Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review - Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is the major new exhibition which opened today (12 September 2012 – 13 January 2013) at Tate Britain at Millbank in London.

Room 3 - Nature - works by Millais and Holman Hunt hang next to each other
(left to right) The Woodman's Daughter by Millais, The Hireling Shepherd by Holman Hunt, Ophelia by Millais
"Work" and "The Last of England" by Ford Madox Brown hang side by side in Room 4
Back in 1984 there was a major retrospective of the Pre-Raphaelites.  That exhibition was seen by and influenced the curators of this exhibition.  The catalogue for that exhibition became in effect the 'set text' for our understanding of the movement for very many years.

However things have moved on and there's now a different take on this particular aspect of British art.  This time it's suggested they are rather like the Impressionists in France - breaking the mold and creating a new way of painting.

Three Curators - left to right: 
Alison Smith, Curator (Head of British Art to 1900),
Tate Britain; Tim Barringer, Professor of History of Art at Yale University,
Jason Rosenfeld, Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College, New York.

Leaving the theory aside - if you just take a look at the exhibition and then begin to understand some of the paintings, it reminds one of  a good costume drama.  It's very reminiscent of a lengthy BBC Sunday evening series that dramatises the book of a good Victorian novelist. Lots about the way of the world and the characters within it - plus costumes and photography which are excellent as always!  The British public who love such things will surely love this exhibition - as will the Americans!

I recommend it because I enjoyed viewing, learned a few new things plus I think it has something for everybody who enjoys the visual arts.

What's different about this exhibition?  The facts

Room 2 History: The exhibition includes sculptures as well as paintings
This new exhibition:
  • is BIG! It's the largest exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work since 1984 - with some 180 works on display (including some on loan for the very first time)
  • reflects changes in expert and scholarly opinion in the last 30 years
  • proposes that the Pre-Raphaelites were Britain's first modern art movement
  • asks us to consider the works within social, political and economic context of the time in the UK and Europe - essentially upheavals involving wars and rebellion (Chartists etc)
  • includes a variety of media
    • paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography together 
    • plus the applied arts - furniture, carpets, wall hangings, wallpaper, printed books etc
Room 6: Earthy Paradise - includes applied arts
  • includes works by a number of different artists:
    • the primary pre-Raphaelite artists who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    • renowned artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelites - Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris
    • female artists associated with the above - May and Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddall.
    • other artists associated with the movement - including John BrettSimeon Solomon and Frederick Sandys. The painter who was a big surprise for me - and is my "look him up" artist is John Brett.  I'll be highlighting his painting of Val DAosta on The Art of the Landscape.
By way of clarification - following an earlier comment on Facebook - the Pre-Raphaelites are Victorian Painters but not all Victorian Painters are Pre-Raphaelites - which is why works by John William Waterhouse are not included.

I've delayed doing the review in the hope that the catalogue would turn up - but no such luck as yet.  Apparently it has a major omission in it and was having inserts stuffed in it on Monday!

I plan to treat this exhibition like I did the Van Gogh at the RA - and do posts about specific topics eg each of the artists and techniques over the course of the exhibition.  I'm going to tackle the themes later this week.

Hence this post is by way of an introduction to what you can see and I'm not trying to cover everything in one post.

Room 4 - Salvation
The paintings

For those who know Pre-Raphaelite work you may well have seen most of the major pieces 'in the flesh' before.  I've seen most of those which have homes in London and Manchester.  However I'd not seen some of the lesser known ones - or any of the ones which usually reside in Birmingham and other regional museums or with Lord Lloyd Webber (who's a big fan of Victorian painting!)

What is really great about the paintings is the back stories, the metaphors, the symbolism - they are absolutely packed with content which is worth unpacking.

Recommended reading: Not being able to see the catalogue I had to take a long look at what else is available.  If you don't know the paintings try taking a look at Pre-Raphaelites (Taschen Basic Genre Series) which provides an introduction to many of the paintings in the exhibition - and doesn't cost a lot of money!  These Taschen books are excellent value and provide a good quality introduction to the art.  (See also The Best Art Books about the Pre-Raphaelites)

If you enjoy the paintings make sure you come and have a good look at them because they're most are going to be disappearing for quite a long time after the exhibition closes and goes on its travels.

The exhibition is due to travel after it closes on 13 January.

If you want to get a feel for the exhibition right now try these reviews - and my comments:
  • Guardian (Jonathan Jones) - Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain - review - the sub-Editor couldn't quite resist getting sexuality and drama into the URL for that one! I'm afraid Jonathan is writing as if these were the only artists who had a bit of hanky-panky going on in the background!  I suppose it's an angle but it's not one which came across as being the one which the curators are wanting us to focus on.
  • Bloomberg Martin Gayford continues the theme with Knights Jostle Lovers as Pre-Raphaelites Invade Tate.  We arrived at similar conclusions independently!
  • Telegraph (Alastair Sooke) - I think I'm coming round to the view that Alastair doesn't like anybody's theories but his own! His review Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde review only gives it 3* even though he acknowledges that it's full of stunning paintings!


  1. John Brett had not featured in my list of Pre-Raphaelites until I saw the 'Vision - truth to nature' exhibition in 2004. His landscapes featured in that exhibition. The boundaries of the PRB and their affiliates are clearly subject to adjustment, hence the exclusion of John William Waterhouse. What about Alma-Tadema and Leighton? I am looking forward to seeing the exhibition in October.

  2. Thinking of going tomorrow, I am SO excited!


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