Friday 30 December 2022

Review: The Legend of King Arthur

Here we are in 'Twixtmas, the week between Christmas and New Year, famously my least favourite time of the year.  I get miserable, on a massive come-down from Christmas and it is dark, cold, wet and pointless.  February and its promise of seedlings and Valentine's Day seems ages off, so I wrap myself in a blanket and mope.  Mercifully, just before Christmas, the Walker family made a mad dash up to London for a lark and we went to see The Legend of King Arthur, A Pre-Raphaelite Love Story at the William Morris Gallery...

I've had the catalogue for a while, as you will remember from this review, but I was beginning to doubt I'd make it to London what with work and rail strikes, but we took our chance on the Thursday before Christmas and were utterly delighted by what we saw...

Full disclosure, I love the William Morris Gallery and am happy to take the tube up to Walthamstow whenever I have an excuse to do so.  Seeing as the following venues for this exhibition are Tullie House and Falmouth, I thought this was probably the easiest gallery for us to get to, so if I wanted to see it, we best head for the big smoke. I'm so pleased we did as it set us up for Christmas beautifully. And it's free to get in!  Glorious...

Study for the Head of Arthur (1879) Herbert Bone

As I'm sure you all know, the legends of King Arthur and his knights, Camelot and the Holy Grail meant a vast amount to the Pre-Raphaelites.  Fuelled by Tennyson and his poems, but also by Mallory and the Morte D'Arthur, these tales of romance, lust, loss and duty chimed with the Victorian ideal of what society should be. The courtly, stately, restrained beauty of Victorian Medieval King Arthur (as opposed to the possibly actual Romano-British Pendragons) shone a mirror back on nineteenth century society, to the extent that Landseer painted Victoria and Albert in their Medieval costumes in 1842. To the Pre-Raphaelites, to whom everything Tennysonian was sacred, Medieval Camelot was the perfect playground for their imagination.  The results can be seen in this exhibition.

Study of Shoulder Armour (1919) Evelyn De Morgan

There is a wonderful mixture of pieces, from studies to oil paintings, tapestry to clothing and books, all showing the range of responses the artists had to the stories. Even the studies, like those of De Morgan and Bone are exquisite works of art in their own right. Each piece tells more of the story, from the earliest days of the Pre-Raphaelites to John William Waterhouse and the second or third wave of Pre-Raphaelitism.

Arguably, the star of the show is the monumental tapestry that starts on one wall and continues on the next, telling the story of the Grail and the knights who searched. It comprises of a series of panels designed by Edward Burne-Jones in the 1890s and shows the Departure of the Knights and the Attainment of the Grail (both belong to Jimmy Page). They are fresh and crisp, the colours still vibrant and clear and provide a gorgeous backdrop to the other objects as well as being overwhelmingly beautiful in themselves.

Study for The Lady of Shalott (1890s) John William Waterhouse

It is always lovely to see John William Waterhouse, and his 1888 Lady of Shalott (at Tate Britain) is probably the most instantly recognisable of Victorian Arthurian images.  Falmouth's oil sketch of one of his later versions of The Lady of Shalott gazes at us with trepidation, stepping through her shattered loom, towards the window and Lancelot. The looser handling of the paint in this sketch gives the impression of the chaos of the scene, with the lady in the middle, her eyes still following the object that brought her doom upon her.

An absolutely delightful object was Waterhouse's own copy of the collected poems of Tennyson, into which he has sketched ideas for paintings.  I actually own a battered antique copy of Tennyson's poems with one of Waterhouse's paintings on the cover, so I found this a covetable book indeed.

This is an exhibition of familiar friends and new faces, of works like Holman's Hunt's Lady of Shalott (the small version, not the whopper I saw last at the Tate in 2012) and William Morris's Medieval dress (designed by, not worn by).  It shows, in one beautifully laid out room, how diverse the response to the Arthurian legends were, united in beauty.  

The Legend of King Arthur: A Pre-Raphaelite Love Story is on at the William Morris Gallery Walthamstow until 22 January, then it moves on to Carlisle and Falmouth.  I thoroughly recommend it and it's a glorious way to start 2023.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Kirsty
    Thank you for sharing this lovely exhibition. The medieval dress looks really comfortable, unlike the excruciating Victorian corsets and layers of clothing. (I have several pinafore-type dresses, which do resemble the outer garment here, so it shows it is a good design). I particularly like the Lady of Shalott sketch which has so much more life than the finished painting (and I do like sketches more than finished paintings in a lot of cases).
    Happy New Year and may January 2023 seem a short month for you (perhaps you need more things to look forward to and visit, like exhibitions etc.?)
    Best wishes


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