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Pre-Raphaelites: The young ones

In the late 1840s, three rebellious painters defied the arts establishment. Marcus Field sets the scene for the Tate's new show

Headache-inducing colours, unruly Helena Bonham Carter hair and Snow White-style dresses are the kinds of things that come to mind when we think of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It's not a good look – and it's not really a fair representation of a movement whose image is about to get a major overhaul in Tate Britain's autumn blockbuster, an exhibition that sets out to revive the reputation of the group as Britain's first real avant-garde.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in London in 1848 by three young painters – John Everett Millais, 19, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 20, and William Holman Hunt, 21 – and quickly expanded to include four other, now lesser known, artists. Inspired by the ideas of their 27-year-old mentor, Ford Madox Brown, they committed themselves to a revolution in British art by rejecting the teaching of their school, the Royal Academy, which advocated the kind of idealised classicist images produced by painters such as Rubens and Reynolds, and instead returning to what was then considered the primitive style of the medieval artists and craftsman who operated before Raphael. This stance was not a whimsical, style-driven fancy, but a militant action by which they were determined to overthrow the prevailing fashion for blurry, dark-toned and politically vacuous pictures in favour of representing what the critic and Pre-Raphaelite champion John Ruskin later described as "stern facts".

Looking at the pictures on these pages today, it seems hard to believe that they succeeded in their revolutionary ambition. And yet when the founding artists showed their first works at the Royal Academy in 1849, both critics and public were outraged by paintings that, to them, seemed shockingly modern, with their depictions of recognisably ordinary people in the roles of biblical and historical characters, outdoor scenes with blindingly truthful light, and the overall use of bright colours and sharp, almost photographic outlines.

But, as Tate Britain's curators argue, it's not only their art that makes the Pre-Raphaelites avant-garde. It's the way in which they organised themselves into a campaigning group, published their ideas in a journal, The Germ, and cultivated their image within the media. With their manipulation of the art market, milking of scandal, and position as the preferred choice of artists for nouveau riche collectors, they were the forerunners of the Damien Hirst generation.

By 1853, the group had formally disbanded, and soon the artists were developing individual styles and careers; poetry and watercolour for Rossetti, sacred art for Hunt, and the kind of rich and sensuous aestheticism that we more commonly associate with Pre-Raphaelitism for Millais. The effect of the Brotherhood's ideas on later culture was hood's ideas on later culture was widespread: the decorative art and socialist ideology of William Morris (see facing page), the writings of Oscar Wilde and the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron are all examples of their influence. But it is the early pictures such as the ones shown here that remind us just what it was about those precocious boys and their work that make those few years in the 1840s and 1850s such an extraordinary moment in the history of British art.

Pretty Baa Lambs by Ford Madox Brown (1851)

It is hard to believe that what now looks like a quintessential piece of Victorian sentimentality was once considered to be the most revolutionary painting of its time. "The whole history of modern art begins with that picture," wrote the 19th-century critic R A M Stevenson. "Corot, Manet … all the Impressionists, never did anything but imitate that picture." Its radical credentials lie in the fact that it was the first picture by one of the Pre-Raphaelite circle to be painted outdoors, with truthful depictions of the effects of weather and light on the subject. Brown executed the painting in his Stockwell garden and on Clapham Common using his wife and baby daughter as models. The coast scene in the distance was added later.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851)

As the poster image for disaffected teens entranced by its rendering of doomed love – think Kristen Stewart in Twilight – Millais's painting has become a modern icon. But its shock value when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852 lay not so much in its subject matter as in the radical techniques it displayed. The Pre-Raphaelites' rejection of the dark muddy hues of Rembrandt and Reynolds in favour of what the art historian Ernst Gombrich called "shrill colours" laid on white backgrounds led to accusations that their paintings "killed" all surrounding works. Millais painted the lush scenery for Ophelia along a stretch of the Hogsmill River at Malden in Surrey and left space to add the central figure back in his London studio. The story of how the model, Lizzie Siddall, contracted pneumonia after Millais forced her to pose in a bath of water has become a central tenet of Pre-Raphaelite mythology. As a working-class girl with gothic looks, Siddall met all the requirements of the Pre-Raphaelite ideal. She later married Rossetti and died of a laudanum overdose in 1862, a fate that only adds to this painting's dark allure.

Christ in the House of his Parents by John Everett Millais (1849)

Aged just 21, Millais attracted such outrage when he showed this painting at the Royal Academy in 1850 that the effect can well be compared with the opprobrium suffered by Marcus Harvey when he showed a giant depiction of Myra Hindley in the RA's 1997 exhibition Sensation. What shocked people about Millais's painting, says the Tate curator Alison Smith, was his depiction of the Virgin "as a haggard and recognisably working-class woman" and "Joseph with dirt under his fingernails". This broke all the rules, which demanded that the Holy Family be idealised, while at the same time functioning as a bold statement for the Pre-Raphaelites' desire to depict nature and human beings as they really are. Millais used a carpenter's workshop on Oxford Street as his setting and painted the sheep in the background from heads he bought in a butcher's shop. Charles Dickens was so offended by the work that he satirised it in his magazine Household Words, describing a painting by a young artist which showed the young Christ as "a hideous, wry-necked , blubbering red-headed boy in a bed-gown" and the Virgin as "so horrible in her ugliness that 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".

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1848)

Rossetti's study of the young Virgin Mary was the first Pre-Raphaelite painting ever to be shown in public when it was included in an open exhibition at the Chinese Gallery on Hyde Park Corner in March 1849. The composition and style of the picture was a bold assertion of the group's intentions, with many key aspects of its manifesto on display: clean, bright colours on a white background, faithful renditions of nature, and real people (the artist's mother and poet sister, Christina) posing as the central figures. Rossetti signed the painting with his name and the initials PRB, an abbreviation for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood the meaning of which remained a secret until it was revealed by The Illustrated London News in 1850. The mysterious letters, used next to signatures by all the founders, only increased the brotherhood's early notoriety.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853)

We tend to think of the Pre-Raphaelite founders as fey boys in frock coats so it is easy to forget that they were motivated by the radical politics of their day. Both Hunt and Millais had attended the Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common in 1848 and all the members were interested in the changing and often contradictory attitudes to gender, morality and class. The fate of prostitutes and mistresses is a popular subject in Victorian art and fiction, and here Hunt shows a kept woman who has suddenly realised the evil of her ways. The painting is in the prescribed Pre-Raphaelite style, with bright colours and naturalistic depiction, but this time used to show a modern interior with its vulgar manufactured furniture and fabrics shown to emphasise the low morals and poor judgement of the couple in the scene. Another, hidden, layer to the work was Hunt's own infatuation with the working-class model for the picture, Annie Miller, with whom he later had a failed engagement. The painting was bought by the Manchester industrialist Thomas Fairbairn, an early model for the successful businessman who buys contemporary art as a way of displaying his taste and status, as Charles Saatchi does today.

'Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde', Tate Britain, London (020-7887 8888) from 12 Sep to 13 Jan