Sunday, 29 November 2015

Exhibition Review: Enchanted Dreams

For my final review of the week, here's one that is very overdue indeed. I visited Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E R.Hughes at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery back at the end of October, but so much has happened in the meantime (holidays, book publication) that it got somewhat delayed.  Before I launch myself into Blogvent (starting on Tuesday) I best tell you all about it...

Night and her Train of Stars (1912) E R Hughes
When Edward Robert Hughes died at the age of 62 in April 1914, he was still remembered as 'Arthur's nephew'.  The Birmingham Daily Post, in their death notice, mention how he was the foremost watercolourist of his generation but still, before all that, he had a Pre-Raphaelite uncle.  Possibly quite a fitting way to start the new exhibition at BMAG is this image...
Edward Robert Hughes as a child (1853-4) Arthur Hughes
There are many reasons to love Arthur Hughes but often his painting is not one of them.  Whilst a very lovely picture in many ways, the tiny hands in this picture are terrible and led to much giggling and whispering about how the small boy gets out of his frame at night and comes to find you and your normal sized hands. This is not helped by the fact that the ornate and fragile original frame is now contained within a modern box frame.  We deduced this was obviously an attempt on behalf of the museum staff to stop him getting out... Moving on...
Edward Robert Hughes, looking far less cherubic...
Ah, now that's better.  This is an exhibition about Edward Robert Hughes, not his Uncle Arthur, so on with the story...

And Then I Knew My Soul Stood Before Me (1871) Simeon Solomon
E R Hughes is probably the figure on the right

Born 5th November 1849, Edward ('Ted') Robert Hughes grew up to model for Dante Gabriel Rossetti (he was one of the models for Love in the replica of Dante's Dream) and Simeon Solomon (who described him as 'the beautiful Hughes' in a letter to a friend) and probably used him in And Then I knew my Soul Stood Before Me (1871) with Johnston Forbes-Robertson (who replaced him as Love in Rossetti's painting).

The Lady of Shalott (1905) William Holman Hunt (and a little bit of Hughes)
However, being a pretty face will only get you so far, and Hughes worked for over 15 years as studio assistant to William Holman Hunt, at the end of the Pre-Raphaelite Brother's life when his eyesight was failing. Hughes assisted in the completion of the massive Lady of Shalott and some attributed the colour palate to him.  Hughes' work was likened to Hunt's in the press at the time which is interesting as it isn't the most immediate comparison we would make now.  Thinking about it, there is definitely a link to be made between the ghostly children in Hunt's Triumph of the Innocents and Hughes' Night and her Train of Stars.

With the Wind (undated)
Back to Hughes, and it is easy to see why this is a beautiful exhibition, but it is harder to see why Hughes is not better known.  His work is very commercial - one recent review referred to him as a greetings card artist, which is true but infers commercial equals rubbish.  Hughes talent seems to be to find the soul-squeezingly gorgeous in everything and put it in front of you so you have no choice to respond.  It's easy to find the Symbolist-like lady with the swirly hair attractive, but how about a rotting corpse in a ditch?

'Oh, What's That in the Hollow...?' (1893)
Taken from Christina Rossetti's poem 'Amor Mundi' (1865), Hughes does not show the two lovers who find the body on their lazy downhill wander into Hell.  Instead we have an almost Solomon-handsome, sleeping beauty of a man, waiting out his eternity by being slowly consumed by nature.  The lovers are represented as butterflies who have been caught in the briar that covers the body.  What should be repellent, a corpse in a ditch, becomes Ophelia-like in his death-glamour, surrounded by flowers.  There is a hint in the exhibition that more could be read into Hughes' homosocial relationships, that his appreciation of male beauty (possibly influenced by Solomon) had conflicted feelings behind it but as he seemed to fall in love with women as well, I think the most you can claim for him is that he saw beauty in everyone, regardless of gender, and thank goodness for it because I love his man-damsels.  Apart from the following which creeps me out...

Blondel's Quest (1912)
Although I can see that technically it is a very skilled piece, I am not a fan of 'creepy harp-Jesus'. It refers to the minstrel Blondel's quest to find Richard the Lionheart (but also reminds me of a still from a 1960s sword and sandal epic).  The blue of Blondel's eyes is so piercing it is really quite disturbing and provides a neat counterpoint to some of Hughes' more 'comfortable' art.

Twilight Fantasies (1911)
If you know anything by Hughes, it is likely to be one of his blue fairy pictures, painted just prior to the First World War.  The powdery watercolours do nothing to dispel the feeling that Edwardian England was a sort of wonderland before the great reckoning of 1914-1918.  In their turn it could be argued that pictures such as Twilight Fantasy have inadvertently 'cheapened' Hughes' currency by being so accessible that they have adorned popular greetings cards and become the byword for frivolous Victorian folly.  Taken together as a set, the blue fairy fantasies are all at once beautiful, mysterious and a little threatening at times but always breath-taking.  As there are light-infused angels and spirits to welcome the day, so too are there darker winged creatures waiting in the shadows.

The Valkyrie's Vigil (1906)
Enchanted Dreams is a very easy exhibition to enjoy because E R Hughes' work is so very luscious, however the story of his life is equally as interesting.  It is hard to see how and why we forgot him in the great resurrection of the Pre-Raphaelites but his watercolours have such power that they refused oblivion.  This is a fabulous opportunity to go and revel in their tender power on a grand scale, and one I would urge you not to miss.

Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E R Hughes is on at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 21st February.

There is sadly no catalogue for the exhibition, but you can read Victoria Osborne's thesis on Hughes online here. On the strength of it, I hope she gets the time and funding to write a catalogue in the near future.


  1. Wow, I love the colours, they look so dreamy! Thanks for writing about it!

  2. Probably because he worked mainly in watercolour was enough for him to be dismissed as a 'not-proper artist'. Hence his relative disappearance. I personally have never understood this prejudice against watercolours. It is deemed a lesser medium, but as you will no doubt know it is very difficult to do well.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx