Attraction of the Legend of Arthur
We must consider the allure of Arthur’s saga and why he is so widely known when compared with other national heroes, such as the Russian Ilya Muromets, the Serbian Prince Marco, etc. To some extent the lines of transmission assisted the legend. It was originally adopted from the Bretons by their neighbours, the Normans, who travelled far and wide and took it with them. But another factor is the magical echoes of the legend that convey a sense of the mysterious, the otherwordly, the intangible that is absent elsewhere and which renders them unique.
The renewed interest in Arthurian literatur in the early nineteentch century did not significantly affect the visual arts until the reign of Queen Victoria. The Arthurian Revival in the arts was in fact a Victorian phenomenon, built upon the ideas and sensibilities of the Gothic Revival but endowed with the high moral values and modernized chivalric ideals of the subsequent era. The course of the Arthurian Revival followed Victorian history, flowering shortly after the coronation, ceveloping through the reign, and waning at the end of the epoch. In this way, the Arthurian Revival reflected the rise and decline of the idealism of the Victorian era.
After centuries of neglect, the Arthurian legend was introduced into the repertoire of the British painter as a patriotic allegory. In 1848, the government, upon the suggestion of Prince Albert, requeste that William Dyce design and execute a program of frescoes based on the Arthurian legend in the Queen’s Robing Room in the new palace at Westminster. Using Malory as his text, Dyce personified the ideal qualities of British manhood in the heroes of the legend, and his moral stance foreshadowed Tennyson’s interpretation in the Idylls of the King. The frescoes provided the absent prototype, both in heroic form and didactic interpretation, that endured through the cours of the Revival.
The Robing Room frescoes stimulated wide interest in Arthurian iconography in the 1850s. The Pre-Raphaelites, already drawn to the poetry of Tennyson, addressed the new subject with energy and ingenuity. Tennyson’s influence was in ascendance, and the Moxon Tennyson disseminated Arthurian interest. The first publication of the Idylls, in 1859, placed him on an equal footing with Malory as a literary source for the arts.
Arthurian interest came to fruition in the 1860s and 1870s; every sector of the Victorian art world embraced the expanding iconography. Academic artists, including James Archer, Joseph Noël Paton, and Thomas Woolner, followed the example set by Dyce, depicting monumental figures engaged in noble actions, while the Pre-Raphaelites, notably Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Arthur Hughes, preferred poignant vignettes of love. Overall, the favored subjects included Sir Galahad, Elaine of Astolat, the adventures of Sir Lancelot, and the death of Arthur. Narrative interpretation supplanted allegorical personficiation, but Dyce’s moral didacticism and physical types were maintained. Sources from Tennyson and Malory were freely mixed, and new subjects were invented, such as Arthurian landscape, depicting archaeological sites, and portraits of legendary femme fatales, inspired by the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Book illustration enjoyed enormous popularity, especially editions of Tennyson’s poetry, illustrated by Gustave Doré and Julia Margaret Cameron. During these decades, the visual arts caught up with the literary tradition and enjoyed a parallel course of equal strength and invention.
During the last decades of the century, Arthurian art betrayed the decline of Victorian aspiration. Subjects implying the failure of the vision, particularly the Lady of Shalott and the death of Arthur, drew unprecedented attention, especially in the circle of Academic artists, such as John Lyston Byam Shaw, Frank Dicksee, and John William Waterhouse. The heroic figure type was replaced with an attenuated, even androgynous, form, seen in the work of Burne-Jones and especially Aubrey Beardsley. By the turn of the century, Arthurian interest was vestigial, as seen in late Pre-Raphaelite imitators like Sidney Meteyard and in decadent aesthetes like Frank Cadogan Cowper. The tragedy of World War I dealt the death blow to the last shreds of Victorian idealism and likewise to the Arthurian revival.
The Arthurian Revival shared only the basic subject matter with the medieval development in the arts. In origin, in form, and in meaning, it was distinct. Brought into being as inspirational allegory, it maintained a moral implication and a monarchial association to the end of its course. The aesthetic was medieval only in superficial detals of costume and setting; it reflected instead current taste. Visual conversations allowed the viewer to read the narrative, and a specific iconography was codified. Ultimately, even the subject matter was contemporary, incorporating new writings and revised interpretations of tradtional materials. These differences distinguish the Arthurian Revival as a revival in the fullest sense, not simply imitating the past but revitalizing the tradition itself.