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?
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.
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.
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.
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.