The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy - Beyond the Brotherhood
18th October 2019
Pre-Raphaelites - it's what ideas look like when you're thinking
I was fortunate the other day to take possession of a rather splendid catalogue. Entitled ‘Beyond the Brotherhood, the Pre-Raphaelite Legacy,' it accompanies a new exhibition coming to the south of England, firstly to the Southampton City Art Gallery, opening today, and then, in February of next year, to the Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth. (links at the bottom of this page)
'Beyond the Brotherhood' catalogue with Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Venus Verticordia' (Russell Cotes Gallery).
As the title suggests, the exhibition features paintings, drawings and ceramics from that marvellous period in Victorian and Edwardian art that we call the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Authored by Anne Anderson, with contributions from Allan Lee, Rupert Maas, Rebecca Moison and Kirsty Stonell Walker, the catalogue is really a fine book in its own right and contains numerous reproductions of paintings, all crisply printed, of generous size and with lots of information on the history of the movement itself, along with observations of where the genre might be heading - the ‘legacy’ as mentioned in the title. I really enjoyed it. It got me thinking again about some of my favourite paintings from the Victorian era.
Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee 1884 (Southampton City Art Gallery).
The Pre-Raphaelites. How we love them! After a brief lapse into unfashionable neglect during the early years of the 20th century, their works have grown steadily in popularity (and value) over the years. And with the onset of social media, have never been more widely disseminated and admired than today.
'Vanity' by Frank Cadogan Cowper 1907. A fabulous study in character (Royal Academy of Arts). The mastery of fabric and texture is also just glorious. The Pre-Raphaelite painters would often dedicate a whole day of work to just one small area of the canvas.
Inspired by Words
I suppose a lot of us writers are attracted to the Pre-Raphaelites because they seem so often to be inspired by literary themes. The fast, turbulent stream of words, stories and poetry are what turned the wheels of their endeavours - and not only from their own era, but from Elizabethan and Medieval times as well. From Shakespeare and the Bible. Ultimately, the Pre-Raphs were all about ideas.
We are surfeit of visual celebrations of beauty and physical excellence in our own times: in the movies and magazines. In our sports arenas and in the brilliance of dance, we are well familiar with the heights of perfection the human body is cable of in action. But what about when humans think? Longing, jealousy, lust, envy, sacrifice, redemption or forgiveness. What might they look like?
'Cordelia's Portion' by Ford Madox Brown, 1867-75, shows the scene from Shakespear's King Lear in which the estate of the ailing king is being divided up among his three daughters (Southampton City Art Gallery).
Perhaps nowhere has this question been answered quite so stylishly as with the Pre-Raphaelites with all their vibrant colour, beauteous people, sensuality and lush preternatural landscapes.
Detail from the above painting by Ford Madox Brown
The two galleries have pooled their resources for this joint exhibition, with loans from elsewhere. And its catalogue, therefore, reflects this wide variety of imagery to take us on a journey through Pre-Raphaelite history.
Early on, we learn about the distant origins of Pre-Raphaelite styles, for example: those painters such as Allegretto di Nuzio or Jan van Eyck, who flourished prior to the classicism of Raphael in 14th/15th century Italy and the Low Countries.
Detail from 'The Coronation of the Virgin' by Allegretto di Nuzio (c.1315-1373)
Then there is the Victorian brotherhood of artists themselves, works from the founder members of the movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.
'The Bride of Lammermoor' by John Everett Millais, 1878 (British Museum & Art Gallery). The Victorians loved all things Scots - and also loved ferns. Just look at how brilliantly rendered they are! Millais was a very canny artist, and of all the Pre-Raphaelites he became one of the most popular and commercially successful in his lifetime.
Rossetti's illustration - a wood engraving - from the Moxon Edition of Tennyson's poetry, 1857. This scene, with Lancelot at the Castle of the Grail, depicts the final lines from 'The Lady of Shalott.' (V&A)
'Love' by John Everett Millais. c 1862. (V&A)
There's an interesting interlude next in the catalogue, describing the use of materials and painting techniques adopted by the Pre-Raphaelites themselves, including an explanation of how the medium of egg-tempera used in antiquity gradually gave way to the use of oils.
Then we reach the evolutionary stages of Pre-Raphaelitism - the numerous companions and followers whose work, in some cases, extends into the 20th century. These are what have has been dubbed the Neo-Pre-Raphaelites - those men and women artists of subsequent decades that were inspired or, in some cases, directly taught by members of the original founding members of the ‘brotherhood.’
Here we meet with works by William Morris, Burne Jones, Evelyn De Morgan, Frank Dicksee, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, Thomas Cooper Gotch and many others.
'Alleluia' by Thomas Cooper Gotch, 1896. (Tate, London)
The dream-like quality of 'Launcelot at the Chapel of the Holy Grail' by Edward Burne-Jones, 1896 (Southampton City Art Gallery). The legend of the Grail Knights and their mystical quests were hugely popular subjects with the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets.
'Harmony' by Frank Dicksee, 1887. Dicksee often introduced a degree of humour to his clever observation of human nature. Here the young man is clearly more beguiled by his companion's proximity than by any music she might be playing for his entertainment. (Tate, London)
There is a lively chapter next on the contribution women have made to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, seeking a positive reappraisal rather than simply regarding them as models and muses. And should anyone be in any doubt of the validity of this statement, I would recommend a good helping of Marianne Stokes or, as here, Eleanor Fortesque Brickdale ...
'If one Could have that Little Head of Hers' by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (Russell Cotes Art Gallery). The curious title is taken from a poem by Robert Browning.
Golden Age of Illustration
As the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian and the final decades of the Belle Epoque, we turn to those proponents of the great age of British illustration in the likes of Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Crane.
'Perceval Obtains the Shield of the Beating Heart' by Walter Crane, c1911. (Russel Cotes Art Gallery)
And painters of ceramics from the early 20th century were inspired also. (And still are, of course.)
'Faeries' by Fanny Bunn, 1904 (Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum).
Legacy and the Digital Age
The final chapters continue to explore the ‘legacy’ - the posthumous influence of the Pre-Raphs on sixties pop art and the thoroughly modern derivatives of fantasy art, computer games and movies relying heavily on digital drawing techniques.
The 'legacy' is an interesting notion, and it clearly does exist in some sense. Influences are inevitable and no creative person can avoid them, nor should ever wish to. When all is said and done, however, the Pre-Raphaelites flourished within a wholly unique Victorian mindset, thriving amid that glorious and intoxicating blend of Romanticism, High Church and Gothic Revival that existed at the time, but which sadly perished in the trenches of the First World War.
They won't come again, in other words. We cannot recreate the precious, finite resource that is The Pre-Raphaelites. And that is why, if we are not to loose touch entirely with all that is best, exhibitions such as this are so important.