Elena Fortescue-Brickdale: the last Pre-Raphaelite at Watts Gallery

By Richard Moss | 21 February 2013

Exhibition preview: A Pre-Raphaelite Journey, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, Watts Gallery, Compton, until June 9 2013

A painting of a girl dressed as a medieval page cutting her long hair beneath a tree
The Little Foot-page, 1905© National Museums Liverpool
The Watts Gallery in Surrey is hosting an intriguing exhibition of works by one of the last great exponents of the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872-1945).  

Ignoring the progressive influences of the period, Fortescue-Brickdale preferred the strong symbolism, allegorical themes and medievalism pioneered by the Victorian Brotherhood of Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt et al.

Today these works seem strangely appealing; and not just for their rich allegory, religious imagery and typically Pre-Raphaelite images of female beauty.

Pulling together drawings, paintings, books and designs created between 1898 and 1934, the exhibition reveals how her pictures told stories, drew morals and even adhered to a Ruskinian appreciation of truth in nature.

a painting in side profile of a medieval lady with her framed by a round golden ornament
If one could have that little head of hers (1909)© Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum
Fortescue-Brickdale was also a pious Christian who donated many of her works to churches, and she found favour with fellow London/Surrey-ite GF Watts who must have appreciated her love of symbolism.

But she was evidently in thrall to the Pre-Raphs; a relatively modern-looking painting of an Edwardian lady is framed by a sofa covered in William Morris fabric.

Elsewhere, the pull of medievalism sees her depict beautiful maidens of the Burne-Jones type within vibrant settings in which the richness of the greenery seems to seep from every blade of grass. 

She also tackled Tennyson’s Aurthurian epic, Idylls of the King, in a series of celebrated illustrations exhibited at London’s Leicester Galleries. They are on show once again here.

They are absorbing, escapist works of art, but what is really interesting is trying to place these Victorian styled works in the context of their times. Straight laced, full of morality and sentiment, they seem at odds with the radical influences happening around her.  

That said, in the earlier Edwardian period she was not alone, with painters ranging from Herbert Draper, JW Waterhouse and Laurence Alma Tadema producing similarly escapist works.

But Fortescue-Brickdale, who studied at the Royal Academy under the resolutely Victorian 'Neo-Pre Raphaelite' Byam Shaw, continued in this vein untroubled by the new styles that were to sweep through British art from 1910 onwards.  

By the time of her death, in 1945, the world had been transformed and painting in England had been subject to a plethora of influences and guises ranging from Post Impressionism and Vorticism to Modernism and Surrealism.

In part it is this sense of a painter out of her time that makes these jewel-like “Victorian” paintings so oddly compelling.

  • Open 11am-5pm (1pm-5pm Sunday, closed Monday except Bank Holidays). Admission £3.75-£8.50 (free for under-16s, £3.75-£4.25 on Tuesday). Follow the gallery on Twitter @WattsGallery.

More paintings: 

a set-piece painting showing a medieval court with courtiers, ladies ,and other figures
The Forerunner (1920)© National Museums Liverpool
a painting of a golden haired figure with wings lying beneath a sumptuous growth of yellow flowers
June is Dead (1915)© Trustees of the Royal Watercolour Society
a painting of an Edwardian lady in a blue dress reading a book on the armachair of a sofa covered with a Morris designed fabric
Portrait of Winifred Roberts (1913)© Courtesy of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust
a watercloured drawing of a despairing medieval queen standing before a throne
Lady Macbeth in Constable's Works of Shakespeare (1901)© Birmingham Central Library
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