The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of young artists and writers of the 19th Century who were determined to break away from the stylised formality of the arts of the period, to open a window and let a breath of naturalism into a somewhat stuffy cultural world. It is a movement which has probably had more words written about it (by its members as well as its critics and admirers) than any other.
Ewell was admirably suited to furnish the perfect escape centre – open countryside, peace, clean air, and pure colours – situated close to London, the heart of their art world, and with the railway to provide easy and cheap transport.
Millais had childhood friends – the Lempriere family of Worcester Park Farm – and Holman Hunt had relations – the Hobmans of Rectory Farm – living in the area. Both had spent holidays in Ewell as boys, and it is surprising that they did not meet until the winter of 1843/4 when Millais was a student at the Royal Academy, and Holman Hunt was trying his hardest to become a probationer at the same institute. Their friendship flourished, both discovered a discontent with the too formal training of their masters, and fled to the freedom and beauty of their beloved Ewell.
It is difficult for modern residents of Ewell to recognise their home town in the descriptions given by Millais and Hunt, but it is still possible to find spots which could have featured in some of their paintings. The lush foliage of Ophelia still manages to reappear between the ruthless clearings of the council, the descendants of the elms featured in The Hireling Shepherd could be found earlier this year (but the Dutch Elm Beetle may now have caused their death), and the mystery of The Light of the World is still present at dawn and dusk. The kingfisher has gone, but trout are returning, and the magic of Pre-Raphaelite Ewell can still be found if you look hard enough and long enough.
Apart from the better-known paintings there are many smaller paintings and drawings which picture the life and scenery of that time, and it is certain that other members of the later Brotherhood visited the area. Arthur Hughes has left a charming woodcut of the Cakeswell to record his presence, Hunt tells us of a visit paid by Wilkie Collins and his brother Charles and, with the William Morris workshops in the old Abbey grounds at Merton, it is possible that the inspiration of many others could be found in our own back yard.
To those who would find out more for themselves I would refer them to Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood by Holman Hunt, and Sir John Millais by his son.
To those who would see for themselves, Ophelia is in the Tate Gallery, The Hireling Shepherd in the City Art Gallery, Manchester, The Light of the World is at Keble College, Oxford (but there is a copy, made by Hunt himself, in St. Paul’s Cathedral), and the City of Birmingham Art Gallery has a fine collection of sketches, drawings and watercolours, including some of the preliminary work for the The Huguenot.
The Huguenot, unfortunately, is in America at the Huntingdon-Hertford Collection of Modern Art, but the trustees are generous in loaning it to exhibitions of Pre-Raphaelite work in this country and, if the opportunity should arise, it is well worth journeying a distance to see the lovely old wall of Worcester Park Farm and the figure of Sir Arthur Lempriere.
The search for Pre-Raphaelite Ewell is a fascinating trail, and I wish those of you who embark upon it many happy hours and joyful discoveries.
Daphne M. Robinson