The Pre-Raphaelites and Science

In 1850, the Pre-Raphaelite art critic Frederic George Stephens wrote that ‘The sciences have become almost exact within the present century.’ How had this been done, he asked, ‘but by bringing greater knowledge to bear upon a wider range of experiment; by being precise in the search after truth? If this adherence to fact,’ he continued, ‘to experiment and not theory,—to begin at the beginning and not fly to the end,—has added so much to the knowledge of man in science; why may it not greatly assist the moral purposes of the Arts?’ In their manifesto journal The Germ and elsewhere, Stephens and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites repeatedly called for a new kind of art, grounded in empirical methods of observation and experiment. Their aim was to transform the arts by imitating the practice and progress of science. 

In this talk, John Holmes will show how, by taking their claims about their own project seriously, we can see Pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry in a new light. The Pre-Raphaelites are often identified with medievalism and escapism, but their art was in fact radically modern, profound in its ethical and psychological investigations, and committed to knowing and understanding the world as it is. This scientific impulse was recognised and respected by leading Victorian scientists themselves, including Charles Darwin, Richard Owen and Norman Lockyer, the astronomer who founded the scientific journal Nature. It found its fullest expression in a unique collaboration between Pre-Raphaelite artists and Oxford scientists working together on the design and decoration of the University’s new museum. Opened in 1860, the museum set a scientific vision of nature in stone with a precision of detail modelled on Pre-Raphaelite art, even as that art was itself modelled on science. There is nowhere better to appreciate the Pre-Raphaelites’ scientific revolution in art. 

Free, but must book.

Suitable for adults and young people.

Find out more about how the Museum is celebrating the John Ruskin bicentenary.