Friday, 1 July 2022

Exhibition Review: Modern Pre-Raphaelite Visionaries

 I have to admit that before yesterday, I had never been to Leamington Spa. What drew me there was a new exhibition intriguingly entitled 'Modern Pre-Raphaelite Visionaries: British Art 1880-1930'. I was suitably curious as the term 'Pre-Raphaelite' is so hotly debated beyond the Brotherhood, but I'm a firm believer in the thread of Pre-Raphaelitism that continues to run today so I took myself off to Leamington...

I don't know what I was expecting but Leamington Spa Museum and Art Gallery reminds me of many different ones I've been to - the local history gallery and the large open gallery where you accommodate classes of fidgeting school children.  However, it has a sneakily beautiful art collection, including a treasure trove of works by Frederick Cayley Robinson. Tucked at the back of the local history gallery is the temporary exhibition gallery and here Cayley Robinson is definitely the star of the show. I was left with an impression that it could almost have been a show about him alone but his name is not yet famous enough to draw people, so he is shown amongst his peers. Placing him in context makes some very interesting comparisons - all the artists in the show obviously draw their inspiration from the Pre-Raphs but 30-80 years after the initial spark of 1848 brings in all sorts of other themes and inspirations.

Close of the Day (no date) Frederick Cayley Robinson

Cayley Robinson is probably not a name that is instantly conjured when you are asked to name Pre-Raphaelite artists but you'd definitely recognise some of his work which is in places like the Tate and the Walker Art Gallery. Leamington Spa have some beautiful examples and have borrowed more so that his work is peppered throughout the show. One of his most striking examples is the poster image for the exhibition...

In a Wood So Green (1893) Frederick Cayley Robinson

You can almost smell the green of that wood, it's so saturated.  The touches of gold on the girl and the knight illuminate the darkness of it and it becomes a magical picture. That essential link between Symbolism and Pre-Raphaelite sensibility is so strong towards the end of the century and gleefully detonates that notion I was taught at University, that the Pre-Raphaelites were a cul-de-sac of art, going nowhere and leading to nothing. I was instantly taken back to my trip to Brussels last Autumn and seeing the Fin-de-Siècle Museum. The threads of Pre-Raphaelitism ran through to the twentieth century without us even noticing it seems, finding a place in Symbolism, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and all the other names we give to the work that flirted with the end of the century.

That's not to say there isn't a bit of Pre-Raphaelite OG present in the mix. Rossetti is here to show the seed, with images such as this charming double hang of Roman de la Rose (1864) and How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Were Fed with the Sanct Grael; but Sir Percival's Sister Died by the Way (1864) (there is a whole lot going on it that painting). The Rossetti that really surprised me, mainly because it looked so contemporary alongside the Symbolism, was this one...

Damsel of the Sanct Grael (1857) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The narrow starkness of the figure in this 1857 watercolour is so startlingly modern, I was taken aback. The beauty of the exhibition is that it pairs works like this one with Arthur Hacker's Annunciation...

The Annunciation (1892) Arthur Hacker

Bear in mind that the Hacker is huge, heading for 3 metres in her frame, the powdery dream-like quality of the girl seemed almost old fashioned in style compared to the little vibrant stick-woman with her golden cup, which was painted over 30 years before. I think what I will take from the exhibition is that the idea of an concept's progression is not linear or simple. What is Pre-Raphaelitism? It is Madonnas and gold and forests and sharp focus and soft focus and absolutely nothing but beauty. I can see why people argue so much about what it is...


As time moves on, it's good to see the women artists appear as part of the narrative without there having to be a 'special lady section'. Another awesome double hang featured Christiana Herringham, a name that is familiar thanks to Mary Lago's 1996 book on her, but I can't remember seeing her featured in an exhibition of this sort before. Her cloud of Butterflies, Dragonflies and Damselflies in watercolour and gouache was a hurricane study of nature. Obviously, Evelyn De Morgan was there, with images such as Evening Star Over the Sea (1910-1914) and highlighted the influence of Spiritualism on the artists.

The Polar Star (1920) William Shackleton

This is a wonderful exhibition, which tours to the Watts Gallery in the autumn, filled with unexpected treasures and familiar friends. The moving of the Pre-Raphaelite narrative away from the 1850s and 1860s means that we can get away from Rossetti's love life and look at the work of those who took the things that inspired the original Pre-Raphaelites and brought their own sensibilities and techniques to them. It is interesting to see the likes of De Morgan, who I am very familiar with, alongside May Hart Patridge's tiny enamel...

Enamel Plaque (c.1904) May Hart Partridge

Both women were working at the same time from the same well-spring but it such different ways for different results. The exhibition is a glorious combination of artists united in intangible inspiration to glorious effect. I think the image I will take away, the one I have thought about the most over the last 24 hours is this one...

The Bridge (1905) Frederick Cayley Robinson
Who are they? What an odd framing of the image with the women almost lost from view, but the blonde lady looks directly at us and she looks sad, or is it annoyed? Or does she have a secret? Her friend is Maria Zambaco as far as I can see. I thought it was Dante and Beatrice but the man is too old. Is it Dante remembering meeting Beatrice and Monna Vanna? It is such a beautiful, mysterious image, I can't help asking questions and imagining a story.

The exhibition is beautiful and haunting, with some unusual and little-seen works. Even better, there is an accompanying catalogue, with essays by Jan Marsh, Elizabeth Prettejohn and Colin Cruise among others. It's a great read and glossily presented with good reproductions. Get yourself over to Leamington Spa this summer and treat yourself to a catalogue as well. It is very much worth it.

Further information about the exhibition can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Kirsty
    There are some wonderful images there, so thank you for sharing them. I'm not so keen on Hacker's Annunciation as to me it's a little on the spooky side. It's as if he painted this ghostly person but then decided to add in the background. I really like Rossetti's Damsel in her jewel colours and the little enamel for the same reason. It's also good to see female artists being included. Robinson's The Bridge certainly raises lots of questions and leaves us guessing. For some reason, I am thinking of Scandinavian paintings although I'm not sure quite why - colours? delicacy?
    Best wishes


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