The Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain

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I am glad to say that, despite my busy research schedule, I (just about) managed to find my way to London for a viewing of Tate Britain’s wonderful exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ before it met its end on the 13th of this month. I am sure the exhibition enjoyed a very popular existence as even my attendance near the end was met with a 2-3hr waiting period after ticket purchase before you could even queue up to get into the exhibition itself! After this period of queuing I, personally, was met with rooms so crowded that it was hard to even get near to the artworks, let alone appreciate them. Despite this, however, the exhibition truly a fantastic, well thought out, and incredibly enjoyable event (If only there were a few less crowds!).

For those interested in the exhibition I recommend the publication that accompanied it, by the same name of ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’—whilst not the same as actually having seen the exhibition, and the artworks up close, it afford the viewer a generous amount of vivid illustrations, intelligent discourse and space within which to absorb its contents. But, for those who just want the quick-version, I’ll try to summarise. ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ sets out to redefine the Pre-Raphaelites in our modern eyes as a radical and self-aware avant-garde movement, as opposed to typical painters of a ‘repressed’ age or mere imitators of the early masters that their namesake alludes to.

In order to achieve this agenda the exhibition guides the viewer through seven themed rooms; titled Origins and manifesto, History, Nature, Salvation, Beauty, Paradise and Mythologies. Each of these rooms demonstrates the main aim of the exhibition through their designated theme and hopes to present the Pre-Raphaelites in a way which the audience had not previously considered. This theme, one can assume, is partially influenced by Victorian stereotypes as they exist within our modern society—as the retail section attached to the exhibition carries books such as ‘Inventing the Victorians’ by Matthew Sweet. Art and other forms of Pre-Raphaelite visual culture merge within this exhibition and everything shown seems perfectly rich, vivid and provocative. If attendance rates and newspaper reviews are of any merit, it seems that the general public have received the exhibitions message fondly.

By far the best exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art I have seen
Jonathan Jones, Guardian

The Pre-Raphaelites are revealed as the cutting edge of art
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Times

Not wanting to go too in-depth into an already well structured and reviewed exhibition I shall, instead, just highlight a few of my personal favourites from the art shown.

 ‘Isabella’ by Sir John Everett Millais[ii]

Elaborated upon in this video clip by the exhibition’s Co-curator Dr. Jason Rosenfeld in a far greater manner than I could articulate, Millais ‘Isabella’ is a true Pre-Raphaelite painting through-and-through, and definitely one of my personal favourites. In particular my mind is (as to be expected) drawn to the dogs within this image. I can’t quite, at this time, puzzle out whether it is the case that, whilst Isabella is “playing it very cool”, the dog that she tries to pet into sedation is a representation of her inner anxieties and the wide-eyed fear that she is trying to repress or whether it is the case that both dogs provide the viewer with further insights into Lornezo—with the dog leaning into her lap being representative of the obsessive, frantic passion that he feels for Isabella and that she is trying to conceal, shown by her attempts to calm the dog, whilst the dog under the chair of Isabella’s brothers represents his coming fate, veiled in shadow as it lays limp and lifeless in the otherwise active scene. Considering the emerging multivalence of the dog within this period I’m inclined to perceive both as valid interpretations for the time being, and these possibilities for the dog’s meaning leave me feeling a similar dynamism to that of the brother’s vigorously thrust-up leg.

This imagery is also another reason why I remember this iconic painting with admiration and humour as, far from the supposed ‘new discovery’ that the media has been proposing, I remember the brother’s ‘shadowy member’ being anecdotally alluded to when I was still an under-grad. Memories such as this, and the brilliance of the work overall, mean that in my eyes this fantastic artwork certainly does rise to the occasion (in more ways than one!).

‘The Order of Release 1746’ by Sir John Everett Millais

Another picture from Millais with a ‘dogged’ presence makes me jokingly wonder whether or not Millais’ artworks may have inspired his son, Everett Millais’, endeavours—as he became a dog breeder, and champion of the Basset hound breed in England from 1874 onwards. The scene depicted is of the release of a Jacobite rebel from prison, subsequent to the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie by the English at Culloden. But, as usual, I place this painting as one of my personal highlights due to its four-legged foregrounder.

In the exhibition catalogue it is said that “The pressure of the dog’s paw on his master’s belt adds another layer of emotion, one worthy of the work of Edwin Landseer, the foremost animal painter of the era and one of Millais’ heroes”, and this praise is certainly warranted in my eyes. Offering support to its master through the previously mentioned paw of solidarity, the Jacobite mongrel (who may owe its scruffy fur to some Scottish deerhound in its ancestry) looks up not to its master but, instead, to the Jacobite’s wife—recognising her position of strength and authority within an otherwise broken and defeated household. Representing the general sign of faithfulness—both in itself and resonating from the wife and mother of this painting—that are quintessentially associated with man’s best friend, this painting allows for an interesting window into the potential of dogs to add to the intended narrative of a Victorian ‘problem painting’.

I also can’t help but note, with interest, that in some of the original sketch works for this piece Millais did not originally envision a mongrel dog but, instead, a greyhound-type breed, as he played around with both the positioning of the dog’s paws and head.

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A Sketch for the Order of Release, 1852

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A Sketch for the Order of Release, 1852

Whilst simply musings on my part, these sketches can be seen to bring up interesting implications about bot the deliberate nature of the dog’s inclusion in the piece and its importance to the message that the painting wished to portray. Overall this painting offers a fascinating look into Millais work process, scandal aside.

‘Young Romilly’ by Alexander Munro

When I saw this wonderful marble sculpture I practically parted crowds with the enthusiasm that I approached it with! The sculpture was inspired by William Wordsworth’s ‘The Force of Prayer’ (1807) which tells of the foundation of Bolton Priory due to the tragic death of William of Egremont—who fell to his death in the River Wharfe, along with his faithful greyhound.

Following this part of the poem:

“He sprang in glee,—for what cared he

That the river was strong, and the rocks were steep?—

But the greyhound in the leash hung back,

And checked him in his leap,”

The sculpture manages to create a dynamic and almost animate rendition of the scene—where the larger-than-life greyhound snarls its warnings as an extension of the poem’s narrative and the sculpture’s desired recreation of the scene. I would recommend anyone who find the link to this image compelling to go and see it in person, as the photograph given really cannot do justice to the skill of this wonderful sculpture. It’s certainly a favourite of mine.

‘Work’ by Ford Madox Brown

I’ll allow the great Tim Barringer to explain this artwork, one of my all-time favourites, and simply say for now that, no matter how much I look at this painting, I always find something new to love about ‘Work’ when I go and view it. Barringer points out the dogs which, of course, are an interest of mine! But, I’m afraid, I will leave any analysis of these notable canines for now, as I shall (no doubt) be bringing them up in another blog post.

So those were my personal highlights. There are, of course, many other wonderful artworks that were part of this exhibition—I will always marvel at the beauty of works such as Rosetti’s ‘Lady Lilith’, or Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ or ‘Mariana’, and paintings such as Hunt’s ‘The Awakening Conscience’ and ‘Our English Coasts’ are some of the first that provoked me to think about the role of the animal in Victorian art—but those are, perhaps, best left for you to explore, my dear readers, if you are as captivated by the works of the Pre-Raphaelites as myself.

Until then I wish you all the best, and hope that you have enjoyed at least some of my ramblings!    

[i] http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/pre-raphaelites-victorian-avant-garde

[ii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/isabella-97167

[iii] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9533688/Phallic-symbols-found-in-pre-Raphaelite-paintings.html

[iv] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-the-order-of-release-1746-n01657

[v] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-the-order-of-release-1746-n01657/text-summary

[vi] Barringer, T., Rosenfeld, J. & Smith, Alison, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Publishing, 2012, P. 64.

[vii] With credit to George P. Landow,http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/28.html

[viii] With credit to George P. Landow,http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/29.html

[ix] http://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists-a-z/M/3519/artist_name/Alexander%20Munro/record_id/2554

[x] Barringer, T., Rosenfeld, J. & Smith, Alison, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Publishing, 2012, P. 112.

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