Romantic medievalism

Detail from a painting showing a woman in red clothing with a white headdress

The romance of the Middle Ages fascinated Rossetti from his early years. As a child he would read Sir Walter Scott's novels and medieval ballads. Medieval subjects appeared in his works from the early 1850s when he read the legend of King Arthur. Ruskin also encouraged him to study medieval art. After 1856, when he met the young William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, fellow medieval enthusiasts, Rossetti's interest became even more intense.

In 1855 Rossetti was approached by the publisher Edward Moxon to contribute to an illustrated edition of Tennyson's poems. It was published in 1857 with illustrations by many artists, including Millais, Hunt and Rossetti.

Rossetti did not illustrate these poems literally, but evoked their spirit, only sometimes using details mentioned in the text. He often invented his own images, including details derived from manuscript illumination and Flemish painting.

His drawings were transferred on to wood blocks and cut by skilled engravers. Rossetti was not happy with the way his drawings had been cut. Even so, he succeeded in creating a powerful vision of Tennyson's world on a very small scale.

At the same time he continued to create an original vision of the Middle Ages in many other works. These included watercolours and murals at the Oxford Union. They do not attempt to reproduce the reality of medieval life, but to evoke a world of the imagination. They feature intensely glowing colours, playfully inventive details and an emphasis on flatness and surface pattern.

Their rejection of realism or narrative in favour of mood and suggestion make these pioneering works, leading towards the formal abstraction of the Aesthetic Movement.