The Pre-Raphaelites have fascinated me since I was but a bright-eyed GCSE art student, with a big nose and big ‘pre-raphaelite-esque’ hair to match. Those great beauties made a place for my unconventional looks, and with poetry, mythology and art intertwined the movement had it all in my eyes, and there is no doubt that this exhibition at Tate Britain does too.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais were the ‘gods’ of Pre-Raphaelitism in my eyes, and they are displayed here along with the other members of the famed Brotherhood – Edward Burne Jones, Henry Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown – and lesser known followers such as Henry Wallis and John Brett.
Of course this show is a fantastic opportunity to see well known pieces such as Millais’ Ophelia, however the vast number of less recognisable works give another layer to the exhibition: the effect of the movement upon artists of the time, and later, and the great variety of scenes they chose to paint with such luminosity and life.
Poetry and fiction are a given with the Brotherhood, glowing images drawn straight out dusty volumes with gilded pages and illuminated letters; however basis of the work is not limited to literature by any means. The effects of the industrial revolution, the Chartist political movement, Puritanism and every day drudgery are all covered by Madox Brown and Burne Jones, whilst Rossetti takes up almost the entirety of a room entitled ‘Beauty’ with his obsessively painted images of Elizabeth Siddal – the controversial muse and point of contention amongst the group.
Madox Brown has never been a favoured painter of mine, his pieces just seem more awkward and less refined than many, however his piece Work utterly encapsulates Britain in the mid-19th Century – filled with hundreds of minute details describing the terrible struggles of the time. Still, it is the seductive, stunning beauty of Rossetti’s works which will always draw me in: powder- soft skin tones, hair so fine you could almost pull out a strand, and colours so intense they look as if the oils have only just been brushed on. The passion these men had for their muses, and for their medium, is potent – especially in Holman Hunt’s psychedelic The Lady of Shalott, fierce and celebratory in comparison to the sombre William Waterhouse piece we are more familiar with.
The Lady of Shalott stands in the final room, closing the show with a crescendo; whilst much Pre-Raphaelite work reminds of English countryside and its folklore, this painting is exotic and mystical, a surprise from Holman Hunt after the religious and landscape works this exhibition previously shows.
This is the real selling point of this exhibition: it shows these artists at their absolute prime. It is a genius selection of works which displays not only an immense level of talent and skill, but additionally the vast spectrum of subject, tone and motif the group worked with.
This show deserves more hours in type than I have, and to appreciate it fully would probably take more hours than Tate will allow you but give it a go and prepare for tired eyes – myself, I only had an hour and a half so I am going back at least once before 13th January!