Robert Wilkes

Robert Wilkes



Thesis title: The Hidden Pre-Raphaelite: Frederic George Stephens, Artist and Author

Start year: 2016


Research topic

My project investigates the life and work of Frederic George Stephens (1827–1907), a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Stephens trained at the Royal Academy, producing a number of paintings and drawings in the early Pre-Raphaelite style and earning a living as a portraitist. Although his professional career as an artist dwindled in the late 1850s, he continued to paint in his spare time and for several decades worked as a drawing master at University College School in Gower Street. Stephens’s writing career began with two essays for the PRB’s magazine The Germ in 1850, followed by an appointment as art critic for The Critic from 1851–53. In 1856–67 Stephens wrote a series of articles on Pre-Raphaelite painting for an influential American journal, The Crayon. In 1860 he joined The Athenaeum and held the post of art critic for that magazine until the early 1900s, writing over 2,000 weekly articles including exhibition reviews and ‘Fine-Art Gossip’. Despite his integral role within the Brotherhood, and his lifelong dedication to promoting Pre-Raphaelitism in his writing, Stephens has been significantly overlooked in scholarship on the movement.

This interdisciplinary project utilises Stephens’s unpublished correspondence in the Bodleian Library, the University of British Columbia Library, the New York Public Library and Getty Research Institute, together with a previously unknown collection of his private papers in the Colonel Stephens Railway Museum in Kent. A number of poem manuscripts from this last source have provided fresh insights into Stephens’s capabilities as a writer. Many of his articles on contemporary and historical art have not been revived since their first publication and are examined for the first time. My research also focuses on Stephens’s paintings and drawings in the Tate and the Ashmolean Museum – and one or two newly discovered works – which have long been dismissed by art historians, considering them seriously in the broader context of Pre-Raphaelite production. A new history is therefore presented, which reconsiders the Pre-Raphaelite movement from the vantage point of a central but hidden individual, through the material he published and the images he created.

General research interests

Nineteenth-century British art, Victorian literature, early photography, medievalism, material culture, periodical culture, religion, literary theory, ekphrasis.

Work in progress

  • Article on F.G. Stephens and William Holman Hunt for a special issue of the Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society (expected October 2018).


Journal articles

  • The 1860s Watercolours of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, British Art Journal, 18(3) (expected Spring 2018). Supported by a publication grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
  • Digitising a Pre-Raphaelite treasure trove, Ashmolean Magazine, No. 72 (Autumn 2016), summarising an internship undertaken at the Ashmolean from May to July 2016.

Conference papers

  • ‘My quondam friend’: F. G. Stephens, William Holman Hunt and the ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’ Controversy, forthcoming paper for a conference at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London, Frenemies: Friendship, Enmity and Rivalry in British Art, 1769–2018, 19–20 July 2018.
  • Joining Hands: The ‘Arnolfinin Portrait’ and F. G. Stephens’s ‘The Proposal’, paper presented at Arnolfini Histories: Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ and its Receptions, conference at the National Gallery, London, 12–13 January 2018.
  • Researching Frederic George Stephens, the Hidden Pre-Raphaelite. Paper presented at History Research Day, Oxford Brookes, 27 January 2017.
  • Presented undergraduate research findings at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Undergraduate Research Conference, Oxford Brookes (2014).
  • Presented undergraduate dissertation at BCUR event, ‘Posters in Parliament’ (March 2014).

Academic and professional training

  • MA History of Art (British Art), University of York, 2014–15
  • BA English and History of Art, Oxford Brookes University, 2011–14

Scholarships and prizes

  • WRoCAH Masters Studentship, University of York (awarded for 2014–15)
  • The Paul O’Flinn Memorial Prize for highest overall degree mark, School of English and Modern Languages, Oxford Brookes (June 2014).
  • The Dissertation Prize for highest mark in a Level 6 dissertation, School of English and Modern Languages, Oxford Brookes (June 2014).

Other experience and professional activities

  • Internship in the Western Art Print Room at the Ashmolean Museum, cataloguing Pre-Raphaelite sketchbooks (May–July 2016).
  • Work experience at Christie’s Victorian art department, South Kensington (November 2015).