Friday, 27 July 2012

The Best of British - Part One: Brotherhood

Because Mr Walker knows how to show a lady a good time, he brought me home a copy of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition catalogue the other night.  This was no ordinary catalogue, not at all, this was a special exhibition, celebrating the best of an extraordinary British art movement during a year of national festivity.  Sound familiar?  Yes, well, sadly this was not the Tate's upcoming exhibition catalogue (Sigh!  Can you imagine how delicious that will be?), instead it was from a 1951 Bournemouth and Wessex Festival Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, as part of the Festival of Britain.

Now, you know me, I love to read mid-century opinion of Pre-Raphaelite art as it is often so contrary and harsh.  No aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism was safe from criticism and the lack of fawning respect (just because something is old) is refreshingly honest.  When art historians and curators of the time bothered to turn their attention to Millais and the crew, they were addressing the unfashionable, the reviled, the stuffy, morbid, cloying Victorian nonsense.  So why did the good people of the Bournemouth choose to celebrate Festival year with the Pre-Raphaelites?  Does it tell us anything about why the Tate are doing the same thing 61 years later?

The Triumph of the Innocents provided the cover image for the exhibition catalogue
The Festival of Britain ran during the summer of 1951 and described itself as 'one united act of national reassessment, and one corporate reaffirmation of faith in the nation's future'.  As part of this, Bournemouth held a 'Bournemouth and Wessex Festival', officially running between 13th and 17th June.  The exhibition held at, but not organised by, the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, ran from 4th June until 7th August, and was curated by the improbably names Carlos Peacock.  The marvellous Mr Peacock was an art historian and author of a number of books, and he wrote the forward and text for the exhibition catalogue.   He was assisted in this by Kerrison Preston, a Bournemouth solicitor who managed to amass an enormous collection of important Victorian artworks, including Choosing by G F Watts.  Incidentally, his daughter Jean Preston was in the news a couple of years ago after the Ashmolean acquired items from her collection after her death (read about it here).  Carlos Peacock also had assistance from Mrs Michael Joseph, who will be familiar to Pre-Raphaelite lovers everywhere...

Gladys Holman Hunt (or Mrs Michael Joseph, as she became) by her Dad
Gladys Holman Hunt married Henry Michael Joseph, an opthalmic doctor, in 1918, and lived in London but Peacock sought her out for the wealth of information she could provide.  Together with her daughter Elizabeth, they allowed family pictures to be displayed, and information about not only Holman Hunt, but also the founder members of the Brotherhood to be shared.  Gladys died in 1952, so it is a bittersweet thought that her knowledge was called upon just in time.

Peacock prefaced the catalogue with an interesting Note.  He states that there were two main difficulties in producing the exhibition and its catalogue.  Firstly, many museums had been unwilling to share their works, depleting their walls during Festival year.  This tell us that although the works were not considered fashionable at this time, they were valued.  If I was feeling facetious, I might suggest that some of them are so big, they cover up a nice amount of space, but I'm sure certain images remained popular, even though the accepted history would tell us that they weren't.  So what is missing?  Well, this is conspicuous by its absence...

Oh come on, I'm not telling you what it is, you all know...
Of the 106 items shown, 18 of them came from the Tate, but Ophelia, possibly the best know, arguably the greatest, Pre-Raphaelite picture, was not one of them. In lieu of it came the almost-as-famous sketch, which is beautiful and almost photographic, but not the same. Looking through the entries in the catalogue I can't see any other notable omissions, but as I intend to go through them with you over the next three days, you can shout when you see something missing.  Today we will start with the actual Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their part in the 1951 construct of Pre-Raphaelite art.

Good old Carlos provided a very useful little potted history of all things Pre-Raphaelite in his Introduction.  He acknowledged that although the Victorians seemed remote from the 'modern' age, 'it was in fact the beginning of our era'.  He wrote that as the Industrialism altered the traditional pattern of life, the Pre-Raphaelites found an attraction in fleeing to a perceived 'old order', a rediscovery of the romance of history and the medieval period in particular.  This coupled with a discontent at the 'heartless' state of painting drove our young revolutionaries to take up their paintbrushes and revolt.  Especially Rossetti, he was really revolting...

Interestingly, Peacock emphasised the contribution of the other brothers, William Michael Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, F G Stephens and Charles Collinson, in the introduction and some of their work is featured in the exhibition, as you would expect (except William Michael Rossetti, who was more Treasurer/Secretary/The One With A Proper Job), but Woolner is omitted, but then the works included are only two dimensional.

I was delighted to see this by Fred Stephens...

The Proposal F G Stephens
It's not his best known work, but at least he's there.  I will be wearing my 'Hot Fred Stephens!' t-shirt when visiting the Tate, I promise.  Personal crusade aside, it was interesting to see the work of Collinson in evidence...

For Sale (1857) James Collinson
To Let (1851) James Collinson

Collinson is definitely ignored in the grand scheme of things, he didn't even get mashed into a fictional character in Desperate Romantics.  These are both fairly well known Victorian images, both hinting at the negotiable nature of women's virtue (how rude), but being somewhat lighter in tone than, for example, Thoughts of the Past by Spencer Stanhope.  It's also a good lesson that being a Pre-Raphaelite didn't always involve Medievalism or death.  Or Medievalism and death.  Collinson's modern girls are a good link to one of the most important works  in the show...

The Awakened/Awakening Conscience (1853) William Holman Hunt
At the time this was still owned by Sir Colin Anderson (who presented it to the Tate in 1976) and the title in 1951 was The Awakened Conscience and the catalogue mentions that the face was repainted from the original unnamed model, although it is not hung together with The Light of the World as originally intended.  The Tate website suggests that reporters ignored the spiritual message of the picture (especially when put in conjunction with The Light of the World) and just concentrated on the sensational aspects of the drama, and the 1951 catalogue is no exception.

Hunt is very well represented, 24 of the works are from him and a great many are from his daughter's collection.  This is double the amount of Millais (12) and more than Rossetti (19), and certainly gives weight to his role in the history of Pre-Raphaelitism.  Coupled with the fact that a lot of the catalogue entries are to do with him (due to his daughter's input), you would be forgiven in thinking that Hunt was the leading PRB, which is not at all the impression we have today.  Currently it is a bit of a toss up between Millais, who has the early talent (Exhibit A: Ophelia) and Rossetti, who had the personal charisma and stuff (Exhibit B: the hot bloke from Being Human).  Carlos Peacock reasoned that Hunt had a perfectly legitimate claim to King Pre-Raphaelite, as he never wavered from the path of PRB painting, and the exhibition shows his consistent (if a little deranged) output...

The Eve of St Agnes (1848)
The King of Hearts (1862)
London Bridge at Night (1863-4)
The Eve of St Agnes is cited as a pivotal picture for the history of the PRB as it allegedly brought Rossetti to Hunt, and therefore to Millais, starting the whole shebang up.  London Bridge is evidence of Hunt's skill at the minute rendering of detail.  The scene is of London Bridge after the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra.  When the Prince viewed the painting, he correctly identified one of the tiny figures who had posed with his back to the artist.  Mind you, as the catalogue points out, Hunt's eyesight was so good that he could see the moons around Jupiter without a telescope.  Now that's just showing off.

Millais is given slightly shorter shrift.  Anyone who had the pleasure of seeing the Tate's exhibition a few years back was left in no doubt that although his subject matter changed, his ability to render even the most revoltingly cute child into art was astounding.  Nowadays, it seems that we judge Millais as being the talent of the operation, the child prodigy who gave Pre-Raphaelitism the legitimacy and edge that keeps us talking today.  Without the punch of Ophelia, what's left?

The Bridesmaid (1851) 
The Order of Release (1853)
The Woodman's Daughter (1851)
My love of The Bridesmaid is well known (although I didn't realise it was known as All Hallow's Eve for ages), and The Woodman's Daughter is pretty special, but the inclusion of The Order of Release enabled the catalogue to speak of Mrs Ruskin without having to mention the whole messy marriage business.  Consider how utterly obsessed we are by it now, with two films in the pipeline and Desperate Romantics lingering on the subject.  Maybe Millais suffers from a suspicion that his career had a highpoint with Ophelia then he deflowered Mrs Ruskin and it all went down hill.  Poor Effie, she is the Yoko of the PRB.

As for Rossetti, he is a curious fish and no mistake.  In 1951 his fiery Latin temperament seems to have helped and hindered in equal measure, and there is a suspicion that he was all talk and no action, telling people about the PRB (we all know that the first rule of PRB is you don't talk about PRB) and generally being a bit of a womaniser.  Mind you, the pictures selected show he could rival the best in terms of wow-factor...

Fazio's Mistress (1863-73)
Monna Pomona 
Venus Verticordia (1864)
 I already know that Venus is not appearing in the Tate show, and I've come to terms with my grief, however I'll be astonished if Fazio's Mistress isn't there, and I expect them to mention Fanny without using the words 'spitting nuts'.  If 1950s Bournemouth can manage it, the Tate can.  Fanny is actually mentioned, without any explanation of who she was.  All it says is  'The model is said to have been Fanny Cornforth' which makes me wonder if people knew who Fanny was back then.  Rossetti's watercolours are also in evidence, together with his pen and ink and chalk work, including...

The Artist's Wife, Mrs Dante Rossetti 
The Artist's Wife, Mrs Dante Rossetti 

Now, before you think that the only way Lizzie will appear is as Rossetti's wife, fear not, she'll be here again tomorrow, but as the model to all three of the Brothers, she gets featured quite heavily.  In that amazing pencil sketch of her 'Ophelia' face, and as the original Sylvia in Hunt's Two Gentleman of Verona (the sketch is featured, however I couldn't find an image of it), Elizabeth Siddal (spelt 'Siddall' in 1951) is present everywhere.  I was pleased that there is no lingering on her death, unlike today's rendering of the poor woman.  Really, do we just condense them down to death and virginity?  How depressing.

Before I leave you for today, The 1950s insist I include Ford Madox Brown in this discussion of the first generation of Pre-Raphaelites.  Brown is a difficult figure to fit into the narrative (yes Desperate Romantics, I'm looking at you again) but Carlos Peacock cites him as the original Pre-Raphaelite, taking inspiration from the Nazarene school of art (who he claimed were pre-Raphaelite in style and aim).

An English Autumn Afternoon 
Take Your Son, Sir (1851-57)
Tell's Son (1877)

I purposefully left the exclamation mark off of Take Your Son, Sir! as that is how it is in the catalogue, and the accompanying text doesn't say anything about illegitimate children.  I need to research further, obviously, but do we know for definite that Brown intended it to be about a woman accusing her seducer, or could it just be a woman presenting a man with his son?  Tell's Son is the author Ford Madox Ford, who was Brown's grandson.  Ford Madox Ford is not so well known these days, but I suspect that might change after  the BBC show an adaptation of his novel series Parade's End staring Benedict Cumberbatch in September.  I look forward to seeing how the Tate handle Ford, because I know they have borrowed Work from Manchester.  Ah, there you go, Work  is missing from 1951's exhibition, again I would argue, like Millais, it seems a pity to miss out what could be the artist's key work, but you can only borrow what you can borrow.

Right, I'm off for today, but I shall return on the morrow with the 'second eleven' Pre-Raphaelite artists, those who were not in the original Brotherhood, but without whom it would be impossible to imagine Pre-Raphaelite art as a whole. I wonder who is missing...


  1. Wow, many of these I have never seen. "London Bridge at Night" is just beautiful in the color and I hadn't seen "Tell's Son" Thanks so much for sharing and please inform Mr. Walker he has wonderful taste.

  2. (sniffle) Poor Neddy...I brace myself for tomorrow.

    Also, I giggled at your caption on Ophelia.

  3. Thank you Ladies, we will plough onwards with the next installment in a moment! Yes Gracie, avert your eyes....poor Ned...

  4. It's always good to see some Fred Stephens. Really enjoying these posts!

    1. Whoops! That was me. Struggling with OpenID.

  5. If you are there 'Fanny', can you tell me where you got the marriage date of 1919 from. Harry/Michael was my great uncle and apart from his great bravery in WWI seems almost 'invisible' now

    1. That would undoubtedly be from Ancestry, who own me forever.


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