Pre Raphaelites & the Victorian Avant Garde: Tate Britain

Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris 1873-8

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne

The Pre Raphaelites, what you could call the renegades of the Victorian era, have always seemed to stand alone in a period consumed with prominent art movements. Debate about their credibility seems to arise from an oversimplification of the intentions of this radical group. The Pre Raphaelites and the Victorian Avant Garde, an exhibition that took five years to cultivate, is now open at the Tate Britain, and curators Jason Rosenfeld, Tim Barringer and Alison Smith offer innovative avenues to explore. Images of Ophelia and Lady of Shallot,  so heavily ingrained in our collective consciousness, not to mention the Pre Raphaelites influence on a myriad of movements such as art nouveau to 60’s psychedelia, a new exploration would serve well for popular opinion. The Tate is aiming to crack open the clichés, and thus opens a can of worms that are rich in drama and context, offering insight into a misunderstood movement.

The Pre Raphaelite brotherhood, or PRB as they liked to refer themselves, was formed in 1854 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. Dissatisfied with where Victorian art was headed, the PRB sought to use art as a revolutionary movement and advance it in a radical new way. As young idealistic students entering an expansive and kinetic Victorian London with the Industrial revolution, the introduction of photography and campaign for the vote, the Brotherhood yearned for purer times. They used innovative post photographic painting techniques, such as depicting everything in detail, distorting perspectives and exploring colour in vibrant ways and married these modern paths with reconstructions of history and ancient myth. Gathering imagery from biblical stories, Chaucer, poems by Tennyson and Keats, they replaced the machismo of military heroism and monarchic hierarchies of latter years, with hyper real, emotionally charged scenes of grandeur and drama, a harsh antidote to the Victorian era of repression. A room entitled, ‘Nature’, examines this escapism from the looming mechanised world, where Hunt, Millais and Rossetti would spend hours painting entire masterpieces in the outdoors, pre dating the impressionists. Their inspiration lies in nature and reimagining the past through the eyes of the present.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca 1877

Copyright Manchester City Galleries

However Tate Britain seeks to make clear that they were not nostalgia chasers. In fact the obsessions with dramatic prose and poetry carries an assortment of intentions. In John Everett Millais, Isabella, he condenses Boccaccio’s epic poem into an image of intense action, which tells of two merchant brothers who own a family firm in Florence, they discover the love affair between their sister and Lorenzo, a clerk in their warehouse and murder him. In her hysteria she digs him up and cuts off his head and hides it in the basil pot. The piece explores the oppression Isabella faces as her brother stares at her forcefully while he cracks a nut, a man at the table peers through red wine, while Lorenzo stares at her in obsession. There are progressive elements throughout, the symbology of the cracking nut appears almost Freudian, and the frozen action could almost be a film still. All these forays into the past are not done in vain. It’s a clear to see they are sprinkled with hidden messages for the viewer to decipher.


John Everett Millais, Isabella 1848-9

National Museums of Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

This fusion of layered narratives resonates throughout. Ancient tales merge with the modern. A biblical story becomes everyday social commentary. Depictions of mythical heroines are transformations of the artist’s lovers. This is most evident in William Hunt’s, Il Dolce for Niente, a painting intended as an engagement present for Annie Miller, an impoverished woman who Hunt fell in love with and intended to marry. When she broke it off he scratched out her face, replacing it with Fanny his new wife. The narratives of the paintings are infused with double narratives coexisting as time becomes cyclical jumping backwards, forwards and reshaping the present.

In a room labelled ‘Salvation’ we are led to explore the pre Raphaelites as astute social commentators. In Ford Maddox Browns, Work, he encapsulates the energy of Victorian Britain cleverly rearranging the class system. He shows the Navvies as the working class heroes, muscular men bringing fresh water to the town, the intellectuals interpreting the scene, and then the aristocracy in the shadows having no real place in the new Victorian Britain. Exploring these biblical, moral and social references within everyday settings was a forward thinking trait of the pre Raphaelites, hated by the likes of Charles Dickens and other pillars of establishment. They nonetheless harbour the message that through hard work you can achieve salvation.


Ford Maddox Brown, Work 1852-3.


Installation Views
Tate Photography

It is not until room 5 entitled ‘Beauty’ that the ideas are explored, which are synonymous with people’s perceptions of the movement. The pre Raphaelites portrayal of beauty without context in order to appeal to the senses is their most radical idea. The Pre Raphaelites invite us to explore an art of the senses and respond from the inner self, where thinking is replaced with feeling as we peruse highly charged images of sensuous beauty. While many unfortunately place this avenue of their work as beauty for beauty’s sake, Tate explores the active role the women had in the process of creating, often choosing their clothing for the painting and how they would be presented. In Lady Lilleth, Rossetti paints his mistress Fanny Cornforth as the mythical first wife of Adam, before Eve. She is the epitome of femme fatale detached, aloof and powerful. This image and many of the other female figures emerging out of ornate ephemera are a celebration to the fluidity of female energy, breaking out of sense deadening concepts and creating visual masterpieces that pour into our retinas. The Pre Raphaelites elevate their sitters into mythical females and goddesses, allowing them to evolve out of projected male desire and an offering an evolution to how we receive art. Perhaps this is why the pre Raphaelites have always been a conundrum in some respects to art academics.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Lady Lilith 1866-8, altered 1872-3
Oil on canvas
Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE
Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935


 William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott c. 1888-1905

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.

The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund.

The complexity of the works is rife, and as the exhibition goes on the images turn into mysteries to unravel. Whatever you think of the pre Raphaelites they are multi dimensional in meaning and aesthetic, the returning motif of a circular mirror behind the sitters always offers a portal into a new mode of vision. These are highly advanced visual ideas that look far into the future exploring an almost psychedelic quality. In the culminating piece, William Hunt’s Lady of Shallot, an image which jumps off the wall in its technicolor exuberance, explores the story of the Lady of Shallot who was banished to a tower. We see Lancelot coming to save her in the mirror behind her. Hysteria consumes the image with her red hair flying up in the air, and her threads unravelling. These symbols confront female oppression of the time and the impending revolt growing within the women of Victorian Britain. Through the layers of the exhibition there lies the message that the Pre Raphaelites were in perfect alignment with the Avant Garde, pushing ideas forward and forecasting the future through looking at the past.

Exhibition – 12 September 2012 – 13 January 2013

Text by Rachel Ridge

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