Arthur Hughes - remembering the 'quiet' Pre-Raphaelite

27th January 2018
Today is the birthday of Victorian painter Arthur Hughes (27 January 1832).
Young, artistic Victorian gentleman with long hair, profile
Arthur Hughes, Self-Portrait c. 1850

A brief biography

Hughes was a naturally gifted artist and his abilities were recognised at an early age. In 1846 he entered the School of Design, Somerset House where he studied under Alfred Stevens. Shortly after, he enrolled in the Royal Academy Antique School where he met and was encouraged by Pre-Raphaelite founding member John Everett Millais. He developed a particularly luminous and delicate style. And embraced much of the Gothic symbolism in vogue at the time.


In 1850 he met Tryphena Foord, his future wife and he also encountered several other eminent Pre-Rahpaelite painters including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Ford Madox Brown. By all accounts a gentle and amicable person, Hughes made friends easily. And throughout his quiet, unassuming and generally un-dramatic life, he became closely associated with a wide spectrum of other leading writers and artists of the mid-Victorian era. These included Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, William Morris, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Lewis Carroll and William Bell Scott.

Though never officially numbered among the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for Hughes the friendship and influence of the Pre-Raphaelites had a profound and lasting influence on him. His career flourished thereafter. He became popular as an llustrator of books and poetry. And he continued to produce many fine allegorical paintings based on ancient myth, Arthurian legend and the poetic works of Keats, Tennyson and Shakespeare.
The works of Arthur Hughes

Highly versatile, Arthur Hughes packed a whole lot of variety into his creative life. For instance, he produced wonderfully lyrical and romantic pieces like:
painting of young woman in long white dress, outdoors, long hair - Ophelia
Ophelia by Arthur Hughes.
And ... 
Victorian painting of young lady lying in wood, head in hands, contemplative
The Rift Within the Lute.

He did many illustrations for books and editions of poetry like:
Victorian-era drawing of young people on beach
Illustration for Tennyson’s poem Enoch Arden.
And ...
double-page of open book showing Victorian drawings and poems
Christina Rossetti ‘Sing Song’ a book of nursery rhymes, illustrated by Arthur Hughes – Armstrong Brownng Library.
And he even did some very fine landscapes (and seascapes) like:
painting of sea with rolling waves and sunshine
The Yellow Sand by Arthur Hughes, 1891.
And ...
width="500" height="290" painting of country lane with sea to the left and donkey at gate
‘Sunday’ by Arthur Hughes.
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A favourite Arthur Hughes?

There are so many wonderful paintings that come to mind when thinking of Hughes that it is impossible to pick a favourite. For this article, though, I am going to share this one work in particular. It is called ‘The Property Room’ and was painted in 1879.
Victorian painting showing young lady in a theatre's prop room, with stairs and surrounded by bric-a-brac
The Property Room by Arthur Hughes, 1879.
A young woman has just descended some stairs, perhaps into a basement of a provincial theatre. Here she has come – either by accident or from curiosity – upon the storage of various props and costumes. Among the items are an array of exotic fabrics, costumes, hats, masks, stage weapons, animal skins, angel’s wings, feathers, plumes, helmets, shoes and musical instruments. What an array! It is a scene of surprise and wonder.
banner image of queen victoria face with red text, black background


Should we take it at face value? Is it just a charming and technically brilliant piece of Victorian draughtsmanship? Or is there an additional meaning to it, a message? Well, of course! It wouldn’t be Hughes if there wasn’t a message. His paintings, in the best tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, invariably urge us to delve deeper.

The Stage

Since at least the days of Shakespeare, the stage has been a metaphor for the transient earthly life.

‘All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts’

(‘As You Like It’ Act II Scene VII)

Stairs in paintings, meanwhile, are usually associated with the middle ground between heaven and earth: the ‘stairway to heaven.’ In this case, however, Hughes has reversed things. The stairway here is from heaven. The young woman in the painting is the spirit that has descended into matter at the moment of birth. She, barefoot, is able to explore and to take upon herself any role or costume she likes. A time of beginnings and infinite possibilities for the drama of life that awaits her.

Only the presence of the rope (lower right) leading down into a comparatively dark and menacing space below the theatre, sounds a cautionary note. It is to remind the viewer, perhaps, of the perils of earthly existence. Life can not only elevate the creative spirit, but can also sometimes drag it down. The Victorians, of course, would have been perfectly conversant with this kind of symbolism.

Similarly, with the white wings lodged upon the banisters, to remind us of the Holy Spirit. All very much in tune with prevailing Christian symbolism at the time, and therefore something to ponder and to learn from.

A recurring theme

This is, in fact, a recurring theme in the work of this artist and others of the era. By way of confirmation of what Hughes is aiming at, we can take a quick look at another of his works. A later work than the Property Room, and a little more sentimental in nature perhaps, but just as persuasive. It is entitled ‘Little one who straight has come down the heavenly stair.’
victorian painting of angels and newborn with mother at foot of stairs
‘The Heavenly Stair’ by Arthur Hughes, 1888.
Here a newborn has just been shepherded down the heavenly stairs by a whole host of angelic beings. (Not sure whether this accurately represents every Victorian woman’s experience of childbirth. But I do love the way the angels are all smiling and cheerful. A happy event!)

Family man

Hughes seems to have been a contented and happily married man. He had 6 children by his wife Tryphena, and was a great exponent of figure painting, including those of childhood and youth. This one, like many of his works, was presented with a poetic inscription – from William Wordsworth’s Ode ‘Intimations of Immortality.’

‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.’

A fitting epitaph

Arthur Hughes passed away in London’s Kew Green in December 1915. William Michael Rossetti later wrote of him: “If I had to pick out, from amid my once-numerous acquaintances of the male sex, the sweetest and most ingenuous nature of all, the least carking and querulous, and the freest from ‘envy, hatred and malice’ … I should probably find myself bound to select Mr.Hughes.”
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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