Thursday, 30 September 2021

Review: Rossetti's Portraits at the Holburne Museum

 Good Lord, it seems an age since I went to see anything pretty.  Very slowly the unlocking seems to have become a reality and museums are feeling brave enough to tempt us back in.  What a wonderful way to start my Autumn - a visit to Bath and the Holburne Museum, for this rather glorious exhibition...

Yes, it's an exhibition devoted to the portraits of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which honestly sounds like a good time in my book.  As you can see, the exhibition is accompanied by a little precious gem of a catalogue (hurrah, catalogue!) and so I was over excited to attend (and get out of the house).

The exhibition is in one large room with the sections split between walls, and separated with a text panel about the subject.  We start with a few early sketches of both himself and his friends, before we move on to the women who dominate both his life and work.  This is very much an exhibition of  The Women Who Loved Rossetti, even though there are a few exceptions sprinkled in, just to show that he didn't need to be in love to make art.

Elizabeth Siddal (1854)

Obviously, Elizabeth Siddal is the first of the women who feature (other than family members and Emma Madox Brown).  It's a special experience being close to the intimate little drawings of Elizabeth leaning and sitting within the confines of Chatham Place. I had not really considered how caged and observed she looked in these sketches, but especially in the image above, I am reminded of paintings like Spencer Stanhope's Thoughts of the Past,  which I guess was painted at a neighbouring window a few years later...

Thoughts of the Past (1859) John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

Although she doesn't look as tortured as the poor soul in Thoughts of the Past, in the sketches of Elizabeth, she looks restless.  I wonder if that was how Rossetti saw her or indeed felt himself? The works of Elizabeth are at least less stagey and extravagant than what follows...

The Fanny Section!

Imagine my utter joy at discovering they had a Fanny section!  I was a very happy Fanny-Obsessed Art Historian indeed. This is the second exhibition where Mrs Cornforth got her own section and the fact that she has now firmly wiggled into the official narrative is such a proud and joyous thing for me.  She absolutely deserves to be there, sunning herself in the limelight.  Anyway, after I stopped having a moment, I was very pleased to be faced with this selection of beauties...

Sketch for Fair Rosamund (1861)

The Blue Bower (1865)

Fazio's Mistress (1863)

I have to give a special word of praise for Fazio's Mistress which I don't think I see that often and is not glazed, so you can get a really good look at under lighting. It's a cavalcade of gorgeous creamy flesh and high sensual drama, a complete change from the intimate reality of the previous section and I think the strength of his work with Fanny is what makes her special and of note within Rossetti's art history.  Yes, he follows with equally strong and sexy images of Alexa Wilding and Jane Morris but it's Fanny who opens the farmhouse door into Oz, if you know what I mean.  Talking of Alexa...

Detail of Monna Vanna (1866)

I am always amused by our endless puzzlement about Alexa, who is so mysterious and yet everywhere in Rossetti's work from 1865 onwards.  God bless Sylvia Broussine and Christopher Newall for name checking me for my Fanny-centric reading of Monna Vanna which is one of the hills I am happy to die on.  She's holding a fan! Anyway, Alexa and Annie Miller make an appearance before we move on to Jane Morris and Rossetti's endgame with his deep, rich tributes to his love of Jane. 

The Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris) (1868)

Jane gets to be the poster girl for the exhibition and you can't help but be completely taken aback by the scale of the beauty in these portraits.  That blue seems to have so much texture and depth, it takes your breath away.  I also got to admire his rather nifty roundels...

That's the thing about Rossetti - yes it's his pictures we know him for now but he also thought about the frames and how we experience the whole thing as a piece of luxurious devotion. Not only that, I was delighted to see some of his jewellery in a little case...

I absolutely loved the exhibition; it was succinct and beautiful, giving you exactly what you need to see in a wonderfully calm and dreamy atmosphere.  The catalogue is equally deceptively small but packs a hefty punch in terms of interesting text and wonderful illustrations. It was the exhibition equivalent of someone giving you a big hug and saying 'Come on back outside for a bit, it'll be fine.'

Find out more about Rossetti's Portraits here.

1 comment:

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