Professor John Holmes: The Pre-Raphaelites and Science

Talk by Professor John Holmes on Friday 19th October at 2pm in Arts Lecture Room 3.

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Birmingham is home to arguably the finest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world. The city was also one of the engines of science and industry in nineteenth century. These two sides of Victorian culture can seem worlds apart, with the Pre-Raphaelites retreating from the modern age into medieval fantasy. In this talk, John Holmes will show how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their close associates far from being medieval escapists, set out to create an art that would be scientific in its methods and modern in its outlook.

The talk is based on his recently published book, The Pre-Raphaelites and Science, which explores how the Pre-Raphaelite’s commitment to creating a new kind of art modelled on science – in which precise observation could lead to new discoveries about the natural world and about humanity – affected their practice across painting, sculpture, poetry and architecture through the nineteenth-century.

In the talk, he will consider some of the Pre-Raphaelites early and best-known paintings showing how they represent ‘investigations’ into nature and human psychology, as William Michael Rossetti, one of the original members of the group, put it in The Spectator in 1851. And, he will describe how their contemporaries, including the leading physician, Henry Acland, and, the critic, John Ruskin, took up Pre-Raphaelite art as a visual language to communicate science in a new natural history museum built in Oxford in the 1850s.

What united the Pre-Raphaelites with both scientists and theologians in the first half of the century was a shared commitment; firstly, to the Baconian method, founded on the close and detailed observation of the natural world; and, secondly, to natural theology, which asserted that all of nature is God’s creation and that revealing nature, through art or science, provided a direct insight into God’s purpose. John Holmes’ talk will focus on this period of collaborative working.

In his book, John Holmes considers how all of this changed in 1859 with the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This pivotal work subverted the idea of a creator God and challenged the Baconian inductive method so dear to the early Pre-Raphaelites. The book describes the fault lines that opened up post-Darwin, dividing scientists and theologians and also affecting the Pre-Raphaelite project. In the second half of the century, some of Pre-Raphaelites sought to adhere to their original principles (notably William Holman Hunt and John Millais) but others moved away from naturalism towards Aestheticism and Symbolism (notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones). In the latter case, John Holmes argues that, contrary to accepted thinking, there was still an important dialogue between Darwinian scientific materialism and the arts and that this found expression in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways.

John Holmes is Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Birmingham.

Register for this free event now

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