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The nature and soul of the Pre-Raphaelites

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The Lady of Shalott in a beautifully rendered English landscape by JW Waterhouse

The men who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 created their artistic style out of a series of refusals and affirmations:

No to mechanistic, mannered art; no to Classical poses and composition; no to 'what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote'; no to sloppy brushstrokes; no to the urban world of trade and factories.

Yes to the realistic representation of nature; yes to the richly detailed Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art created before Raphael; yes to 'what is direct and serious and heartfelt'; yes to 'genuine ideas'; and yes to the influence of the medieval. The medieval brought three rich strands: Christianity and the passionate love described by Chesterton in his biography of St Francis; Marian devotion, which devolved into the artists' reverence for the mysterious beauty of women; and British legends.

William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were the original Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti took the medieval path, and was followed by Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and JW Waterhouse and, in another artistic sphere, by Tolkien. After their 19th century success, their work fell into oblivion until it was rediscovered in the 1970s. This month, the Ashmolean has opened an exhibit of more than 140 paintings entitled The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy.

Looking at just a few examples of their works, I think you can see what they loved in their souls.

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The green ribbons of water vegetation around Ophelia and the crack willow on the bank are what you see when you walk the rivers around Winchester - she might be floating down a Hampshire chalk stream toward the fly fisherman at the next bend. The painting by John Everett Millais is so realistic it shocks me, though I remind myself that Ophelia is only 'a stage character'. Powerfully, the Pre-Raphaelites combined attentiveness to nature with a passion for the myths and legends and iridescent stories they dreamed in their souls.

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Rossetti's Beata Beatrix, a portrait of Dante's Beatrice

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Rossetti's Lancelot (detail), bending over the Lady of Shalott

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Edward Burne-Jones, The Arming and Departure of the Knights in quest of the Holy Grail, tapestry woven by William Morris & Company

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William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World

Ophelia is in the Tate Collection. The Arming and Departure of the Knights is at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. Hunt painted several versions of The Light of the World. One is at Keble College, Oxford; another is at Manchester Art Gallery; and a third is at St Paul's. The Lady of Shalott is at the Tate. I'm not sure where Rossetti's Lancelot drawing is.

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