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Wendy Graham, author of the above book, discusses how the merits of signature figured prominently in the critical fracas erupting from the Fleshly School controversy (1871–1876)./ Courtesy of Wendy Graham

Wendy Graham, author of “Critics, Coteries, and Pre-Raphaelite Celebrity” (Columbia, 2017), explains her fascination with the Fleshly School controversy (1871-2), a highbrow debate leavened with tabloid quality scandal. Demonstrating the salience of negative publicity, Robert Buchanan unintentionally enlarged his adversaries’ fame by singling them out for censure in the press. Buchanan drew fire for pseudonymously attacking the Pre-Raphaelites in the Contemporary Review, which featured signed review-articles.

Why spend time discussing the machinations of a “fourth-rate” Victorian poet? Infamous for having written “wicked insinuations” about the poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Buchanan was consigned to a footnote in literary history, as the critic who harassed a genius. Yet, Buchanan was a period informant with skin in the game.

He rode my protagonists’ coattails by competing with and chastising them. He represented the anti-Pre-Raphaelite lobby, which kept tabs on their relations with the press. Buchanan’s critique of the fraternities for championship blazing a trail for Pre-Raphaelite luminaries was perfectly justified, even though his tactics were not above board.

In 1877, Buchanan anonymously denounced fleshly trends at society journals and gossip mongering at the World. Scuttlebutt quickly dis- closed Buchanan’s authorship. Stung by the attack, the editor of the World, Edmund Yates, unleashed a torrent of invective against Buchanan in a signed article, “A Scrofulous Scotch Poet.” Pictured as penniless and flea bitten, young Buchanan had begged Yates for work to keep starvation at bay. Berating Buchanan for disloyalty to a former benefactor, Yates reprised charges that Buchanan had pseudonymously “stabbed some great reputations in the back, and had his moral ulcers laid bare by the scalpel of judicial cross examination.” By turns blistering and humiliating, Yates’s article was a media sensation in its own right, confirming once more that scandal promoted sales. Yet, the days of critical anonymity were numbered.

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