History and Pre-Raphaelite Murals
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.*
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