Desperate Romantics: Private lives of the Pre-Raphaelites

Their canvases were bold, their love lives were wild
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"The book in question is bound in rough grey calf and has I am almost sure red edges to the leaves," Dante Gabriel Rossetti explained. "This will distinguish it from the Bible also there." It wasn't a bookshelf to which Rossetti was directing his friend, but a grave – that of Rossetti's wife, dead seven years. In a romantic gesture, the painter had interred with her his own love poems. Now he wanted them back.

Lizzie Siddall was exhumed at night, and the reeking, worm-eaten manuscript rescued. The former model and artist appeared perfect, Rossetti was told. Her red hair filled the coffin, having continued to grow after her death. The exquisite corpse with Rapunzel-like tresses was in keeping with the mythical images so beloved by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). This fiction was preferable to Rossetti's last vision of Lizzie: horribly thin, blue from drinking laudanum, a suicide note pinned to her nightgown.

Franny Moyle's riveting Desperate Romantics is stamped with such moments. There's the mother of a stillborn child telling guests not to wake the baby in an empty cradle; lovers wrestling on a tow path as one tries to hurl herself into the canal; a 48-year-old man chasing a carriage that he believes contains the teenage object of his obsession.

Drug addiction, adultery, madness, paranoia, suicide and sexual torment are all here – the darker side of High Victorianism. Yet the PRB wasn't all scandal and tragedy. Moyle's intelligent account shows William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Rossetti and, later, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones as not only passionate but serious, too. Their canvases depicting dreamy women, religious subjects and mystical meditations remain iconic.

Moyle kicks off in 1848, the year of revolutions, intertwining the artists' progress with that of their champion, the art critic John Ruskin. It was the year the brilliant but infantile Ruskin calamitously married Effie Gray and the secret brotherhood emerged, reacting against and flouting the old order as represented by the Royal Academy of Arts.

The Pre-Raphaelites' uncompromising work initially shocked the public and critics, but by 1860, 1,000 people a day were queuing to admire Hunt's The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. The PRB's lack of sexual propriety proved harder to forgive: Rossetti's parallel affairs with his voluptuous housekeeper Fanny and with Morris's wife; Burne-Jones's entanglement with a married Greek heiress. However, Ruskin's refusal to consummate his marriage and subsequent ardour for the pubescent Rose La Touche eclipsed everything. Society was agog.

Moyle shows how women were central to the movement's core – not as practitioners, but as inspiration. Rossetti, especially, fetishised female beauty but all the members explored the tragic lot of women: those destroyed by men (Ophelia), abandoned (Mariana), deprived of their true loves (Isabella and the Pot of Basil), unhappy wives (La Pia de Tolomei) and fallen women (The Awakening Conscience).

It is ironic that by modelling for the group, women risked their reputations. Lizzie was forced to hide on a balcony while a painter's sisters visited. The middle-class Effie, meanwhile, sat for Millais's The Order of Release – fortuitously, as it happened. When she finally escaped her humiliating union with Ruskin it was to Millais's arms she fled. Mostly their models were women with little to lose: a seamstress, violet-seller, barmaid, prostitute. Despite the rigid class barriers, three models turned their lovers into husbands. The wealthy Oxford graduate William Morris wedded Jane Burden, who came from Oxford's slums. With her gypsy looks, Jane became the Brotherhood's pin-up.

Yet the movement remained a boys' club; its group's members delighted in childish pranks and gave one another nicknames (Lizzie was "Guggum", Fanny "Elephant", Hunt "Mad" and Morris "Topsy"). At the start of his career Millais – the youngest ever Royal Academy member at the age of 11 – would paint for hours and exercise by leaping over the extended arm of passing visitors.

They also went prowling for "stunners". Rossetti, who eventually became obese and addicted to chloral, was dashing in his youth. He met Fanny Cornforth on the street cracking nuts with her teeth and spitting the shells at him to get his attention. Not everyone could formalise their relationships with brazen girls. Hunt, son of a warehouseman and leading exponent of sacred realism, was torn between morality and desire. He had wanted to marry the gorgeous prostitute/ model Annie Miller until he realised she had been showing all his friends a good time.

Moyle captures vividly the texture and colour of this vital world. She is well-served by diary extracts, memoirs and letters which she quotes, allowing the individual voices to surface. We hear Millais indignant, Effie teasing, Rossetti ingratiating and Ruskin, frankly, bonkers – especially regarding Rose. He met the Irish girl when she was 10 and he was 39. He called her Rosie Posie. She called him St Crumpet. By the time Rose was 13 Ruskin was talking of her "love letters" and wearing them next to his skin.

As Moyle makes clear, the La Touches did everything they could to protect their daughter. Bright and highly strung, Rose had her first breakdown at 15. The virginal Ruskin, meanwhile, was plagued with nightmares about snakes as his sweetheart yo-yoed back and forth on whether she would marry him when she came of age. Rose's final descent into madness and early death at 27 is as moving and disturbing as anything in a Victorian novel.

Morris's hugely successful design company Morris & Co and the Kelmscott Press had their genesis in the PRB stand against industrialisation. Yet, as Moyle argues, it was "progress" which cemented the Brotherhood's fame. The flourishing press made the artists "among the first celebrities of the nascent modern world". Their works, meanwhile, were mass-produced in popular prints, and still are. Lizzie as Ophelia floats forever with her long red hair – the perfect corpse.

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