Victorians let their hair down: Pre- Raphaelites released at Tate Britain
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at the Tate Britain. Until January 13
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were an extraordinary bunch. They took their place in a Europe-wide movement to simplify painting, to return it to plainness, moral purity and a direct appeal to the senses.
Outrageous stories circulated around the members of the Brotherhood (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Millais and William Holman Hunt) after its foundation in 1848.
Their work, and that of the painters who followed in their footsteps, later fell sharply out of fashion. But in recent years a huge enthusiasm has sprung up for them. The Tate exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, featuring some of their most striking and impressive paintings, is a certain crowd-puller.
VISION OF BEAUTY: Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, with his mistress Fanny Cornforth as the mythic first wife of Adam
There was something absurd as well as extravagant about the Brotherhood. Rossetti had his unpublished poems buried with his wife Lizzie Siddal; later, he decided they were too good for that, and had them all dug up again.
The Brotherhood lived sensational lives in respectable Victorian Britain, marrying or not marrying the women they lived with, falling out with each other, courting blasphemy and irreverence. All that is amusing and entertaining to us now, but what ought to interest us is their paintings.
The commitment to clarity of line and colour was, I always feel, driven by the darkness of Victorian interiors. They stand out wonderfully against heavy colours and dense layers of brocade and pattern. Under modern electric lights, they can seem lurid, and it takes time to get your eye in.
Holman Hunt is probably the most challenging here: his outrageous colours, heavy outlines and uninhibited compositions are all intended to shout across dark or crowded rooms. Such well-known paintings as The Shadow Of Death, or lesser-known portraits like The Children’s Holiday, are unrestrained, detailed, saturated to a degree that might be difficult to take.
Rossetti is a dreaming myth-maker; his work is what we think of when we refer to a girl as having a Pre-Raphaelite look. Millais is a marvellous prodigy, restrained and rich in execution – the famous Ophelia or The Blind Girl are saved from sentimentality by the beautiful accuracy of observation. He went to great lengths to find the wildlife around the stream in Ophelia, and persuaded his model to lie for long periods in the bath, for the effect of floating hair.
The most documentary of the painters here is Ford Madox Brown. His magnificent Work, a tableau of mid-Victorian labour, and the beautiful The Last Of England show Victorian painting at its most committed to observation.
There are several underrated minor painters too, including William Dyce.
His superb, thought-provoking Pegwell Bay is at once about an afternoon out, and about the huge changes of aeons, including fossils and the arrival of a comet.
A good number of women painters are also on display, it is good to report; they have usually been reduced to supporting figures and models. The work of unrecognised artists such as Florence Claxton makes an interesting addition.
The Brotherhood’s second generation yields their most fascinating member, the sumptuous myth-maker Edward Burne-Jones, a transfixing, haunted, magical painter. Three paintings from his Perseus cycle are the show’s tremendous climax.
This is an engaging exhibition. I will point out, though, that a good number of the best paintings are from the Tate’s own collection and often on show in any case. But there are probably enough borrowed works to make this survey of the best-loved of English painting schools worth a visit.