When Italian revolutionaries made an assassination attempt on Napoleon III in 1858, and it turned out that they’d been refugees in Great Britain, the British looked at their outnumbered army and rightly wondered if they should beef up their forces in comparison to the enraged French. One of these volunteer regiments came from an unlikely group: the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Patrick Baty published a thorough article this month in London Historians called “The Artists of the Artists Rifles: The First 35 Years,” examining the formation of this artist regiment. The Artists Rifles started with an enthusiastic young art student named Edward Sterling, but enthusiasm only got him two recruits. However, once the idea spread throughout London’s artist communities and the first meeting was convened in the studio of celebrated portraitist Henry Wyndham Phillips, membership shot to 119. Many of these artists, including William Morris, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, and Frederic Leighton, who became one of the first commanding officers, were from the recently disbanded Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that was all about classical elegance, not a stance that usually mixes well with the brutality of war.
As Baty writes in his article:
The Artists Rifle Volunteers were never one of the ‘smartest’ regiments, although they were always ‘well-connected.’ In the early days especially, celebrated as some of the artists were, they were of little military value. William Morris, for example, seems to have had problems telling his right from his left during close order drill, ‘invariably begg[ing] pardon of the comrade whom he found himself facing.’ Holman Hunt was forever losing parts of his disassembled rifle and Ford Madox Brown managed to shoot his own dog ‘the first time he was set to target practice.’ […] However they did act as a magnet to more recruits from the artistic community who, although they might have enlisted for sound patriotic reasons, were also attracted by the possibility of showing to and discussing their work with their seniors.
Basically, the Artists Rifles, or 38th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps., was great networking for artists, and there was definitely a social club aspect to it, and one that was a fantastic sell for recruiting. As the Once a Week illustrated magazine swooned in 1860:
Not less admired was the little company of Artists. Such splendid beards, worthy of Titian, and such fine faces! Imagine some dirty little scrub of a Frenchman picking off his Stanfield, or potting a Millais, in an affair before breakfast! But there would be plenty of Englishmen left to avenge them, and to paint good pictures afterwards.
Yet in the end, it was all about war, and their medal showing the profile of Minerva against that of Mars is emblematic of this crossing of art and battle. They were in active service in the Boer Wars and later in World War I, although they disbanded in 1945 after serving as officer training during World War II and later merged into the Special Air Service Regiment. Their original headquarters where their badge is still emblazoned above the door is now the Contemporary Ballet Trust, and at the Burlington House (headquarters of the Royal Academy of Arts) where they later convened, a memorial is embedded to those who perished in the wars. Unfortunately, the Artists Rifles Museum seems to be currently closed while it looks for a home.
In their later years they had moved away from the artist social club, but it was still those original Pre-Raphaelites who had inspired many to join, even if most may have been more at home with the beauty than the war.