An engrossing enquiry

rossetti grailChristine Poulson The Quest for the Grail:
Arthurian Legend in British Art, 1840-1920
Manchester University Press 1999

The author, a now moderately successful crime-writer, was at the time of writing a Fellow of the Centre for Nineteenth-century Studies at the University of Sheffield, but The Quest for the Grail is no dry-as-dust academic publication. Plentifully illustrated with fourteen colour and sixty monochrome plates, this is an engrossing enquiry into the 19th-century renaissance of the Arthurian legend in representational art, stimulated by the 1817 re-publication of Malory and by Tennyson’s later reworkings of the tales. Frescoes by William Dyce in the robing rooms at Westminster Palace and murals by Rossetti and others in the library of the Oxford Union Society opened the floodgates for further works of art developing the often difficult themes of the legends, right through to the early twentieth century.

The treatment of the legends naturally reflected the obsessions and outlook of the Victorian period. Adultery, seduction and other sexual misdemeanours were not easy topics then for public consumption, and examination of the traditional Arthurian stories revealed few moral virtues that could safely be appropriated in national works of art without some adjustments. And yet the High Church movement in Anglicanism, occult ideas, concepts of Saxon stereotypes, women’s increasing financial independence in the eyes of the law, solar mythology, all these and other topics of debate were somehow incorporated in the Arthurian art of the period, however anachronistic that may now seem. (And of course, the same process continues apace in our own times, as countless TV series and films illustrate only too well.)

It is to Christine Poulson’s credit that this study entertains as well as educating the reader on how Victorian attitudes shaped the way we still view the legends in our mind’s eye. The often disturbing visions of the Pre-Raphaelites, the questing imagery of war memorials, the orientalism of Beardsley, sentimental views of the fate of the Lady of Shalott, the curious representations of Lancelot or Galahad with fantastic horned Viking helmets and Saxon hosiery: the responses are varied and surprising and rarely predictable, despite our apparent familiarity with them a century and more later.

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