The Pre-Raphaelites Victorian Avant-Garde

Combining a business trip to London with a couple of days vacation gave me the opportunity of a lifetime – a chance to visit Tate Britain and the current exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite works: 7 rooms full of wonderful paintings and sculptures by the great, the good, the famous and the not-so-famous. I decided that I would pick out my favourite painting in each room to create a mini-exhibition on the blog. It soon became apparent (i.e by room 3) that this would rapidly turn into a Millais fest because the man was a virtuoso, standing head and shoulders above the rest. (And I’m not alone in thinking that. The number of times I heard comments along the lines of “Millais takes it for me” was astonishing.) Anyway he obviously doesn’t need the publicity. So here are my alternative choices.

Room 1 – Origins and Manifesto

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was founded in 1848, a year of revolution across Europe.  The original PRB (Hunt, Millais and Rosetti) were rebelling against established values in the art world in particular that the Italian artist Raphael (1483-1520) represented the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement.  They looked to earlier art whose bright colours and truth to nature they admired.

The Bride – Theodor von Holst

Rossetti particularly admired Theodor von Holst’s The Bride, which he called “a most beautiful work”.  Holst died in 1848 and so was unaware of the admiration from PRB quarters and it’s not difficult to see this picture as a precursor to the pictures of beautiful woman that so characterise Rossetti’s oeuvre.

(My favourite picture in this room was Lorenzo and Isabella by Millais.  I’m just fascinated by that leg in the foreground – have you ever seen anything so aggressively antagonistic?)

Room 2 – History

Depictions of scenes from mythology, world literature, history and the Bible were nothing new.  The Pre-Raphaelites, however, chose to depict these realistically emphasising accuracy of dress and other artifacts.

Twelfth Night – Walther Howell Deverell

Deverell is most famously known as the man who discovered Lizzie Siddall and this painting led to Lizzie (who modelled Viola on the left) meeting Rossetti (who modelled the jester on the right).  Deverell painted himself as Orsino in the middle.  What I really like about this painting is the life that is apparent in Lizzie – she was a young woman of 20 at the time and not yet afflicted by the health and relationship issues that sapped the vitality from her.

(It was the dog in Millais’s Order of Release that made me gasp in this room.  So fluffy, so life-like, I just wanted to stroke it!)

Room 3 – Nature

John Ruskin’s fourth volume of Modern Painters – Of Mountain Beauty inspired the artist John Brett to spend 5 months in the Swiss Alps painting this next picture.  Unfortunately Ruskin had his reservations about it.  I never saw the mirror so held up to Nature – but it is Mirror’s work not Man’s, he wrote.

Val d’Aosta – John Brett

I don’t care – this painting makes me feel as I do when I’m in mountainous areas, breathing in the cool fresh air, admiring the majesty of the landscape.

(For sheer technical brilliance and natural authenticity, again I point you to Millais.  Has there ever been anything that can hold a candle to the lushness of the greenery in Orphelia? Shame Millais forgot to renew the candles that were warming the water for Lizzie.  This was the picture that triggered those health issues mentioned earlier.)

Room 4 – Salvation

In a time of scientific enquiry, religion became a controversial subject.  The Pre-Raphaelites made it doubly so with their realistic portrayals of  scenes which challenged traditional religious imagery.   Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (incidentally a Millais I’m not fond of) caused outrage.  Hunt’s The Scapegoat based on Leviticus 16 wasn’t popular either.  Its mix of realism – the landscape painted in situ by Hunt who travelled to Palestine specifically to obtain authenticity – and the mangy, bedraggled appearance of the starving goat makes the pain of the animal all too apparent.  It was probably too much for the finer sensibilities of the Victorian audience.

A final mention for Millais in Room 4 and the clarity and precision of the line of the white overrobe in The Return of the Dove to the Ark is simply astonishing.  How did he do that?

Room 5 – Beauty

If religious themes belong to Hunt, then beauty and Room 5 must belong to Rossetti’s stunners.  Fanny Cornforth, Alexa Wilding and Lizzie Siddall all make their expected appearances. The most beautiful of the paintings without doubt is Beata Beatrix – Rossetti’s heartfelt eulogy to his dead wife.  (Shame he didn’t treat her properly when she was alive.)

Beata Beatrix – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Room 6 – Paradise

The exhibition moves beyond the painting into that of decoration, tapestries and textiles.  This room naturally belongs to William Morris though there are some superb embroideries stiched by his wife Jane.  To find my favourite in this room I asked myself which piece would I most like to live with.  The answer was this tulip and willow textile design.

Unfortunately it’s a design I’ve never seen reproduced and I do want to live with it now!

Room 7 – Mythologies

The exhibition saved the biggest (and as it turned out the best) until last. Huge life-sized canvases representing the two strands of late Pre-Raphaelitism – the realist (Hunt, Millais and Brown) and the poetic/symbolic as exemplified by Rossetti and Burne-Jones.  It is from this second strand that the exhibition took its emblem – Rossetti’s portrait of Jane Morris posing as Astarte Syriaca.  It is the last picture as you leave the exhibition but not the best in my opinion.  That’s the picture hanging next to it: Hunt’s Lady of Shalott, a massive canvas, full of colour, vigour and detail to lose yourself in, a depiction of Tennyson’s lady in the eponymous poem.

Lady of Shalott – William Holman Hunt

Tennyson himself didn’t care for Hunt’s painting.  More on that soon.  It was the picture of the exhibition for me and I wanted to buy myself a memento.  Typically I’d chosen the painting of which there were no postcards, fridge magnets or bookmarks and so I had to settle to for the exhibition catalogue.  So glad, it is a thing of great beauty, with superb reproductions of all the exhibits and copious notes on the paintings and their meanings.  Because that is the thing with the Pre-Raphaelites.  It doesn’t stop with admiring the canvases – there are hidden meanings in almost every brushstroke. The softback catalogue is a tad expensive though £24.99/£19.99 at the exhibition.  If you’re looking for something slightly more affordable and much more manageable (the catalogue is huge and very, very heavy), I recommend Tim Barringer’s Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, which is set out in chapters that almost match that of the exhibition.