Equally elusive in its way is his contribution
to the murals illustrating Malory that Rossetti and a team of
assistants — including Morris, Hughes, and two pupils of
Watts, Val Prinsep (1838-1904) and J. R. Spencer Stanhope
(1829-1908) — painted on the walls of the newly built Oxford
Union Society in 1857 (fig. 52). The episode is one of the most
famous in Pre-Raphaelite annals, partly because the work was
carried out in exuberant high spirits, all the more frenzied
for the presence of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909;
fig. 78), who, as an undergraduate at Balliol, joined the circle
at this date. It was also, incidentally, the moment when
Burne-Jones, taking advantage of his relative isolation, grew a
beard, an ornament he retained, at one length or another, for
life. But the paintings themselves, executed in the most ama-
teur fashion with only the minimum of preparation, soon
faded to mere shadows. Modern lighting has given them a lit-
tle more substance, but they remain essentially wrecks.
Built in 1857 and originally the Society’s debating chamber, the Oxford Union Library is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world and a striking example of Victorian architecture. The murals adorning its walls were painted by none other than William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and retain the stunning vibrancy typical of Pre-Raphaelite art.
Work on the murals began in 1857 after Rossetti was invited to tour the new building by its architect Benjamin Woodward. Admirers of both Rossetti and Woodward, former Oxford undergraduates, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones soon joined the project. They also enlisted Valentine Prinsep, John Hungerford Pollen, Arthur Hughes and John Rodham Spencer Stanhope. For various reasons, the murals were left unfinished by the original artists and the Union employed William and Briton Riviere to complete them two years later. The floral ceiling design is also by William Morris.
The paintings depict the Arthurian legend as told in the then recently published Morte d'Arthur by Tennyson. The artists sometimes feature as subjects in each other’s paintings and the future wife of William Morris, then Jane Burden, was persuaded to model for both Rossetti’s and Morris’ murals after first meeting with the artists during the Union project.
Under the influence of Rossetti, the friendship between Morris and Burne-Jones would lead to the birth of the second Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Inspired by Ruskin’s ideals of affordable art and a return to pre-capitalist artisan craft, the painting of the Oxford Union murals has furthermore been seen as a foreshadowing of the collaborative enterprise of Morris & Co.
The Oxford Union murals (1857–1859) are a series of mural decorations in the Oxford Union library building. The series was executed by a team of Pre-Raphaelite artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The paintings depict scenes from Arthurian myth.
The murals were commissioned by John Ruskin and the subject was probably chosen as a result of earlier Pre-Raphaelite interest in Arthurian themes, such as the illustrations to Edward Moxon's 1857 edition of Tennyson. In addition to Rossetti, Morris and Burne-Jones, several other artists agreed to contribute. These were the painters Val Prinsep, Arthur Hughes, J. H. Pollen, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope and the sculptor Alexander Munro.
The murals compete with the light from the windows
The process of painting the murals was notoriously chaotic. Ruskin said that the artists were "all the least bit crazy and it's very difficult to manage them." As the murals were painted directly onto the wall without plaster or adequate underpainting they began to suffer decay very quickly. William Morris later completely repainted his design for the ceiling.
Rossetti's main work was Sir Lancelot's Vision of the Holy Grail. Burne-Jones painted Nimue brings Sir Peleus to Ettarde after their Quarrel. Morris executed Sir Palomides' jealousy of Sir Tristram and Iseult, though his work has been described as “poorly and clumsily painted, but the background of leaves and flowers” revealed his skills in design.
A view of the murals of the Oxford Union Society Library at night time
Jane Burden, who would later marry William Morris, first appears as a model in the Oxford murals. Burden was noticed by Rossetti and Burne-Jones when she was visiting an Oxford theatre with her sister. Struck by Jane's beauty, they sought her to model for them.
In 1906 Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite colleague William Holman Hunt, who had not been directly involved, wrote a book on the history of the decorations.
1. Richard W. Barber, The Holy Grail: imagination and belief, Harvard University Press, 2004, p.267.
2, Clare A. P. Willsdon, Mural painting in Britain 1840-1940: image and meaning, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.258.
3. C. Wood, The Pre-Raphaelites, London: Seven Dials, 1981, p. 110