P.R.B. the Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art

Burne-Jones, The Council Chamber 1872-1892

The Council Chamber, 1872-92. Edward Burne-Jones.

Found, designed 1865; begun 1869 (unfinished). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).
Found, designed 1865; begun 1869 (unfinished) - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

In 1848, a group of seven young British artists and writers gathered together in mutual support of new directions in contemporary art, particularly moving away from the established London art institutions of the day. The group consisted of the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and James Collins; the sculptor Thomas Woolner; and the writers William Michael Rossetti (brother of Dante Gabriel) and Frederick George Stephens. Looking back to art created before the time of the Renaissance artist Raphael, their primary aim was to paint directly from nature in an honest manner that rejected the painterly brushwork and contrived compositions currently in vogue at the Royal Academy. Bright, jewel-like color and close attention to detail, typical of early Italian art, featured prominently in their work.

The Council Chamber, 1872-1892. Edward Burne-Jones
The Council Chamber (detail) - Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)

In addition, the Brotherhood members were very concerned with the world in which they lived and the social problems brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and accompanying rapid growth of cities. In some cases, they painted scenes of modern life with a moral message, as in Rossetti's Found. This painting shows a young country woman turning in desperation to a life of prostitution, being unable to find suitable work in the burgeoning London metropolis. In other cases, these concerns were reflected in scenes of fantasy and escape, such as Edward Burne-Jones' The Council Chamber, inspired by the fairy tale of 'Sleeping Beauty,' in which the figures are shown, literally, closing their eyes to the world around them.

The Arming of a Knight, 1857-58. William Morris (1834-1896) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).
The Council Chamber (detail) - Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)

The young Pre-Raphaelites were supported in their endeavors by the soon-to-be eminent art critic John Ruskin. He staunchly defended them in two benchmark letters published in the London Times in 1850. He wrote, "[The Pre-Raphaelites] intend to return to early days in this one point only-that, as far as in them lies, they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective on any conventional rules of picture-making..." Ruskin continued to encourage them in their work, praising in particular their detailed depictions of the natural world, and encouraging all artists to "go to Nature...rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing."

The Green Butterfly, c. 1879-1881. Albert Moore (1841-1893)
The Green Butterfly, c. 1879-1881; Albert Moore (1841-1893)

Although the official Brotherhood lasted only a few years (they stopped meeting regularly around 1852), their work and objectives influenced a second wave of English painters and artisans, including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, who came down to London from Oxford University to begin their careers in 1856. They met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom they greatly admired, and even moved into his old rooms. Morris and Rossetti set about designing a suite of furniture based on medieval models. These furnishings were an early foray into decorative arts. Within a few years, Morris founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, a firm devoted to producing artist-designed, hand-crafted household objects. Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite associates deeply believed that beautiful objects would improve individual lives adversely affected by the harsh industrial world.

As the original painters of the P.R.B. matured, subtle stylistic changes began to appear in their work. Although they still held many of the views that had originally brought them together, each became more confident in expressing their individuality. In addition, the circle expanded to include new artists who brought fresh influences and issues to the table. This influx of new ideas was what is now referred to as the "Aesthetic Movement," prevalent in the 1870s through the 1890s. Like Pre-Raphaelitism, it was derived from the values of both artists and writers, the most prominent proponents being James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). In the visual arts, this style was grounded in a desire to move away from the sentimental narratives of the early Victorian period. Instead, these artists chose to focus on images of "beauty" with little or no "storyline," a response, to some extent to the French critic Theophile Gautier's appeal for an "art for art's sake." In Aesthetic Movement works such as Albert Moore's The Green Butterfly, color harmony, the beauty of form, and compositional balance take precedence over narrative.

Library, Rockford, home of Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft.
The Bancroft Collection

The Bancroft Collection

Samuel Bancroft, a Wilmington textile mill owner, was "shocked with delight" upon viewing his first Pre-Raphaelite painting in 1880. Born to a Quaker family with strong English connections, Bancroft's decision to collect Pre-Raphaelite art was highly unusual, both within the local community and in the United States as a whole. Even today, his collection, bequeathed by his descendents to the Delaware Art Museum in 1935, is one of only a handful in the United States focusing on British Art of the 19th century. Encouraged by his English cousin, Alfred Darbyshire, and advised by the Pre-Raphaelite associate and art dealer Charles Fairfax Murray, Bancroft spent the last 35 years of his life acquiring the collection housed in the Delaware Art Museum today.

In 1890, Samuel Bancroft purchased his first Pre-Raphaelite work of art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Water Willow. He continued to add to his holdings, building relationships with living members and descendants of the original Brotherhood, including Jane and Jenny Morris, Winifred Sandys, and Phillip Burne-Jones. As he became more sophisticated in his taste, he sought out archival documents as well as artwork. By the time of his death in 1915, he had assembled what is today the premier collection of this period outside of the United Kingdom