swinburne’s radical poetry was shaped by the more risky, less respectable side of Victorian anthropology. For now I’ve got to get my head down and start reading more Victorian art theory and criticism, rereading the Pre-Raphaelites’ poetry, and getting up to speed on the most recent scholarship in the field, but it is the collaborations with these outstanding partners, and the chance to work on these magnificent buildings, paintings and archives, that I am really looking forward to.