Sunday, 29 July 2012

Best of British - Part Three: Who's In, Who's Out?

We've reached the end of this long weekend of time travelling merriment, and all that's left is to have a look at the surprise entries and omissions in the construct of 1950s Pre-Raphaelite history.  Yesterday, we were shocked and dismayed by the treatment of poor Ned Burne-Jones under the harsh scrutiny of Carlos Peacock (I do hope his middle name was 'The').  I can't imagine that Ned would be judged so sourly these days, his part in the whole Pre-Raphaelite tapestry is fairly well established, not only in personal terms, but in his contribution towards aestheticism while holding on to his roots in medieval romance.  However, today is not about poor Ned, it's about those artists that Carlos Peacock considered to be Pre-Raphaelite who may not be considered so today, and those we hold dear today, but are missing from the 1950s catalogue.

The Doubtful Coin John Frederick Lewis
In amongst Hunt and Millais, at the beginning of the catalogue, is that well known Pre-Raphaelite John Frederick Lewis.  Who?  John Frederick Lewis was an 'Orientalist' painter, as you can tell by The Doubtful Coin, who lived in Cairo in the 1840s and early 1850s before returning to England.  I think you can see a link between the above and Hunt's work done in the Holy Land, but his is certainly not a name I'd place so high on the list.  This is rather a pleasant picture though, and I wouldn't mind find out more...

Mr Heatherley's Holiday (1874) Samuel Butler
Mr Heatherley was the principal of an art school where Butler studied for a while and this picture shows the jumble of objects that were meant to teach the artists to be good little Academy members.  However, as Heatherley mends the much abused skeleton, something tells the viewer that Butler might be somewhat cynical of the system.  Again, I was not familiar with the picture, but I like it and find the over-packed still-life to be exceptionally well executed.

There are also pictures from William Millais and Arthur Houghton, together with James Smetham's Naboth's Vineyard, which resides at the Tate...

Naboth's Vineyard (1856)
None of which I was expecting to see in a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, especially when other things are omitted, which I'll come to in a second.  I was slightly less surprised to see William Dyce listed, but was surprised when it wasn't Pegwell Bay.

George Herbert at Bemerton (1861) William Dyce
When I first started studying Victorian art, Pegwell Bay was one of those pictures that you are shown and you remember.  This is rather bland, unless you really get excited about Anglican ministers in Wiltshire.  Nice tree.

So that is the 1951 exhibition.  Mostly Hunt, Millais and Rossetti, with a certain amount of representation of others, but who is missing that we would unquestioningly accept as being Pre-Raphaelite today?

Hylas and the Nymphs J W Waterhouse
If you Google 'Pre-Raphaelite' in images, this is the fourth picture offered, yet where does John William Waterhouse fit in our construct of what it means to be Pre-Raphaelite?  I will be very surprised if The Lady of Shalott doesn't get an outing as it has to be one of the most familiar pictures at the Tate.  In terms of subject, his mixture of Shakespeare, Tennyson and Classics must be enough to assure him a place in the Pre-Raphaelite role call.  Similarly, wouldn't this count as Pre-Raphaelite...?

Cadence of Autumn Evelyn de Morgan
Oh dear, that sound you just heard was Carlos spinning in his grave.  If poor Ned got a slamming, then I can't imagine Evelyne de Morgan would fare any better, but surely we consider her part of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelite painters, trained by Burne-Jones?  Certainly her work is similar to his but the fresh colour palate is enough to mark her out as an individual.

The Boer War (1901) John Liston Byam Shaw 
Look at the riverbank - she might almost be looking at Ophelia floating down past her.  Byam Shaw is such an extraordinary artist, and so under used in exhibitions that it would be a shame if his work did not appear.  This is a classic piece of Pre-Raphaelitism, reminding me of early Millais or Hunt, the understated drama and mood-defining palate of colour.

The Little Foot Page (detail) Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale
Likewise, Byam Shaw's friend, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (how excited am I by talk of the exhibition of her work coming down to The Watts Gallery at Compton?) should deserve a mention for continuing the themes and methods of the Pre-Raphaelites into the twentieth century.  In fact, apart from Elizabeth Siddal, no women were in evidence in mid-century appraisals of the movement.  With what we know now, taking into account people like Joanna Boyce, Louise Jopling and Lucy Madox Brown (and a host more) you would hope that women artists would be very much in evidence in the Tate show this year.

When reading about the 1951 exhibition I began to wonder about the reasoning behind holding the exhibition and the choice of artists, and how that would play in the autumn.  Maybe it can be argued that the Pre-Raphaelites were the first and possibly only British art movement (despite where they got their influences) and in a year where we celebrated nationhood, the vision of a group of British artists, following their own passionate vision in revolt of everyone else is the sort of Victorians we need to feel we come from.  Post-War, the nation needed to feel there was a future, even in the vision of their past.  Maybe this year we need a vision of our ancestors, not cosy and chocolate-box-y, but as revolutionaries, men and women who pushed boundaries, because that is what our country feels it does well.  After all, this is the nation whose monarch sky-dives out of a plane with James Bond.  We need our artists to shake the establishment, and that is what our Pre-Raphaelite visionaries did.  Roll on September.  Or 1951.  Whichever comes first.


  1. Beautiful art. I don't know a lot but I appreciate the commentary as well as the art. My daughter is a double major with one of the major's in Art History. It has opened my eyes beyond my love of music and dance. I will be a new subscriber to your blog with great enthusiasm to learn. Catherine

  2. Hi Catherine and thanks for the comments! I'm glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you enjoy the rest of the blog, I certainly love writing it!


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