PART THREE OF THE CHARACTER OF LIGHT: JOHN KEATS AND VICTORIAN PAINTERS
When the Pre-Raphaelites, ardently following “the footsteps of Keats” away from mannerism towards revitalized Gothicism, took inspiration from the fresh, saturated colours of his imagery and medieval settings, they chose to overlook his devout Hellenism and appreciation of Raphael’s “heroic simplicity and unaffected grandeur”. 
Their admiration for his technique of conveying intensity of sensory experience was genuine – “the next Keats can only be a painter” observed Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a letter to William Morris – but like many apostles they distorted the vision of their prophet.
Keats had been impressed by “magnificence of draperies beyond anything I saw, not excepting Raphael’s” in the engravings of mid-fourteenth century frescoes he had seen at his friend Benjamin Haydon’s studio. He thought they were “grotesque…yet still making up a fine whole – even finer to me than more accomplish’d works as there was left so much room for Imagination”.
The last phrase, about the transfer of creative power from artist to observer, is the give-away. He discriminated, knowing mannered art from true in “The blaze, the splendour, and the symmetry” in which the imagery of Hyperion luxuriates, but his overriding interest was as a writer, polishing rough magic with his own language, bringing new life to monochrome romances of the past, medieval pageants or grecian processions, by selecting “colours from the sunset”, filtering real life through his own emotional perception.
He took much of the visual detail and intimations of mortality in The Eve of St Agnes and the Nightingale and Grecian Urn Odes directly from reading Haydon’s art criticism and looking into Haydon’s print collection.
The PRB reimagined Keats’ gothic chambers and stained glass in bright, photographic detail, with deliberate flatness, without his mercurial element, his “feeling for light and shade”, the chiarascuro which Constable called “the soul and medium of art” and the “power which creates space”. They cluttered their canvases; in Keats’ perfumed and decorated verse, fretted with cross-questioning his own experiences, there is still room for our imaginations to breathe.
Holman Hunt faithfully rendered basil leaves and the “veiling hair” of an authentically Italianate and grief-stricken Isabella, but his colours are crude, draperies fall lumpenly, her flesh has none of Keats’ “morbidezza”, the term Hazlitt used to describe the flesh tints of Titian, that could only possibly look like human skin, nothing else.
Rossetti celebrated his sexual desire for women through Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris’s beauty, which is trapped in frozen iconography, without the palpability of Keats’ “tender-person’d” heroines, whose gentle breathing we can almost hear.
Watts’ portrait in the Pre-Raphaelite style of his seventeen year old bride, Ellen Terry, glutting on scented camellias, glows with sensory delight which overpowers the intended symbolism of her choice between worldly ostentation and the shrinking, but sweeter-smelling violet.
G.F. Watts, Choosing, oil on strawboard, c.1864. National Portrait Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia
Watts’ moral symbolism was clumsy and oppressive compared to Keats’ subtler allegories and synesthetics; but, like the poet, he experimented with different styles, reached out to the sublime, and saw dignity in the “energies” of real people, for, as Keats saw, “the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel”.
The social realist Ford Madox Brown was not a disciple of Keatsian Beauty, but his flat, comic-book history painting, Work (1852 – 65), extolling the nobility of the labourer over the indifference of the callous, idle rich, unwittingly recalls Keats’ sharply focussed denunciation, in tight, lean lines evoking a series of motion picture stills, of global capitalism’s cruel exploitation of workers and nature in Isabella.
Such consciousness of social injustice is rare in Keats’ writing, and indicates that though politics was not integral to his poetry as it was to Shelley’s and Byron’s, he was far from in denial of worldly realities.
Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-63, oil on canvas, Manchester City Art Galleries.
Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories…
(Keats, Isabella and the Pot of Basil) Image source: Wikipedia
Burne-Jones’ Beguiling of Merlin, commissioned by the great Liverpudlian shipowner and art patron, F.R. Leyland, has the chilly, sado-masochistic atmosphere of La Belle Dame Sans Merci; the hawthorn branches trapping Merlin, who looks drugged with pleasure and self-hatred, resemble the “trellis of a working brain”.
Adaptations and imitations “with little reference to nature”, in Constable’s words, “rarely approach truth of atmosphere”. Having sanctified Keats as the boy Priest of Beauty, the Aesthetic Movement infantilized him, depilating psychological, physical and social realism, leaving prettiness blanched of passion, pure white Adonais, “the broken lily” of Shelley’s eulogy. Robert Anning Bell’s line drawings illustrating the ‘Endymion Series’ look more like pubescent Flower Fairies than yearning gods with hearts on fire.
Only Aubrey Beardsley’s curving lines and chiarascuro pierce beauty’s bittersweet ripeness, in Circean travesties and carnal dreams out of which the goblin leers once again.
 Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1905, vol.1, 162
 Keats, Letters, 187-188
 Ibid., 188
 Keats, epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds, Letters.
 Hazlitt describing Titian’s flesh colour, in ‘On Gusto’
 Keats, Letters 230
 Keats, Ode to Psyche
 C. R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable
 Poems by John Keats, George Bell and Sons, 1897, reissued, 1971.