A-Z of the Pre-Raphaelites: Rebel painters of a completely different nature

Brash, talented and controversial, the Pre-Raphaelites were the YBAs of their day. On the eve of a major Tate exhibition, John Walsh tells you everything you wanted to know about them – and some things you didn't.

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A is for Avant-garde. Fans of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood often suggest they were edgy and ground-breaking in the 1840s. In fact, they were backward-looking and conservative, keen to return to the detailed realism of medieval art, shunning the influence of the High Renaissance figures, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

B is for Back-scratching. The Brotherhood – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Millais and William Holman Hunt were core members – and their disciples (including John Ruskin, William Morris and Algernon Swinburne) enthusiastically puffed each other's work in the press. Rossetti reviewed his own work under the name of Frederic Stephens (see Stephens). They were known, for a time, as the Mutual Admiration School.

Also for Burne-Jones, Edward, who, under Rossetti's spell, painted pseudo-medieval courtly themes and female figures of a mysterious, and generic, beauty.

Also for Brown, Ford Madox, painter, grandfather of Ford Madox Ford. His early work impressed Rossetti, who asked him to be his tutor. Became a friend, if not an official member, of the Brotherhood. Painted Work and The Last of England.

C is for Collinson, James, painter and original member. Devout Catholic convert. Dated Rossetti's sister Christina, but broke off the engagement for religious reasons. Resigned from the Brotherhood after being shocked by Millais's Christ in the House of his Parents (see Millais).

D is for Dante Alighieri, Italian poet and cartographer of hell after whom DG Rossetti was named, and whose life and works he plundered for subject matter.

E is for Euphemia "Effie" Gray, neglected wife and Pre-Raphaelite muse. In the most notorious wedding-night encounter in history, Effie's new husband, John Ruskin, recoiled in horror from the revelation that his bride possessed pubic hair. Their marriage stayed unconsummated and was finally annulled, so that Effie could marry the less fastidious John Millais, Ruskin's protégé.

F is for Flesh, as in "The Fleshly School of Poetry", a devastating attack, by Robert Buchanan in The Contemporary Review in 1871, on Rossetti and his circle for obscene and impure writings. "We cannot forbear expressing our wonder at the kind of women whom it seems the unhappy lot of these gentlemen to encounter," it read. "Females who bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and in a general way slaver over their lovers…"

G is for Germ, The. The Brotherhood's offputtingly titled monthly magazine, edited by William Michael Rossetti. Subtitled "Thoughts towards nature in art and literature", it published poetry, essays on art and book reviews, with illustrations by members of the Brotherhood. Sadly, it folded in April 1950 after only four issues.

H is for Hunt, William Holman, prodigiously bearded naturalistic painter and sculptor. Joined Royal Academy at 15, and met Millais on a sketching trip to the British Museum. Rossetti sought him out after being impressed by his painting of The Eve of St Agnes.

I is for Insults and Invective. The Brotherhood's first exhibition drew cries of denunciation. "We cannot censure at present, as amply or as strongly as we desire to do, that strange disorder of the mind or the eyes which continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves 'P.R.B'." [thundered The Times in May 1851] "Their faith seems to consist in an absolute contempt for perspective and the known laws of light and shade, an aversion to beauty in every shape..."

J is for Jesus. Religious themes appealed to the Pre-Raphaelites and their disciples. Several depicted Christ as a man or boy. Hunt's The Shadow of Death (1870), showing Christ as a long-haired proto-hippie dancing with glee in a carpenter's shop, his flung-out arms making a shadow crucifix, was immensely popular. Millais's treatment of the same subject, Christ in the House of His Parents, 20 years earlier, was greeted with horror. Dickens accused him of picturing Jesus as "a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a night-gown".

K is for Kelmscott Manor, which Rossetti and Morris jointly leased, and where Rossetti regularly had sex with Morris's wife Jane.

L is for Laudanum, taken in huge quantities by Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal, who became addicted to it and committed suicide at 31.

M is for Millais, John Everett. A precocious talent, he entered the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 11. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed when Rossetti and Hunt met him at his family home in Gower Street, London in September 1848. His later painting style was condemned by his early champions Ruskin and Morris, who accused him of "selling out" his talent for popularity and wealth.

N is for Nuns. Turn up in several Brotherhood works, as emblems of purity, innocence and solitude, or figures distracted from their prayers by nature. See Charles Collins's Convent Thoughts, Holman Hunt's Claudio and Isabella, Millais's The Vale of Rest. Many critics suspected the Brotherhood of being secret Roman Catholic sympathisers.

O is for Ophelia, modelled for Millais by Lizzie Siddall, who nearly died of hypothermia after posing in a bath of water, underlit by candles, for hours.

P is for Prostitution, a popular theme. Check out the fallen country girl in Rossetti's Found, and the soon-to-fall young lady in Hunt's The Awakening Conscience.

Q is for Quattrocento art, Italian and Flemish. The art of the 15th century, or early Renaissance, admired by the Brotherhood for its energy, vividness, minuteness of detail and lack of perspective.

R is for Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, the passionate, charismatic, driven leader of the Brotherhood, who followed its principles into a second generation.

Also for Rossetti, Christina, his sister, poet of morbid eroticism, unhappy or frustrated love. See the astonishingly rude Goblin Market.

Also for Rossetti, William Michael, editor of The Germ, member of PRB. Edited Rossetti family papers, letters and diaries and wrote biographies of Dante and Christina. His image as keeper of the family flame is mitigated by the fact that he was also a tax official at the Inland Revenue.

Also for Ruskin, John, the great Victorian art critic, who established the Brotherhood's reputation, supported their early works but fell out with them all. An exhortation in his book Modern Painters, that young English artists should "go to Nature in all singleness of heart… rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing" was a major influence.

Also for Reynolds, Sir Joshua, founder of the Royal Academy and the villain of English art history, according to the Brotherhood, who called him "Sir Sloshua" and condemned his "academic" method of teaching.

S is for Siddall, Lizzie, Rossetti's wife and favourite model (See Laudanum and Ophelia).

Also for Stunner, a slang word coined by Rossetti to denote "a woman of exceptional beauty, glamour or charisma". The main stunners were Lizzie Siddall, Janey Morris and Maria Zambaco.

Also for Stephens, Frederic George, art editor of The Atheneum, and original member of the Brotherhood. Fell out with Hunt, Rossetti and Millais in turn, for daring to criticise their works. A martyr to writer's block, he once wrote 11 and a half lines of a sonnet for The Germ, but was unable to complete it by the deadline, three months later.

T is for Tolkien, JRR. He was strongly influenced, as a young man, by mythological scenes in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites that he saw in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. So we can add The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to the Brotherhood's already substantial charge sheet.

U is for "Unmanly", the damning judgement of critics to Love in Autumn, a homoerotic work by Simeon Solomon, a friend of the later Pre-Raphaelites. His works on Jewish and Biblical themes were exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1858 and 1872. He and Swinburne used to walk naked around Rossetti's house, discussing sado-masochism and flagellation, to Rossetti's great displeasure. Solomon's career ended in 1873, when he was charged with attempted sodomy in a public urinal.

V is for Victoria, Queen. Not widely known as an art critic, the Queen stepped in during the outcry that greeted the exhibiting of Christ in the House of his Parents in 1850. She demanded that the work should be brought to the Palace so that she could see what all the fuss was about. "I hope it will not have any bad effects on her mind," Millais dryly remarked.

W is for Woolner, Thomas, sculptor, poet, founder member of the Brotherhood, and the only sculptor in the group. He couldn't make a living and emigrated to Australia, inspiring Ford Madox Brown's painting The Last of England. He later returned to a successful career as public sculptor, art dealer and poet. Friend of Tennyson, Carlyle and Darwin, who named part of the human ear after him.

X is for Ex-Brotherhood. The founding group of seven lasted only four years. Collinson resigned in 1850; Woolner emigrated to Australia. When in 1852 Millais was elected Associate of the despised Royal Academy, Rossetti told his sister Christina, "Now the whole Round Table is dissolved."

Y is for YBAs. The Brotherhood were undoubtedly the Young British Artists of their day. When they formed the Brotherhood, Rossetti was 20, Hunt 21 and Millais 19.

Z is for Zambaco, Maria. Sulky-looking Greek temptress and model, with whom Burne-Jones had a long affair. When he threatened to leave her in 1868, she tried to kill herself by jumping into the Regent's Canal. She is the elongated seductress in his paintings The Beguiling of Merlin, and Phyllis and Demophoon.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is on at Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk) 12 September to 13 January