The London Pre-Raphaelite Collections

By Richard Moss | 24 September 2003
a long painting of a young woman wearing a head scarf

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Flamma Vestalis, 1886 oil on canvas © Collection Lord Lloyd-Webber

As you might expect from any thriving artistic movement the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood congregated in London.

This is where many of them made their homes (especially the area around Red Lion Square in Bloomsbury) and, despite their spats with the the Royal Academy and their annoyance with the vagaries of mainstream art, today the collections in and around the capital hold some world famous and stunning examples of their art.

A good place to start an investigation of London's permanent Pre-Raphaelite collections is at Tate Britain's excellent Art and Victorian Society exhibition. Nestling within this collection of paintings (effectively reflecting the tastes of Victorian entrepreneurs, industrialists and merchants) can be seen classic pieces such as Millais’ Vale of Rest and Burne Jones’ sumptuous mixture of medieval myth and Victorian romanticism, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid.

The subject matter of the latter, the king renouncing his title for the love a beggar, particularly suited the fledgling socialist politics of the artist - something often lost in the sumptous colours and richness of the painting.

The gallery is also home to one of the most famous and best loved paintings in the UK, Millais’ portrait of Elizabeth Siddall as Shakespeare's tragic heroine, Ophelia.

a painting of a young woman floating face upwards in a pond whilst holding a stream of flowers

Tate Britain's most popular painting, John Everett Millais' Ophelia (detail) 1851-52, oil on canvas. Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894. Picture © Tate.

The stories surrounding this painting have since passed into myth: the model Lizzie Siddall catching her near death of cold in the freezing bath in Millais’ studio; the subsequent legal action by the model’s father; the painter (in a typically Pre-Raphaelite quest for realism) almost drowning in the Thames whilst making studies of flowers.

But even without the attendant folklore visitors to the gallery are generally in agreement; it's a beautifully executed piece, rich with symbolism and metaphor. It's also the best selling postcard in the gallery shop!

Tate Britain also affords visitors the chance to see April Love by Arthur Hughes. A keen exponent and champion of the Pre-Raphaelite style, at the time of its unveiling John Ruskin was so enamoured with Hughes' painting (typically based on a poem of Tennyson) that he attempted to buy it – only to be thwarted by William Morris who scooped the picture for himself.

a painting showing an auburn haired woman playing a harp as two similar looking women look on from the upper corners

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Ghirlandata. Picture © City of London Museums/Guildhall Art Gallery

After feasting your eyes on the sumptuous paintings of Tate Britain, another important holding of British Victorian art can be found at the recently re-opened Guildhall Art Gallery.

Millais’ Woodman’s Daughter and Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata are just two highlights of a group of fine paintings bequeathed to the gallery in 1902 by Charles Gassiot.

In common with Ruskin’s father, Gassiot was a port and sherry merchant with a penchant for art. Part of his sizeable bequest includes many classics from the Victorian painters including some frankly syrupy examples of Millais' later work such as My First Sermon.

Elsewhere the collection boasts Holman Hunt’s interpretation of Keats' epic poem, The Eve of St Agnes as well as Sir Edward Poynter's Israel in Egypt.

a photo showing the interior of a gallery with paintings and ceramics

Until its untimely closure in 2009, The De Morgan Centre took maximum advantage of an Arts and Crafts building whilst using state of the art exhibition display facilities and lighting. Picture © De Morgan Centre.

Moving into the suburbs of the capital, an excellent museum dedicated to two later adherents of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic was to be found at The De Morgan Centre, or to give it its full title, The Centre for the Study of 19th Century Art and Society, in Wandsworth, South London.

Opened in 2002 but sadly closed in 2009 the Museum housed the work of the renowned Victorian ceramicist, William De Morgan and his wife, the painter Evelyn De Morgan, and featured some fine examples of their paintings and ceramics as well as a large archive of documents and papers relating to the life and work of these two archetypal late Victorian artists.

Both were heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite style; Evelyn adopting the Burne-Jones manner of languorous medieval maidens in her paintings whilst William went on to become the most famous designer of pottery tiles in William Morris' Arts and Crafts movement.

The De Morgans were also key players in those typically fin de siecle concerns of pacifism, spiritualism and women’s suffrage and their life and work offers an important glimpse into how the language and style of Pre-Raphaelitism persisted well into the Edwardian period.

Despite its closure the majority of the collection is still available until mid-Autumn 2009 for viewing and trustees are said to be in "exciting negotiations" to find a new home to house the complete collection. In the meantime pieces from the De Morgan Collection will go on tour to Japan and the UK during 2012/2011 and the curatorial team are working with the Watts Gallery to arrange a temporary exhibition but plans are still to be made formal. See the De Morgan Centre website for updates.

shows a black and white pen and ink drawing of a standing young man wearing a suit of armour and holding a sword

Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Childe Roland, pen and ink, 1861. Picture © Trustees, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery.

Just a little further north, the excellent Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford is an unusual combination of recreated Victorian Mansion (originally the home of the Higgins family, the wealthy Bedford brewers) and an adjoining gallery housing an internationally renowned collection of watercolours, prints and drawings, ceramics, glass and lace.

It's particularly strong on Victorian art and among the many treasures are works by Burne-Jones, Millais, Rossetti, Holman-Hunt and Sandys.

There are also examples of work by Simeon Solomon and Lizzie Siddall, the wife of Rossetti who committed suicide after an overdose of laudanum. She was later immortalised by her contrite husband in Beata Beatrix, versions of which can be viewed both at Tate Britain and Birmingham City Art Gallery.

Shows an interior shot of the William Morris room at the V&A

The William Morris Room at the V&A features stained glass and panels designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. © V&A Museum

Whilst in London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, arguably the world’s greatest museum for art and design, is a good place to gauge the wider influence of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The British 19th Century Furniture Galleries include many examples of furniture by artists working under their influence and, as one might expect, the work of William Morris features heavily - he has his 'own room' with two further rooms designed by members of the Arts and Crafts movement on the ground floor.

In the Paintings Galleries there are also studies for The Wheel of Fortune by Burne-Jones, and portraits by Watts in the Ionides Bequest in the Henry Cole Wing.

shows a Chintz design with birds against an ornate back design of symmetrical flower patterns

Strawberry Thief Chintz, designed by William Morris (1834-1896) for Morris & Company, 1883. Picture © William Morris Gallery

With your appetite whetted for the sumptuous designs of Morris and Co. a visit to The William Morris Gallery, purely devoted to England's best-known Victorian designer, is a must.

Located at Walthamstow in another of the several surviving Morris family homes (this one was the Morris residence from 1848 to 1856), the former Water House is a substantial Georgian property set in its own extensive grounds (now Lloyd Park).

Visitors are treated to permanent displays of printed, woven and embroidered fabrics, and at every turn there are rugs, carpets, wallpapers, furniture, stained glass and painted tiles designed by Morris - with a little help from his friends Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and others.

Visiting the former residence of an artist to view art and other objects in situ affords its own peculiar pleasure and our final port of call offers visitors the chance to taste the atmosphere and get to the heart of Victorian London’s artistic milieu.

a photograph of the interior of a large room decorated in Ottoman style

The Arab Hall, Leighton House Museum. Picture © Leighton House Museum

The final part of our trail of major galleries is a visit to Leighton House Museum, the former studio-house of the great Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896). Located on the edge of London’s Holland Park, it is one of the most extraordinary of London’s 19th century buildings.

The extraordinarily sumptuous interiors are hung with important paintings by Leighton and his contemporaries; including Millais, Burne-Jones and Watts.

It’s an unforgettable insight into Leighton’s private world and though he is today known more as a classicist rather than a Pre-Raphaelite painter, a visit here helps our understanding and appreciation of the Victorian art world.