An adventure comprising the following; your humble narrator, being stout of heart and eager-eyed, ventured midst Winter's harm to London, heart of Empire, to attend that great institute Tate Britannia, for a viewing of pictures composed by the gentlemen comprising the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Though moved to speak of this, alas your narrator did not exhibit the industrious vigour of his ostensible subject and was remiss in inflaming his Babbage engine, with the result that he elucidates over an exhibition no longer available for public viewing.
Image Clashes With Symbol
What lurks behind that apparently oxymoronic subhead, 'Victorian avant-garde?' The suggestion that these late Victorian artists were proto-modern may simply be a handy means to incorporate them into the Tate's set-list. (The venue's clock normally starts at 1900.) But it does have some traction. Like so many Modernist movements the Pre-Raphaelites were a distinct reaction to what had gone before, to the point where they even formed a Brotherhood and wrote up a ringing (if somewhat vaguely worded) manifesto. As the Tate website has it, “rather then emulate the early masters, they espoused a rule-breaking originality.” They also strove for a unity of the arts, embracing painting, music, architecture and sculpture and became directly involved in the Arts and Crafts movement. (An involvement which gets a room devoted to it, but will sadly go under-noted here.)
Yet at the same time their striving to move painting forward involved looking further back. In their case this was an attempt to re-aquaint themselves with the earlier masters, the world before Classicism and in particular (in a name-defining statement) before Renaissance artist Raphael. Which of course is itself very much a feature of Modernism, for example in Gauguin's fixation with folk art.
But shouldn't we be suspcious of the whole term 'avant-garde', with it's linear assumptions about history? Shouldn't our focus be not so much on the group as harbingers of Modernism, but more on their historical context? Of course the answer there is yes, but even that is not enough - and would lead to us bypassing most of what is unique and significant about them. Merely finding their point in a lineage suggests art is made up of neat steps, ordered in a clear-cut ascent. But art history works more like history, the story of combustible chemicals thrown into an ever-more volatile mix.
The artistic context of the Pre-Raphaelites is of course Romanticism. In many ways it is hard to get a handle on this, which was less a defined art movement than a meta-movement (akin to Modernism) and perhaps by consequence was volatile and inchoate. Moreover, as a reaction against the Enlightenment it prized feeling over intellect, and was thereby virtually opposed to coherence on a point of principle.
But if there's scant use in asking Romanticism to define itself, we can come up with some ideas of our own. While Romanticism sought solace from and inspiration in nature, it's degree of fidelity to nature varied greatly. It was at root concerned with accessing the human imagination – the hay wain of the mind. It's not that it failed to distinguish between the natural world and the human mind – it's that it is precisely predicated upon refusing to make that distinction. To Wordsworth the daffodils of the field were just triggers for the daffodils in his head.
Yet the Pre-Raphaelites had come rather late to this party. As a reaction to the the growing Industrial Revolution, the peak of Romanticism is normally considered to be 1800-1840 when Turner and Constable were at work.
What else was afoot at this time? A reliable source of gossip states that by “the second half of the 19th century, Realism was offered as a polarized opposite to Romanticism” and goes on to give it exactly the same starting point as this show does the Pre-Raphaelites – the 1848 revolution. Across the water in France, Realist painters such as Manet, Courbet and Corot no longer set their star by Classical or Biblical scenes but by fidelity to daily life.
If this band took a different tack, perhaps we should look at that “pre-Raphael” business by which they tagged themselves? Their backwards looks were chiefly to Florentine religious art, represented here by Lorenzo Monaco's altar piece 'Adoring Saints' (1407/9). This influence chiefly manifested in the brighter, more sumptuous use of colour which is such a signature of a Pre-Raphaelite work. As Franny Moyle says “The revolutionary use of colour at the very least justifies Tate Britain's claim.” (Royal Academy magazine, Autumn 2012).
A sound-bite description of the group might be the attempt to make a painting as vivid as a stained-glass window. The works almost radiate with colour! (Though as any fule kno, the 'masters' then venerated by the Academy had never actually painted the drab works thought of them, their colours had literally faded before Victorian eyes were set upon them.)
But the Florentines made votive works, not for a gallery but a Church. This different purpose gives them a different nature. The haloed heads of the Saints are arranged in a constellation more than a scene, a diagram which transmits a spiritual meaning to the believer. And that's an influence you can see at work in this exhibition.
So with the Pre-Raphaelites Romanticism, Realism and a kind of heightened symbolism collided head-on. Like particles being bashed together in a super-collider, image crashes against symbol. This sometimes created something unexpected – a kind of dazzling hyper-realism. Objects don't look removed or otherly as they would in later Symbolism, they look rooted in this world. But at the same time they can branch off into quite a different one.
However, it seems less likely that any of this collision course was a deliberate plan, and more likely that the Pre-Raphaelities were unaware of any of those contradictions until they arose on their canvases. With rather haphazard results - some Pre-Raphaelite works can look intoxicating blends and others more like car crashes.
Take for example William Holman Hunt's 'The Scapegoat' (1854/6, above). Jesus' sacrifice had became associated with the Hebrew tradition of making a goat the repository of human sins, then driving it out into the wilderness. In this sense the painting is a pointer, a religious allegory, we should see the goat but think of Jesus. Yet at the same time Hunt went to the effort of taking a real goat to a real location.
The painting consequently has a kind of double existence. There's something too vivid, too laboured, too intense for it to seem a straightforward nature painting. Yet some of that same laboured intensity, the weighing down of the image with detail, holds you to the work itself rather than giving your mind leave to wander off into considering the symbolism. The Scapegoat, in short, is a kind of push-me-pull you.
Yet it works in a similar way to that seen earlier with Gauguin, what makes the work wrong is simultaneously what makes it right. When it doesn't resolve quickly into some easy reading, there comes to be something strange and compelling about it. And that kind of ambiguity, isn't that what makes art alive? In this way they win out over their contemporaries the Realists. A painting that simply delineates something, even a thing you approve of being painted, is simply done with too easily. It's the art which evades easy resolution which lingers.
Scenes Against Tableaus
When talking about the Pre-Raphaelites' influence on Modernism, commentators are tempted to play up their realist side and talk about the similarities between them and the Impressionists. True enough, there are links there to be made. But for me that feels like chopping off toes to make the foot fit the slipper. Yes, you can make the story neater by cutting out the contradictions. But you then lose the point of the story.
In fact for years I have held on to the theory that their lurid hyper-realism was more a precursor to the dream landscapes of Surrealism, then it seems everybody else got in before me! Jonathan Jones for example, commented in the Guardian that in their “supercharged, luminous and sometimes genuinely dream-like images... there is a direct line to... surrealism.” Dali apparantly declared himself “dazzled by the flagrant surrealism of the English Pre-Raphaelites.”
For example compare Ernst's landscapes to Daniel Alexander Williamson's 'Spring, Arnside Knot and Coniston Range of Hills From Warton Crag' (1863), where the desire to throw colours and textures about is barely held in place by fidelity to the view.
But anyway, what of that comparison to the Impressionists? Pre-Romanticism, artists tended to make their compositions like grand tableaus. They're not that different in effect to looking at dioramas or even altar pieces. They appear in our space, arrangements of symbols which we are intended to decode into moral instructions. But with Romantic works there's a discovery of pictorial space as a way to represent a scene, a desire to pull the viewer inside the picture. They tend to be not poses but moments, snippets of time and space. Art is no longer about what is public, and we're less an audience and more visual eavesdroppers.
Take for example John Everett Millais' first Pre-Raphaelite work - 'Isabella' (1849, above). The emphasis on the two lovers comes not from the traditional means of centering and arranging the other figures around them, but from their tender interplay. The surrounding figures simply ignore them, as if unaware of who's the subject of the painting.
While the composition arranges the figures to the right of the table on a neat diagonal, those to the left jut across one another. The one partial exception is the figure in the left foreground who louchely stretches out his leg, his chair tipped, yet his face intent on what he's doing. It's not a pose struck, but a gesture caught. You can see a kind of sequel to that leg in Millais' later 'Mariana' (1850/1), which depicts a woman stretching as she stands after working at her embroidery.
Yet the Florentines linger and this new approach was not applied consistently. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's first Pre-Raphaelite work, 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' (1848/9, above), conversely is an uneasy blend of scene and tableau; halos on the figures, an angel standing by, ostentateously displayed symbols including books with their spines obligingly turned to us.
And now we have touched on religion, why not stay there awhile?
A Whole New Jesus For Our Age
In one of the Gnostic traditions, Jesus never really took on human form. He was actually a beam of light which merely looked like a man – saviour as hologram. Of course that was a heresy, opposed by all the major Churches. But there were traditions in religious art which depicted him almost as though that might be believed. He shines beatifically out of works, dominating the image like a beaming sun with all else held in his orbit.
The Pre-Raphaelites took this to almost the other extreme, with a historical and even humanised Jesus - stones in his sandals, stubble on his chin. In an unparalleled quest for authenticity they researched artefacts and even went location-scouting to the Holy Land.
Perhaps Jesus is at his most humanised in William Dyce's 'The Man of Sorrows' (1860, above). He is not preaching or performing miracles, and there's not a disciple in sight. But it's not just that he's alone in the wilderness, he's not even centred in the frame - it's vastness expands behind him. Particularly with that de-devinitising title, the viewer might be forgiven for thinking it was the decidedly mortal John the Baptist being depicted. (Incidentally, if that landscape doesn't look very Middle Eastern, it's actually the Scottish highlands. Perhaps Dyce couldn't afford the boat passage with the others.)
Standard devotional images are alluded to at the same time as they are avoided. In 'Christ in the House of His Parents' aka 'The Carpenter's Shop' (1849/50) Millais portrays the boy Jesus at home in his father's shop, having cut his hand on a nail. Similarly, Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death' (1870/3, below) has Jesus stretching, an innocent act which creates the crucifixion pose on the wall behind him.
It was probably felt the standard images had been drained of their meaning by over-use, and needed re-contextualising. Which seems less Modernist than... well... modern. You could imagine a contemporary retelling of the Gospel stories taking much the same approach, taking the icons from oblique angles, trying to find fresh perspectives on the over-familiar.
In a sense this went quite neatly with English Protestantism, whose Church services were deliberately less ostentatious and ceremonial than in Catholicism or Orthodoxy. This is well illustrated by Ford Madox Brown's 'First Translation of the Bible into English,' (1871/93), bookended by two figures above the arch – one a cowelled monk holding a locked Bible to himself, the other holding an opened book to the viewer.
And yet Protestantism was associated with the dour liberalism that Romanticism opposed, and besides by this point had morphed into the Church of England which sought accord rather than challenge. The Pre-Raphaelites were pushing at Protestantism from a more radical side, playing up the conflicts of history in works such as Hunt's (typically pithily titled) 'A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from thePersecution of the Druids' (1850).
Yet... and there almost always seems a yet with the Pre-Raphaelites... their art is bright and striking, not at all dourly Protestant in the way we'd imagine. In fact the Florentines had given them a profoundly Catholic flavour to their art.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it was their religious works which tended to be the most controversial. No less a figure than Charles Dickens railed against Millais' 'Christ in the House of His Parents', calling Mary “so hideous in her ugliness”, while another critic railed against “portraying the youthful Saviour as a red-headed Jew boy, and the sublime personage of the virgin a sore-heeled, ugly, every-day sempstress.”
Apart from this surprise at seeing a semitic face show up in the Middle East, as the vid-link below points out “what caused controversy was that Millais dared show the Holy Family as poor, working class people.” Yet to a believer the Gnostics were wrong, and Jesus truly took human form. In which case the double-value of the Pre-Raphaelite image, both image and symbol, could be argued the perfect means to capture such a duality.
Born In Revolution?
The show makes much of the Brotherhood being formed in 1848, “a year of revolution across Europe.” Yet Romanticism has had a conflicting relationship with politics, often drawn to the thrill of radical ideas yet with its emphasis on the subjective self wary of fully-fledged political commitment. Though most of the Pre-Raphaelites seem to have held progressive views for their times, and worked directly with socialist artists such as William Morris, there's less of the radical ideas held by earlier Romantic poets such as Blake or Shelley, or by their continental contemporaries the Realists.
The most political was probably the oldest, who was never formally a Brotherhood member. Brown certainly tended to contemporary themes and settings more than the others. The programme explains how his 'Work' (1852/62) “celebrates the 'nobleness and even sacredness' of labour, suggesting salvation for the heroic manual workers rather than the idle rich.” Highly unusually for a Pre-Raphaelite work, it's a straight-ahead celebration of Victorian engineering and development. The aristos are pushed to be back of the composition by ditch-digging navvies who (bathed in light) are almost literally building a new world, the road stretching away to the right representing progress.
However, it's Hogarthian rather than radical, for all the focus on the navvies it's colours bourgeois rather than proletarian. Notably, this celebration of the sacredness of labour extends to contrasting the stout-of-heart navvies against the flower sellers to the left, whose torn dresses suggest the more feckless poor. (The ripped brim of the front woman's hat, revealing the woman's peering eyes is a peculiar touch.)
Moreover the piling-up of figures sits awkwardly with the apparent naturalism. The tableau-like composition suggests an aesthetic conservatism closer to the standard Victorian concept of art as a moral guide. Ultimately, it's composition is as indigestible as it's message. (Personally I incline more to Joe Strummer's view, when he sang “never loved a shovel”.)
Telling Us A Story From the Old Days
In rejecting Classicism the Pre-Raphaelites embraced Medievalism, normally depicted as a golden age made up of noble hearts beating in wooded glades - essentially Middle Earth before Sauron showed up to despoil it.
But the real point of Medievalism is of course to hearken. The era appealed precisely because it had already been lost. Millais has a recurring motif of leaves or flower petals on the ground. No matter the time of year, these Medieval forests are always in a kind of Autumn.
William Shakespeare Burton's 'Wounded Cavalier' (1855/6, above), immediately belies it's title by showing a Cavalier who is almost probably dying. The slaying Puritan, rather than standing triumphantly over his body, hangs his arms flatly and in his dark clothes is pushed almost into the background. An intrusively placed tree all but cancels him out in the composition, while his own maiden ignores him to comfort the cavalier.
It looks so unlikely that this drab and undynamic a figure could have killed such a dashingly-dressed fellow that popular opinion assumes we're seeing the result of an ambush. It's rather reminiscent of the summation in '1066 and All That,' of the Cavaliers as “Wrong but Wromantic” and the Roundheads “Right but Repulsive.” In short, here the figure clutching the Bible is essentially the bad guy.
The English Revolution did not mark the end of the Medieval era of course, not even in the Victorians' narrowed perspective of history. But the picture suggests a worldview literally regressive as opposed to progressive. The “pre” in their name never loomed larger than here.
Their numerous Shakespeare adaptations stem from this fixation, for he was forever setting his plays in a faux-medieval garden of England - which somehow stretched across the whole of a chivalric Europe. Despite the afore-mentioned emphasis on scenes over tableaus, it's this regurgitation of received images of Medievalism which so often keeps the group in the hold of narrative painting. In this, in another skewing to the notion of linear progression in art, they notably look more Victorian than their predecessor Turner.
Millais' 'A Huguenot on St. Bartholomews' Day, Refusing to Shield Himself From Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge' (1852, above) is of a French protestant defying a decree to wear a symbol of Catholicism. Yet the lovers look to each other as they embrace, not out at us, and you could easily take the white ribbon as a token of love. It looks Romantic in the more colloquial sense we use today. The picture becomes illustrational, it needs that title (long and unwieldily enough to require punctuation). It's not a work in and of itself but heavily reliant for it's meaning on a wider context.
Similarly Hunt's 'Valentina Rescuing Sylvia From Proteus' (1850/1) cheerily assumes it's audience is one of educated gentlemen who will be familiar with Shakespeare's 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' and so will have some clue who these funny-looking people are. (Personally, I was lost!) At such points, Impressionism's direct experience of the everyday world seems an age away.
Back to Nature
John Ruskin, one of the group's few contemporary supporters, enthused: “every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.” (Actually, and unlike the later Impressionists, they often only drew only the landscapes from nature, and added the foreground figures later from models in the studio.)
Nevertheless, this raises the question – did depicting nature en plein air take them beyond the trap of narrative? The answer, as you're probably already guessed, is yes and no.
William Dyce's 'Pegwell Bay, Kent - A Recollection of October 5th 1858' (1858/60, below) notably captures a moment in time, not even the passing of a single afternoon but the onset of sunset. The comet in the sky (top centre) pins it to the single day given in the title, like a date-stamp on a digital camera.
The show smartly places this next to Hunt's verdant 'Our English Coasts' (aka 'Strayed Sheep' (1852, above), keeping us wary of generalising about the Pre-Raphaelites too much. This look English pastoralism gone psychedelic! Yet the pictures don't just vary in season or in colour scheme – for, as the second version of it's name makes more explicit, here symbolism is back. Though Hunt's work contains not a single human figure, that is actually the very thing which pushes it from a literal reading. The sheep are being tended by the absent shepherd just as the invisible, omnipresent God looks after his flock. What places him nowhere makes him everywhere. This is underlined by the red marks of ownership on their backs, as red was often used as a symbolic colour for Jesus. (Look again at 'The Scapegoat.') In short, what makes it a pure nature scene simultaneously makes it a religious work.
A recurrent feature is the dwarfed and isolated human figure, as in John Brett's 'Val D'Aosta' (1851, below), a stretching panoply of the Swiss alps. We see the goat in the lower foreground before we see the peasant girl huddled beneath a rock.
But as ever there's contrasts. Millais' 'John Ruskin' (1853/4, above), again hung near the Brett, portraying the great Romantic as a Victorian hero, masterfully standing astride a landscape. (A veneration which didn't stop Millais' running off with Ruskin's wife, but that's another story...)
Beauty is Back!
...which sets us up for the most bizarre paradox of the whole movement. Rossetti, feeling bound by the contradictions outlined above, saw he had to choose - and chose. He abandoned both narrative and fidelity to nature to instead ramp up the symbolism. The programme claims “beauty came to be valued more highly than truth” while Carl Jacobi comments these “expressed an idea that colour, pattern and texture were as important as subject matter” ('Art Quarterly', Autumn 2012).
Varying from the earlier insistence on the unity of the arts, Rossetti now saw music as the medium to emulate. Music is non-mimetic, it doesn't have to be about anything yet it can still move the listener. Notably, musical instruments appeared frequently even in earlier works while Rossetti's watercolour 'The Blue Closet' (1856/7) uses it's composition to evoke the sound of music.
Ironically this new turn taken by Rossetti should strictly be called Aestheticism, yet these are the works most popularly associated with Pre-Raphaelites! Notably the poster image for the show is a later Rossetti - 'Astarte Syriuaca' (1877, up top). Perhaps they represent the Victorians as we like to think of them – doomed romantics, consumptive poets – with all that cumbersome baggage about weighty literature, religion and muesli moralism removed.
You see it as soon as you enter this exhibition. Images of the artists include a self-portrait of a long-haired bohemian Rossetti among others looking as upright and stiff-collared as only Victorians can. Italian lineage even gave him that dashing, romance-novel name. Yet taking Rossetti to represent the Pre-Raphaelites is like taking Dali to represent Surrealism, it's taking the poster boy at face value, it's taking the exception for the rule. At the same time, if these pieces easily transfer to the wall of a teenage bedroom, that doesn't make them bad works in themselves.
There was a biographical motivation as well as an aesthetic one, which needless to say involved doomed romance. Rossetti's wife and model Elizabeth Siddall had died young of a laudanum overdose, and is presented in 'Beata Beatrix' (1864/70, above) as tortured and as ecstatic as a martyred saint. (As in so much Victorian fiction, there's a close relationship between female virtue and being dead.) This composition doesn't place her in pictoral space but surrounded by an arrangement of symbols – a red dove, a white poppy, a sundial. In other works, backgrounds fade almost to vanishing point.
It's in the manner of the devotional Florentine works we saw earlier. Yet it has the same relationship to them as Gospel to Soul; the religious content is removed, while the religious fervour is retained and reassigned to love. As Jonathan Jones said in the Guardian, “for Rossetti, painting and desire were pretty much the same thing.”
This inscrutable otherness of women was all but inevitable in a man's world. As soon as they manage to shut the women up they start to wonder what they're thinking. And the natural answer to that is not to ask them but to try and paint them.
Moreover, Victorian society tended to assume women were closer to the world of nature than the more civilized menfolk, and perhaps by consequence it would most likely be impossible to separate the Pre-Raphaelites' view of nature from their view of women. And one way to prove that would be to look at the room in this exhibition that's ostensibly given over to nature. Millais' 'Opehlia' (1851/2, below), shows Shakespeare's heroine effectively melting back into the nature from where she came.
Meanwhile in 'Lady Lilith' (1865/8, below) Rossetti provides the inevitable counterpoint to the doomed good girl Beatrix – the femme fatale. While Beatrix's eyes are devotedly closed, Lilith's vainly go to a mirror, highlit in the wickedest black. Lilith's evil is underlined by this unnatural act, she is no innocent natural beauty but has calculatedly made herself this way. Another mirror to the top left reflects a nature scene, which she ignores in favour of beautifying herself.
The Brotherhood Break
Was Rossetti really alone in turning to Aestheticism? The show tends to present Edward Burne-Jones as his obliging henchman, following wherever he leads. Who was something of a latecomer to the movement, and possibly did idolise Rossetti somewhat in his early days. But the evidence on show here suggests more that this divergence stretched Burne-Jones, as he tried to straddle both new paths like the offspring of divorcing parents.
It's possible the fourth bigtime Pre-Raphaelite was like the Fifth Beatle upside-down; there actually was one, but people always forget about him. Certainly he often seems reconciled to his future as fodder for for jobbing artists hired to provide covers for cheap fantasy novels. Noble, shiny-armoured knights rescue fair maidens from phallic beasts, who have already obligingly got their kit off in anticipation of expressing their gratitude. (However, let's concede some of his other works here are better than this, such as 'The Golden Stairs,' 1876/80).
Besides, Rossetti's new-found Aestheticism may have influenced the others more than is made out. Compare Hunt's 'Isabella and the Pot of Basil' (1860/8, below) to Millais' earlier take on the same legend and Keats poem. The crowds are gone, the focus on a single female figure. Though you might wonder quite why she's cuddling a plant pot, you could put that down to her ovulating mysteriousness. Narrative may not have been eliminated so drastically as with Rossetti, but it's been quite seriously curtailed.
Yet, if they didn't follow in Rossetti's footsteps, the remaining Brotherhood didn't always come up with much by way of competition. Contradictions which were previously held in check or even pressed into service finally blow up in their faces. Remember the earlier warning about some works being car crashes? Hunt's 'The Massacre of the Innocents' (1863/4, below) is enough of a multi-pile-up on the M4 to get its own news item.
The concept is that Jesus' parents escape with him from Herod, as the spirits of the massacred infants accompany them. But with their kitsch, cherubic chubbiness they jar with the realism of the rest of the picture, without it being clear they're intended to inhabit a different realm. It's a grand folly, a sorry mess.
Yet Millais' 'Chill October' (1870, above) rids itself of narrative perhaps even more effectively than Rossetti. Millais has perhaps proven himself more refined than Hunt throughout and this is perhaps the purest and most effective of the 'pure nature' pictures – effectively putting you in a time and place, with little of the standard day-glo colours. However much I can appreciate 'Our English Coasts' it looks like a painting of England, a received image of a storybook countryside, a cold country wishing it was a warm one. 'Chill October' is the place I live, the misty semi-opaque landscape that seeped into my heart at some early age. We're told it's one of a series of twenty-one, and I would like to see more.
Notably, the Pre-Raphaelites provoke a kind of love/hate reaction. Unusually for the quieter Tate Britain, there didn't seem much way of getting into this show without booking in advance. Yet others can be quite derisory about them. Apart from the standard snobbish distancing from the popular, the chief red rag to their critics may be their bright colour schemes, so easily dismissed as kitsch in technicolour. (Matthew Sweet wrote of their “nougat-pink sk[ies] and Soylent Green foliage”, and speculated we have a psychological need to picture the Victorians in crisp black and white, “a world from which we can maintain our distance”, 'Art Quarterly', Winter, 2012.)
Meanwhile, perhaps their contradictions enable their fans to pick their response – they can be a steam-punk avant-garde or proto-hippy pastorialists, just as you choose. The irony couldn't be greater, you strain your whole life for accuracy to your subject matter and others see what they want in you regardless.
...which makes the whole business rather hard to sum up. Whenever people don't think of the totemic image of Pre-Raphaelism as Rossetti's mysterious-but-demure poster girls, it tends to be the lovers. Of course it's a universal theme, but as those lovers embrace they're caught up in the moment. Which is kind of like Symbolism and Realism giving each other a hug. If they put conflicting conceptions of art in a super-collider, perhaps the image of the lovers is their Higgs-Boson. Perhaps the afore-mentioned ambiguity of emphasis in Millais' 'A Huguenot on St. Bartholomews' Day' was not a mistake but a hidden intention honoured.
This theme doesn't necessarily mean the Pre-Raphaelites were subconsciously aware that their art had conflicting tendencies which required reconciliation. But then again, it just might. And if the lovers tiffed ended up squabbling over who owned the cutlery... well, let's focus on the glory days. For unfashionable as it is to concede, when the boys were good, they were really good.