Wednesday 7 September 2011

F. G. Stephens: A Respectful Look at his Contribution to Pre-Raphaelite History

There are gentlemen who read my blog. I know, I was surprised anyone read this, but it is in due deference to my gentleman readers that I am controlling my shallow urges and am writing a truly respectful piece on the contribution of Frederic George Stephens to what we now understand to be ‘Pre-Raphaelite’. Despite his name being less well-known than the other Brothers, I think that Stephens deserves both our thanks and our attention.

Poor Fred received neither at the hands of Desperate Romantics. He had the pleasure of adding to the amalgam characters of Fred Walters, a mash-up of Fred Stephens, Walter Deverell, William Michael Rossetti, George Boyce and so on and so on, and was the general whipping boy for Rossetti the Gittish Weasel. Oh, the red mist is upon me again so I will move on.

 Soundtrack: The sound of gentle sobbing in Southern England
 Born Septimus Stephens (great name) in 1828, he joined the Royal Academy in 1844 where he hooked up with Millais and Hunt and was an original Brother in 1848. His painting career was not illustrious but not because he wasn’t any good. Consider Mother and Child of 1854…

Mother and Child (1854) F G Stephens
 When I first saw this many years ago, I thought it was a Millais, and it has a certain ‘staged’ feel that earlier works by Millais purposefully had, for example Mrs James Wyatt.
Mrs James Wyatt (1850) J E Millais
 Stephens problem with art wasn’t talent so much as how much effort it took. He worked on paintings for years, and while this isn’t uncommon among the Brotherhood, he didn’t feel over-confident of the results at the end. Officially we are left with three of his paintings: Mother and Child, The Proposal and Morte D’Arthur.
The Proposal (The Marquis and Griselda) (1850) F G Stephens
 The slightly helter-skelter perspective again reminds me of Millais, but I’m not sure Stephens meant to do it. It reminds me of Isabella which of course Stephen’s was a model for, bringing his unmistakable features to the gentleman holding the wine glass and wearing the dodgy hat…

Yes, that’s him. Nice hat.
Getting back to The Proposal, I love the contrast between the red, white and black, but the Marquis starts to blend with the carpet, which is a bit of a faux pas. The details are beautiful: the folds in the table cloth, the birds, the view through the open door, and God knows I’ve seen worse, but I think the key to his brief career lies in the last painting we have.

Morte d'Arthur (circa 1850–55) F G Stephens
The knight’s left leg, I like. It’s a great leg for the job (continue Pete and Dud sketch in your own manner). However, he did not finish the rest and that was that. He burnt the rest of his work and took up writing, apparently, although in my search for Fred Stephens images I found this on an auction site…

Girl with Peacock Feather F G Stephens
Maybe there are more paintings out there in private hands, and this certainly brought to mind Monna Vanna by Rossetti or Leighton’s Pavonia. I’d be interested to find out the date on this picture as I’m sure he could claim to have invented Aestheticism. No-one would believe him, but he could have a go…

‘Oi, Leighton, I invented Aetheticism! Outside now!’
Ho hum, so much for Stephens the artists. Now for Stephens the model. A lot of emphasis is placed on the female models of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and how they define the look. While that is particially true, maybe particularly in regards of the later phases, in the early days the Brotherhood used what models they had available to them, namely each other. Stephens particular seems to have captured some of the quintescential essence of the Pre-Raphaelite man in the paintings he appeared in…

 Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849) J E Millais
 Ahhh, white tights. I forgot how mental this picture is, and heaven knows it is one you are shown a lot, as I am mostly concentrating on the starting red of Ferdinand’s tunic rather than seeing the freaky bat-goblins curling behind Ariel. Terrifying and gorgeous in equal measure.

 Frederic George Stephens (1853) J E Millais
Millais famous portrait of him four years later shows us a serious yet pleasant looking young man unhampered by hyped-up romantic intensity (Yes, Gabriel, I am looking at you), just looking straightforward and quietly confident. Likewise, Hunt’s oil portrait of him shows a pleasant, happy-looking chap with great hair.

F G Stephens (1847) William Holman Hunt
I really like this portrait and it’s directness always makes me smile, I’m not sure why. Okay, maybe I do know why. Maybe I’ll move on.

Study for Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (c.1852) Ford Madox Brown
 I think the defining image of F G Stephens (the model) is probably as Brown’s Jesus, bringing the appearance of quiet intent to the figure which Brown captures so beautifully.

 Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852-6) Ford Madox Brown
So why isn’t Stephens better known? He was a loud proponent for the Brotherhood, writing for important art journals such as Athenaeum, The Art Journal and Portfolio. He wrote books on art history and monographs on contemporary artists such as Mulready and Landseer, together with large quantities of the Catalogue of Prints and Drawings for the British Museum where he was Keeper of Prints and Drawings, and when Rossetti died, Stephens co-wrote his obituary. So where did it all go wrong? Part of the blame can be laid on a spat that turned into a feud between Holman Hunt and Stephens. One of Hunt’s paintings went missing under Stephen’s watch, and when it arrived it was damaged. Add to this that Stephens then went on to give the same painting a bad review and the feud began. Hunt proceeded to attack Stephens in his Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1914), after Stephen’s death. I’ve always thought it’s safest to perform character assination when the victim isn’t able to respond. Anyway, this coupled with Stephen’s disconnection from art criticism later in life (he didn’t like Impressionism) shrank his importance from a Brother to A. N. Other, and in the course of time he became a footnote in the history of Pre-Raphaelitism. However, you and I know that art history is more than just pretty pictures, it’s about dynamics, pressure and the work of those behind the scenes. The genius of Fred Stephens may not have been painting, but the appreciation of others’ ability to do what he could not, and we should thank him for that.

Plus, he made a hot Jesus.

Oh, come on, like you didn’t know I was going to do that.
Apologies to my male readership, but I’m sure you’ll both forgive me…


  1. Funnily enough Stephens did praise Hunt's etchings in 1880.

    but he was very conservative, hated impressionism and had a big go at Millais in 1898 (after M's death of course) for poorly thought out works. He was chucked off the Atheneaum after 40 years and basically probably deserved his obscurity (imho of course).

  2. Ah, it's always best to get the knives out when the recipient is hampered by deadness, Fred and Millais are obviously no exception. It would be completely unprofessional of me to say that handsome chaps never deseve obscurity... ;)

  3. Yes we are here! (spoken in a deep voice) So glad you showed us the finished 'Jesus washing Peter's Feet' minus the bushy sideburns that appear in the study - not really 1st century Palestine - and which certainly reveal FMB's good taste as well as his historical authenticity.

  4. And very welcome you are too. All the best men read my blog :)

  5. I love your style and humour.What about the Exhibition next year in London ,can't wait!

  6. Another enlightening blog post. I love the Millais sketch of Stephens.

  7. So excited about the exhibition next year, I will warn people when I'm going so you don't have to witness me making a spectacle of myself. Hurrah! Many thanks for your comments, Angela and Zoe :)


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