The Decline of a Legend
Throughout the evolution of the legend, Arthurian imagery emerged alongside the growth of literary texts, enjoying aristocratic patronage and a pan-European audience, reaching its zenith in the four centuries from 1100 to 1500. Yet, Arthurian iconography also appears independently of any known literary source as demonstrated in the sculpture on the north-portal archivolt (1100 - 1140) of Modena Cathedral in Italy.
Rarely have Arthurian subjects appeared in the arts during times when the Arthurian texts are neglected; periods of the legend's greatest popularity, the Middle Ages and the Victorian era, are reflected in artistic output. Even so, records indicate that the surviving objects are but a small fraction of the original output.
|Historia Regum Brittaniae illuminated manuscript (13th Century)|
After reaching its peak in the mid-15th century aristocratic patronage for Arthurian iconography began to decline with the advance of print technology which brought the illustrated legend to a wider audience. The emergence of block books, with pages of text and simple illustrations cut into a single block of wood, providing a less expensive alternative to hand painted manuscripts. Printing of “broadsides”, single sheets with printing on one side featuring a poem and an image, perhaps, of a knight, were the first form of popular literature marketed on a mass scale.
Wynkyn de Worde published the first illustrated Malory in 1498 after inheriting Caxton's printing works in London following Caxton's death in 1491. Using Caxton's 1485 Malory text, Wynkyn embellished each chapter heading with a simple woodcut illustration and reissued Le Morte Darthur in 1529.
Although little evidence survives, Arthurian iconography was now mainly used in pageant design in costumes and banners rather than monumental pieces of art. The interest in Arthurian extravaganza continued under the patronage of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, but with his death in 1612 the popularity of the Arthurian legend dwindled as England followed the European trend in adopting classical tastes. After more than a century of declining popularity the Arthurian legend quietly slipped into obscurity.
The Arthurian legends remained out of favour until the 18th century when the Gothic Revival sparked an interest in the medieval past for a select audience. Country houses began constructing garden follies such as mock castles, false ruins and imaginative grottoes, permitting the gentry to escape into medieval fantasy. The appeal of the Arthurian legend might have returned to the aristocracy but the revival of Arthurian imagery trailed behind the recovery of interest in the literature with Arthurian subjects rare in the popular arts.
|The Bard - Thomas Jones (1774)|
During the 18th century Arthur's status reached its nadir with the once and future King becoming linked with figures of folklore such as Jack the Giant Killer and Tom Thumb. Low interest in Malory's Le Morte Darthur in the 17th and 18th centuries is reflected in its lack of publication for nearly two hundred years with nothing emerging in print since the Stansby edition of 1634.
|William Stansby’s 1634 edition of Malory|
(Source: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester)
Scholarly interest in pre-Norman history of Britain was now on the increase but differing theories concerning the historicity of Arthur began to emerge. In his “History of the Anglo Saxons” (1799) Sharon Turner devoted a chapter to the examination of Arthurian tradition and came to the conclusion that the legends were based on slender historical evidence yet conceded, genuine or not, Arthur was a significant figure.
Joseph Ritson went on to write the “Life of King Arthur” in 1803, but not published until 1825, which provided the first thoroughly documented discussion of the problems of Arthurian scholarship. Ritson concluded, “No character, eminent in ancient history, has ever been treated with more extravagance, mendacity and injustice, than the renowned Arthur, the illustrious monarch and valiant commander of the Britons.”
In the early 19th century Walter Scott, a respected antiquary, novelist and poet, with an interest in Arthurian romance edited and published “Sir Tristem” (1802), made many references to Malory in “Marmion” (1808) and included Arthurian material in the “Bridal of Triermain” (1813). Scott had plans to publish a new edition of Malory but surrendered the task to Robert Southey who edited the reprinted edition of Caxton's Le Morte Darthur in 1817 which was to become a source of inspiration to artists of the Victorian era.
Yet, the Arthurian legend was conspicuous by its absence from the walls of the Royal Academy until 1826 when "Henry II Discovering the Relics of King Arthur in Glastbury Abbey" by George Cattermole was exhibited, his source thought to have been Thomas Warton's 1777 poem "The Grave of King Arthur" when, in his passage through Wales to Ireland, Henry II was informed of the whereabouts of the grave by a bard at Cilgarran Castle, Pembrokeshire.
The medieval period continued to be used as a model of inspiration into the early 19th century with the emergence of a complex artistic and literary movement known as Romanticism. William Blake's paintings and poetry with mystical undercurrents have been characterised as part of the Romantic movement which had a compelling influence on the 20th century, although largely unrecognised during his own lifetime. However, Blake's work was not significantly influenced by the Arthurian legend; elements of the legend feature in the “Emanation of the Giant Albion” and the Glastonbury Legend is the focus of his epic poem “Prelude To Milton” that became the popular hymn “Jerusalem”.
Following the inattention of Romanticism a new generation of poets was now emerging who would bring the Arthurian legend to its greatest popularity since the Middle Ages.
The Arthurian Revival
In 1839 the Scottish painter Ronald McIan exhibited "Mark, King of Cornwall and his retinue", a subject from Walter Scott's 1802 edition of “Sir Tristrem”, the first use of a medieval Arthurian text as a source. In 1847, another Scottish painter, William Bell Scott, exhibited the first oil painting at the Royal Academy in which Malory's Le Morte Darthur was named as the source. Bell's “King Arthur Carried to the Land of Enchantment” quoted from Malory Book XXI, chapter vii, attached to the title in the catalogue; “Some men say in many parts of England, that Arthur is not dead; but by the will of our Lord Jesu, carried into another place, that he will come again and win the Holy Cross. And men say it is written on the tomb, 'Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rex furturus' – Romance of Arthur.”
|King Arthur Carried to the Land of Enchantment - William Bell Scott (1847)|
The first indications of mainstream interest in the Arthurian legend emerged in landscape painters before the publication of Idylls of the King stimulated by the appearance of Tintagel Castle in guidebooks and itineraries for the new Victorian pastime of tourism. Yet the powerful attraction of Tintagel's ruined castle perched on the precipitous cliffs on the desolate headland called Tennyson to write of the babe Arthur being washed up on the shore at Merlin's feet. Inspired artists included William Collingwood who's “King Arthur's Castle at Tintagel” was shown at the Royal Academy in 1843 and Samuel Palmer who visited Tintagel in 1848 and produced a number of sketches and watercolours. The following year he exhibited “King Arthur's Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall”.
In the 1860's, immediately after publication of Idylls of the King, landscapes with Arthurian associations became particularly popular. John William Inchbold was one of a number of younger British landscape painters to be inspired to turn to mountain subjects by Ruskin's Modern Painters, visiting the Alps together in 1856 and 1858. In 1860 Inchbold stayed at Tintagel in Cornwall. Thomas Woolner, Francis Palgrave, and Alfred Tennyson encountered him there while they were on a walking tour, as described by Palgrave: “At a turn in the rocks [we met] that ever graceful, ill-appreciated landscapist Inchbold: whose cry of delighted wonder at sight of Tennyson still sounds in the sole survivor's ear.” In 1862 Inchbold exhibited the painting “King Arthur's Island”, inspired by this visit, at the Royal Academy The title included a quotation from “Guinevere”, one of the Idylls published in 1859.
William Dyce was commissioned in 1848 to decorate the Queen’s Robing Room in the then-new Palace of Westminster. He decided to illustrate various Christian virtues with scenes from the Arthurian legends. By the time Dyce’s paintings were open to the public in 1864, Tennyson’s Arthuriad was the dominant literature and established him as a poet. His last Arthurian work “Merlin and the Gleam” (1889) was written as his biography.
The Victorians regarded the Arthurian legend as the starting point of their history; the revival of interest in Arthur and his court regarded him as a national hero. Following Malory's Arthurian epic Dyce had trouble adapting tales of courtly love and an unfaithful queen brining about the fall of the kingdom for the Victorian Age. Instead he chose the subjects of his frescoes by concentrating on the virtues displayed by Arthur's Knights as part of the ancient code of chivalry: "Religion"; "Courtesy"; "Generosity"; "Hospitality"; "Mercy"; "Fidelity"; and "Courage". He had completed the first three murals by 1852, but his work progressed slowly with the last two projected frescoes, "Courage" and "Fidelity", uncompleted at the time of his death in 1864. The sculptor Henry Armstead was commissioned to complete the Arthurian theme; he carved a series of oak bas reliefs along each wall beneath Dyce's frescoes.
Before his death Dyce had befriended three young Royal Academy students in London and introduced their work to John Ruskin. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, all under 25 years of age, formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Holman Hunt considered Dyce to be the most profoundly trained and cultured of all the painters of the time.
The arts and crafts movement was inspired by the writings of the critic John Ruskin and spearheaded by the work of William Morris, an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, reaching its height between about 1880 and 1910. Dyce, along with Ford Madox Brown, acted in part as mentors to the younger men, came to adapt their own work to the Pre-Raphaelite style. Dyce's later work was Pre-Raphaelite in its spirituality and attention to detail.
Influenced by Romanticism, the Brotherhood defined themselves as a reform movement rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerism period of European art which came after Raphael and Michelangelo. The Brotherhood immediately began to produce highly convincing and significant works, striving to revive the deep religious feeling and naive, unadorned directness of the Florentine and Sienese schools of the 14th and 15th-centuries. The Pre-Raphaelites were fixed on portraying things with near-photographic precision but their work was devalued by many painters and critics. The Brotherhood's mediaevalism was attacked as regressive and its extreme devotion to detail was condemned as ugly and jarring on the eye.
Charles Dickins was a leading critic of the Brotherhood after the exhibition of Millais' painting "Christ in the House of His Parents" (The Carpenter’s Shop),1849–50, partly for its realism which displayed Christ's home as an ordinary family defying all current expectations that religious art should depict the Holy Family in a highly idealised way. In his magazine Household Words, Dickins wrote;
“In the foreground of that carpenter's shop is a hideous, wrynecked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness. that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England ...”
Undeterred, the Brotherhood found support from Ruskin, the man said to have coined the term “Medievalism”, who wrote to The Times defending their work. However, by 1853 the original Brotherhood had virtually dissolved with only Holman Hunt remaining true to its stated aims. But the term "Pre-Raphaelite" stuck to Rossetti and others, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The Pre-Raphaelites and the artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement tended to favour Malory; Burne-Jones was drawn to the mystical, secret, and ritual aspects of the legends; Dante Gabriel Rosetti to the erotic; and William Morris to the idealism and the concepts of brotherhood and fellowship.
For Morris and Burne-Jones Arthuriana was a shared mania feeding off Malory's text. Morris was predominately a designer who was influential in the Arts and Crafts Movement during the Victorian era, producing poetry and designs for his firm Morris and Co. Burne-Jones and Morris corroborated on The Grail Tapestries.
|The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon - Edward Burne-Jones (1898)|
Before closing, mention must be made of John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) who worked after the dissolution of the Brotherhood but continued to work in the Pre-Raphaelite style for which he was known as “the modern Pre-Raphaelite”. The Arthurian legend was perhaps his favourite subject matter. One of Waterhouse's most famous paintings is “The Lady of Shalott” (1888) inspired by Tennyson's poem of the same name:
And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance -
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
The Arthurian Revival lasted for the duration of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901). The single most important person in this revival was Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson
N J Lacey et al, eds. Arthur in the Arts, in The Arthurian Handbook, Second Edition, Garland, 1997.
N J Lacey, et al, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, Garland, 1995.
Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Christine Poulson, The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art, 1840-1920, Manchester University Press, 1999.
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