Tate Britain sheds new light on the Pre-Raphaelites as Britain's first Avant-Garde

By Ruth Hazard | 11 September 2012
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith (1866-1868)© Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935
Exhibition Review: Pre Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Britain, London, September 12 2012 - January 15 2013

Truth to nature – this was the binding premise of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Suggesting that art should be representative of real life may not sound a particularly radical idea, but in 1848 it was utterly explosive.

This display aims to prove that the Pre-Raphaelites were Britain’s first avant-garde art movement. Defying conventions, provoking critics, entrancing audiences; it’s not hard to see why Tate have decided to revisit the brotherhood 28 years after its first exhibition on the same theme. 

Curator, Tim Barringer explains that this is a “re-reading of the Pre-Raphaelites” – a chance to understand them in a new light and revaluate the legacy they have left behind.

As students at the Royal Academy, founding members Millais, Holman Hunt and Rosetti were dissatisfied with teaching methods encouraging them to develop their technique by studying other pieces of art, rather than the world around them.

William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott (circa 1888-1905)© Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund
“We have to remember that this was a bunch of students at the Royal Academy who were still learning,” says Barringer.

“It was an exciting moment when a group of young students could overturn all the orthodoxies they’d been told, kick over the stool in the Academy and turn to new subjects and techniques.”

The Pre-Raphaelites were committed to realism, favouring the style of early Renaissance art: sharp outlines and bright colours, clearly observed details and unidealised faces.

But their pursuit of truth went further than reinventing painting style. Millais, for example, was so consumed by the Pre-Raphaelite core belief that he spent a year painting the scenery for Ophelia on the banks of the river Hogsmill in Surrey.

His predecessors, including landscape great John Constable, had worked in studios, basing their oils on sketches from outside.

But Millais, spurred by integrity, was determined to capture the landscape in every minute detail and would spend whole days painting areas the size of a five pence piece. As a result, Ophelia is so vivid it practically jumps off the wall.

Exploring the display uncovers many other similar stories. Holman-Hunt travelled to Jerusalem to accurately capture the scenery of the Holy land, while Ford Madox Brown rounded up sheep on Clapham Common to model for Pretty Baa Lambs with his wife and children.

“These paintings caused an absolute uproar,” says Barringer. “They didn’t look anything like the old masters or the paintings everyone was used to seeing.

"They had exciting looking figures and original narratives – they were breaking all the rules.”

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves (1855-6)© Manchester City Galleries
This could be because the Pre-Raphaelite painters were some of the first artists who did not work to commission.

They painted pictures that were important to them, depicting subjects they were passionate about and only hoping to find a patron to buy them.

Working with private dealers and exhibiting internationally, they found new and unexpected audiences: people who had never been interested in contemporary art before were literally buying their pictures off the walls.

“Pre-Raphaelitism wanted to put art at the centre of society,” says co-curator Alison Smith.

“They saw it as something which could improve and enhance our lives.”

With a number of significant loans and other Pre-Raphaelite media such as sculpture, photography and textile, this is a truly comprehensive display.

Spanning 50 years, it traces the journey of the Pre-Raphaelites from young, rebellious teenagers to established artists, illustrating the ways in which subjects, style and technique changed as each artist branched out in their own direction.

Rossetti, for example, began to create what he saw as "art for art’s sake", believing in truth to beauty, rather than to nature.

Holman-Hunt, however, remained staunch in his views, creating the Lady of Shallot - which is still classically Pre-Raphaelite - as late as 1905, despite the style no longer being seen as relevant or fashionable.

The Pre-Raphaelite story a fascinating one. Starting out as an elusive secret society, it is hard to believe the mysterious "PRB" had any idea quite what they were starting.

Their vision for putting integrity back into art may not have been popular in 1848, but these idealistic rebels went on to revolutionise British painting, changing the way people think about art even now, 164 years later.
  • Open: 10am-6pm (10pm Friday, closed Sunday). Tickets £12.20-£15.50, book online.

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More pictures:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blue Bower (1865)© The Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Ford Madox Brown, The Pretty Baa-Lambs (1851-9)© Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, purchased 1956
Henry Wallis, The Stone Breaker (1857)© Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery Bequeathed by Charles Aitken, 1936
Rosa Brett, The Artist's Garden (1859) © Private Collection

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