Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary – Tate Britain

Burne-Jones poster

The exhibition Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary at Tate Britain looks at the career of Burne-Jones (1833-1898), taking a partly chronological and partly thematic approach to his life and work. There are sections on Burne-Jones as an apprentice and as a draughtsman, revealing another, humorous side to the artist. One room looks at the pictures Burne-Jones chose for exhibition, including some of his most famous works, such as King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Another explores the portraits he painted of family and friends, while one striking room displays his Briar Rose series of panels. Burne-Jones isn’t my favourite Pre-Raphaelite, but I enjoyed the exhibition.

Burne-Jones artwork

A Victorian Obsession: The Perez Simon Collection at Leighton House

Last Thursday I went to the Leighton House Museum near Holland Park in order to visit the latest exhibition, A Victorian Obsession. Leighton House is the former home and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), a leading exponent of nineteenth-century classical art and one-time President of the Royal Academy. I’ve visited the house, designed and built to Leighton’s requirements by George Aitchison RA, before, and it’s beautiful: a Moroccan-style fountain court and a blue-tiled hallway are just two of the marvellous rooms inside.

Currently the house is home to part of the collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, a Mexican businessman and art collector who holds the largest collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside Britain. The pictures cover the period from around 1860 until the start of World War I, and the unifying theme is “representations of female beauty”. It’s easy to be somewhat cynical about this theme, but in fairness all of the artists represented were superb painters and their work encompasses a huge diversity in such representation, from the inspiration of the Greco-Roman period to Arthurian legend. The paintings are displayed throughout the main rooms of the house, which is a perfect setting considering that many of their artists knew this house and its owner well.

The paintings encompass late Victorian art in many forms, including historical painting and Pre-Raphaelite imagery. This kind of art is very much to my taste, so I greatly enjoyed the exhibition. There were paintings by artists with whom I am familiar, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. I particularly like the work of John Everett Millais: his The Crown of Love (1875) was on display here, and I also loved The Crystal Ball (1902), a magical work by another of my favourites, John William Waterhouse. Some of house owner Frederic Leighton’s work made an appearance, several paintings returning to the house for the first time since they were created. Leighton’s Antigone (1882) is impressive, as is Crenaia, The Nymph of the Dargle (1880), modelled by Leighton’s favourite muse Dorothy Dene.

Throughout the exhibition I was introduced to other artists I hadn’t previously been aware of, including Henry Arthur Payne, Arthur Hughes and John Melhuish Strudwick, whose Passing Days (1878) is an allegorical representation of the passage of time. His Elaine (c.1891) is a gorgeously detailed representation of the woman of Arthurian legend who pined away for love of Lancelot.

One artist seemed to dominate the exhibition – Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Famous for painting historical scenes, particularly those inspired by Ancient Rome, he painted several of the works on display, including An Earthly Paradise (1891), a rather sweet picture of a Roman woman with her young child. Alma-Tadema’s couch – the only object in the exhibition which is not a picture – sits underneath this painting. The artist designed the couch himself to use as a prop in his historical scenes, and it even has differently-designed legs – one side of the couch represents Egyptian style, the other, Roman. It’s rather fun to play “spot the couch” with Alma-Tadema’s pictures – it appears in several.

Alma-Tadema’s famous work The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) is the highlight of the exhibition, presented in a room of its own which has been scented with roses courtesy of Jo Malone. The picture shows the young, wicked Emperor Heliogabalus suffocating his guests under a shower of rose petals, and it is beautifully detailed, although I can’t help but concur with the contemporary critics who felt that the victims hardly seemed frightened enough.

This superb exhibition is a must-see for any fans of late Victorian art. It runs until the 29th of March and normally costs £10, or £5 with a National Art Pass. Special late evening openings allow free entry for Art Pass holders between 5.30 and 8.30 on 19 February and 26 March.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde – Tate Britain

The new exhibition recently opened at Tate Britain, and it was one I knew I absolutely had to see. The exhibition was entitled Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, and as a huge fan of this particular band of artists, has been on my must-see list for months.

I arrived at the Tate on Saturday morning about an hour after the exhibition opened, and was shocked at the sheer number  of people there. I knew it would be popular, but I hadn’t realised just how popular until I got inside the first room. Though entry to the exhibition was timed, I felt that there were far too many people there: I had trouble getting close to the things I really wanted to see, and was repeatedly annoyed by people pushing in front.

Anyway, as far as the exhibition was concerned, I thought it was excellent. I know very little about art, but the Pre-Raphaelites have always appealed to me; perhaps my fascination was inherited from my mother, who studied art at college and who also likes their work. I’m also attracted by their pivotal role in Victorian culture, and the fact that they were influenced greatly by literature: some of my favourite writers, including Shakespeare and Tennyson, inspired the movement, and several members, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, wrote poetry (his sister, who was not part of the group but who modelled for some of their pictures, was the famous poet Christina Rosetti).

The exhibition aims to emphasise the revolutionary nature of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, whose members – as well as several followers – made a conscious effort to break with tradition and seek new ways of making art. While their works remain popular to this day, it is not always apparent just how radical their approach was; in fact, the Pre-Raphaelite movement has been described as the first modern art movement.

The exhibition was displayed over several rooms, each exploring a different aspect of the movement. The first room looked at the origins of the PRB and their influences. The movement was founded in 1848, and sought to recapture beauty and spirituality in a world undergoing industrial and social upheaval. Members were inspired by early Italian painters whose works were displayed in the National Gallery (painters who worked before the time of Raphael; hence the name of the brotherhood). Other influences included William Blake, whose works combining poetry and art inspired similar creations in PRB members, and other contemporary artists of the time.

Secrecy surrounded the brotherhood at first: early works were signed with the secret initials ‘PRB’; an example of this is Isabella by John Everett Millais, on display in this room.

The second room explored how the Pre-Raphaelites explored history in their work. Their style was realist, almost photographic in its detail, thus illustrating a historical subject with a modern sensibility. One of my favourite pictures in this room was painted by Millais, and shows a Highland woman welcoming her husband, who has just been released from prison where he was kept by the English after the Battle of Culloden. Another was William Holman Hunt’s impression of the scene in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (the group was frequently inspired by Shakespearean scenes) in which Valentine rescues Sylvia from Proteus. I also liked the fact that some of Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Siddall’s watercolours were shown here. Most often remembered for her tempestuous and doomed relationship with Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and for being the model for Ophelia in Millais’ painting, her pictures showed that she was a talented artist in her own right.

Sir John Everett Millais,

The ‘Nature’ room contained many beautiful paintings, including Ophelia, mentioned above, which is one of my favourites; the colours are so lustrous and the water and the greenery captured so perfectly. Lizzie Siddall spent days lying in a bath of water in order to model for the doomed heroine. Other pictures were of landscape scenes, bright and summery or bleak and bare. I don’t normally associate the Pre-Raphaelites with landscapes so this section was a revelation for me. A particular highlight was Ford Madox Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon showing the view from Hampstead towards London. I’ve seen this view myself but it looks very different nowadays: I enjoyed seeing what it was like a hundred and fifty years ago.

The photographic quality of many of the Pre-Raphaelites’ works is perhaps most evident here. Some critics accused them of working from photographs but in fact this was not the case: they would generally paint the landscapes outside during the summer (years before the Impressionists began to do the same thing) and retreat to their studios in the colder months to add figures and finish off the works. Their accurate, realist style was hugely modern and different from anything which had gone before.

The next section explored salvation, religion and social attitudes. The nineteenth century was a time of great change, with the publication of Charles Darwin’s theories, social conflict and division. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood sought to make Christianity accessible to all, portraying religious figures with naturalism and compassion. Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents was a revolutionary work, showing the Holy Family as ordinary working people: he made studies for the painting in a real carpenter’s shop. Hunt, one of the more religious of the Pre-Raphaelites, made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land so that his work would be more authentic: he completed several important works based on his experiences there, including The Scapegoat, which illustrated an old Biblical legend in which a goat, bearing the sins of the population, is expelled from a village. The group’s portrayal of women was in some ways radical for the period, but in others encompassed Victorian ideals – unsurprising considering that all its members were male. In Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, a woman comes to the realisation that her way of life – she is a kept woman – is wrong. On the one hand, Hunt does not judge her for her lifestyle; on the other, there doesn’t seem to be any issue with the morality of her lover’s chosen way of life.

Sir John Everett Millais,
Sir John Everett Millais, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’

Another room explores the representation of beauty in Pre-Raphaelite works. In around 1860, some members of the movement began to explore the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’, presaging the Aesthetic Movement. Dante Gabriel Rosetti in particular embraced this theme, painting numerous images of beautiful women gazing out of their pictures and wearing rich robes of varying hues. This was probably my least favourite room of the lot: I like pictures to have a bit of meaning behind them, and the cynic in me believes that Rosetti’s desire to paint nothing but beautiful women stemmed from more than an artistic theory.

The Paradise section explores other art forms rather than painting: tapestries, furniture and textiles are among the pieces shown here. William Morris, inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, set up a firm to produce items such as textiles, furniture, stained glass and tiles that were both beautiful and functional. Several members of the PRB were involved in this enterprise in the early stages. I found these items interesting to look at although I must confess that I prefer the paintings.

The final section explored mythologies and their role in inspiring Pre-Raphaelite painters. Greek and Roman myths as well as legends and stories from literature were covered here. Edward Burne-Jones’ picture King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid is a striking example of this, dramatic and detailed.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones,
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’

I spent two hours in the exhibition, and felt slightly exhausted by the end. However, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and really appreciated the chance to learn more about a movement in which I am very interested.

Red House: the home of William Morris

Bank holidays, for me, are times to go out and visit places, experience something new. Red House, the former home of William Morris (founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, famed for his socialism and wallpaper designs), has been on my list for some time. I decided to organise an outing and got some of my librarian friends to come along this August Bank Holiday.

Red House was occupied by William Morris and his family from 1860 until 1865, when financial difficulties unfortunately compelled him to leave. He commissioned, created and lived in the house, which was built by Philip Webb and described as ‘the beautifullest place on earth’ by Edward Burne-Jones, who also contributed wall paintings and stained glass to the project.

Red House is located in Bexleyheath, easily reached in half an hour via train from London. A short walk takes you to the house, which is well signposted, even for pedestrians. In the morning the house is open only for guided tours, and I timed our visit so that we would arrive just as the self-guided visitors were being allowed in.

Red House is beautiful and rather unusual, with a large garden comprising grassy lawns, rose bushes and a vegetable patch complete with sinister scarecrow. I liked the well built in front of the house, which was rather medieval in style – I believe this was the point.
2012 0827 Redhouse 07

Inside the house, the first room you come to contains a new exhibition of the original house plans and architects’ drawings, a fascinating insight into how the building was constructed. The route through the house covers the entrance hall (where Morris often ate, in the manner of medieval halls of old), dining room, sitting room, bedroom and study. There was much to admire including beautiful wallpaper, not all of which is original to the house, but all of which was designed by Morris. Much of the furniture was designed by Morris and Webb and there were several examples of embroidery by Morris’ wife Jane and her sister. I loved the details such as the round windows and the stained glass. The house had a number of exciting hidden treasures, such as the mural painted on the back of the cupboard by Lizzie Siddall (wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti), and the smiley face painted in blue on the corner of the ceiling of the upper landing – author unknown. Newly discovered wall decorations, hidden behind panelling for years, were also on display. The study was light and airy, and it was pleasant to imagine William Morris working on his designs. Looking out of the window, it’s hard to imagine you are in a built-up residential area and not the middle of the countryside, although of course in Morris’ time the area would have been much more rural than it is now.

Touring the house didn’t take a great deal of time, and it was a shame some areas were cordoned off as ‘Private’. Still, I’m glad I visited, if only to experience the atmosphere of somewhere my favourite Pre-Raphaelite artists visited.


Address: Red House Lane, Bexleyheath, London, DA6 8JF

Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/red-house

Opening Hours: Open Wed-Sun in summer; guided tours only from 11am-1pm then standard admission from 1.30.

Prices: £8 adult, £4 child; free admission to National Trust members.