Beauty and Rebellion: Pre-Raphaelites in Liverpool

Isabella by John Everett Millais, 1849 (National Museums Liverpool)

I spend a lot of time looking at Pre-Raphaelite paintings, in galleries, in exhibitions, online and in books. And every exhibition, like every book, has its own individual approach and shows me something new. It goes without saying, then, that the Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion exhibition at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, curated by Christopher Newall, with its own take on the subject and its own juxtaposition of works, got me thinking. The premise of the exhibition is to situate Liverpool as a centre of Pre-Raphaelite patronage, and as a city which, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was receptive to such ‘rebellious’ art. Much is made of the wealthy Liverpool patrons who bought Pre-Raphaelite paintings, developed collections, and encouraged new painters to be open to the influences of this new school of thought in art. This led to a ‘Liverpool School’ of artists influenced by the PRB, interested in their style, form and narrative approach. This much is demonstrated convincingly, and I encountered some interested works by Liverpool artists whose work I hadn’t seen before. However, having been based in Birmingham for many years, I tend to feel that some of the claims for Liverpool are slightly overstated:

No other provincial town or city was so receptive to this rebellious yet reforming artistic movement. It is a testament to the independence of taste and intellectual freedom in the North West in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The relationship of Birmingham and the Birmingham School to Pre-Raphaelitism aside, the exhibition makes a good case for Liverpool’s claims; from collectors and patrons to indigenous painters, now enshrined in the collections of the Walker and the Lady Lever galleries, Liverpool embraced the movement, even awarding the Liverpool Academy annual prize to Pre-Raphaelite works on several occasions (including Holman Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1857) and Millais’s The Blind Girl (1856) – both of which are now in Birmingham’s collection).

Every painting on display was exhibited in Liverpool at some point during the nineteenth century, which is telling about the Liverpudlian appetite for Pre-Raphaelitism (something which quotations on the wall remind us of at every turn). The first thing you see as you enter is Millais’s striking Isabella (1848-9), which is one of those works that has come to symbolise the early stages of Pre-Raphaelitism. A narrative painting, engaged with literary sources (Keats’s poem, ‘Isabella, or The Pot of Basil‘), full of symbolism, it brings a story to life: the uncomfortable dinner scene, with the lovers in the foreground and, in the background, oblivious to the drama about to unfold, a man is draining his drink, looking so prosaically real one can almost hear the resulting belch. Does this realism, I wonder, bringing a narrative to life, do what films do now, making stories appear before us, embodied by the Pre-Raphaelite lens?

Burd Helen by William Lindsay Windus, 1856 (National Museums Liverpool)

I was interested by the paintings of Liverpool artist William Lindsay Windus, such as Burd Helen (1856), based on a Scottish border ballad. The notice tells me that Windus was encouraged by collector John Miller to visit London and see the Pre-Raphaelite works on display; this was the result. Certainly in its narrative origin and its detailed background you can see the influence, though I don’t much like it as a painting, personally. Equally interesting is The Rainbow (1858) by William Davis. Though the PRB liked Davis’s work, Ruskin described this one as ‘an offensive daub’, causing Davis to roll up the edge with the rainbow on, which would probably improve it, as the rest of the painting is much better; I wonder if he retitled it, though. What is particularly interesting about this painting is the effect of the light, though: that effect of bright sunshine through dark clouds following a thunderstorm. In this was it is reminiscent of Holman Hunt’s The Pretty Baa Lambs, with a similarly striking depiction of light. It also recalled for me The Blind Girl, with a rainbow and a similar light effect. James Campbell’s Twilight, Trudging Homeward (1857) with a small, sightless girl being walked home, was apparently likely to be directly inspired by The Blind Girl, which was exhibited in Liverpool the same year.

Laura Freeman, in her scathing and slightly hysterical review of the exhibition in The Spectator (I suspect the exhibition confirmed her existing views of the Pre-Raphaelites) particularly took exception to Holman Hunt’s Little Nell and her Grandfather (1845). In that instance, I’m inclined to agree with her: it seems ‘sloshy’, to use the PRB’s own term, in both form and subject. Of course Little Nell herself is an example of high Victorian sentimentality, and it strikes me that Hunt took an overly-sentimental narrative and overlaid it with even more of the stuff. Apparently he accidentally used salad oil in painting the sky; perhaps that’s the problem. This isn’t the only work here inspired by The Old Curiosity Shop; Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s Kit’s Writing Lesson (1852), despite criticism from W. M. Rossetti that his realism led to too many mistakes, seems less cloying and more appealing.
May Morning on Magdalen Tower by Holman Hunt, 1890 (National Museums Liverpool)

I’m also inclined to agree with Freeman concerning May Morning on Magdalen Tower (Holman Hunt, 1890): there are many things to like here, including the lovely touch of the boy in the middle shading his eyes with his hand from the glare of the rising sun, the feeling of Spring and celebration, and the multi-faceted imagery of faith, but somehow the colours seem garish and wrong to me, the style outworn. There is a smaller, elaborately framed version at BMAG, and I think I prefer it smaller; it’s less…obvious.

Every Pre-Raphaelite show will have its standout pieces, usually very famous ones: here, one of those is Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat, which is one of those paintings people often love to hate. I have to say, it’s growing on me. Its narrative is biblical, and not particularly appealing; it’s an uncompromising painting which doesn’t try to seduce the viewer – unlike some of the other blockbusters here, particularly Rossetti’s later works, this isn’t a seductive people-pleaser. The purple hills are so unexpected – in fact all the use of colour here is unexpected – yet effective. The poor goat, faced with the bones of his predecessors, facing death despite his own blamelessness, works on a literal and a metaphorical level.
The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854-6 (National Museums Liverpool)
There are many biblical topics in the paintings here, but some of the most striking, to me, are Dyce’s deceptively simple paintings David in the Wilderness, Man of Sorrows and Garden of Gethsemane. Full of rocks and geological details as Dyce’s paintings always are, these beautiful small paintings are entirely dependent on a knowledge of the source for understanding and appreciation: the wild landscapes in which these men wander reflect the spiritual and emotional turbulence which also makes them widely relevant, reflecting human suffering as well as the situations of particular biblical figures. The paintings also suggest the peace that is to be found in nature, even if they lack drama.
This exhibition does a good job of covering a proportion of the PRB’s literary sources; a Shakespearean painting here is Arthur Hughes’s As You Like It. Actually, I’m disappointed by this: it seems overly complex and contrived, as if the artist simply couldn’t decide what he wanted to depict from the play, so tried to put too much in. Hughes’s other paintings here are less narrative and perhaps more sentimental (such as The Woodsman’s Child) but have a more direct appeal. As You Like It seems to beat around the bush too much.
Study of an Ash Trunk by Albert Joseph Moore, 1857 (Ashmolean Museum)

As an alternative to more traditional hanging, there are a couple of sections here entitled Paintings in a Victorian House, with a range of smaller paintings hung on Morris wallpaper as, presumably, they might have been in the house of a collector such as the banker George Rae. There are no labels here, so one is reliant on a handlist, but it works well in its implication of the intimacy in which these paintings might once have been hung, side by side in a less formal setting. One of these paintings, Study of an Ash Trunk by Albert Joseph Moore, particularly appealed: it’s small and unassuming, but with the green, fresh detail the Pre-Raphaelites loved.

I said that every show has its standout pieces: for me, it was Millais’s The Eve of St Agnes (1863). Voyeuristic as this painting is, the stillness and hushed reverence of Madeline’s room, the beauty of the dim light and the whole aura of Pre-Raphaeliteness about it draws me in, a feeling which is enhanced by my fondness for the source text, too, the eponymous poem by Keats. Holman Hunt’s The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro (1847-57) is also here, smaller and less dramatic, but with a very different depiction of the tension of the poem; Hunt’s painting dramatises the fear of the couple as they try to leave, in a moment of action, while Millais offers us a tableau, a moment which is very like the scene that Porphyro sees himself: here, we are invited to be voyeurs along with him, seeing what he sees.
The Salutation of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1881-2, private collection

For many, the blockbusters here will be the later Rossettis: The Blessed Damozel (1875-9) (a painting which accompanies one of Rossetti’s poems, a topic for another post), the lush Venus Verticordia (1863-8) and Monna Vanna (1866) in particular. Rossetti’s lush, voluptuous over-ripeness dominates this end of the room; however, my preference is for The Salutation of Beatrice (1881-2). I think I prefer Rossetti’s paintings when they are less decorative, more medieval, more narrative-based. This is equally true, in my view, of Burne-Jones: the exhibition concludes with two large and impressive paintings. One is The Beguiling of Merlin (1873-7), in which Burne-Jones draws on the Arthurian narratives so loved by the PRB, creating an intimacy between Nimue and Merlin as she weaves a spell to bind him in sleep, a concept reflected in the framing branches in the painting. The other is Venus Discordia (1873), a large unfinished painting from a planned triptych of the fall of Troy. This is a strange painting, with a power that I find rather inexplicable. Venus weeps as she sees the destruction around her, and the story and the historical context of the work are carefully woven into it, and yet there is something about it which reminds me of Albert Moore’s langorous aestheticism, in which a scene is simply a scene, with no deeper meaning; there is something almost Symbolist about this.

Beauty and Rebellion is about a great deal more than Liverpool, then; it offers different painters and in some unexpected juxtapositions it inspires new views of the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s a pleasure to see old friends and discover works new to me, too; and it seems that every place has its own version of, or approach to, Pre-Raphaelitism; Liverpool’s is very satisfying. It’s also a reminder that art and business can go hand in hand; these intellectual, art-loving leaders of industry who supported Pre-Raphaelite painters are too often unsung, and without them art history might have taken a very different turn.
Venus Discordia by Edward Burne-Jones, 1872-3 (National Museum of Wales)

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