The Pre-Raphaelite Collections - Part One

By Richard Moss | 17 October 2003
Proserpine,oil, 1882, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.

Proserpine, Dante Gabriel Rossetti © Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.

Despite their strong connections with The Royal Academy, the influence of Pre-Raphaelites was not confined to London. Many of the early patrons of this bold new brotherhood were members of the emerging middle classes - the manufacturers fuelling the industrial revolution in the great Victorian cities.

These same people were integral to the cultural life of their towns and cities - helping to establish the various civic institutes, galleries, museums and libraries that lent themselves so well to the Pre-Raphaelite mindset. Many can still be visited today.

shows one of four Pre-Raphaelite paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1851. Charles Alston Collins, Convent Thoughts, 1850. The painting is of a nun dressed in her habit standing in a flower garden.

One of four Pre-Raphaelite paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1851. Charles Alston Collins, Convent Thoughts, 1850 © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Beginning in Oxfordshire, it is fitting that the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has a strong collection of Pre-Raphaelite pictures, many of which come from the collection of Thomas Combe, an important early patron of the movement.

The Pre-Raphaelites had various associations with the university city, most notably Edward Burne Jones and William Morris, who met here and began their lifelong fascination with art, beauty and all things medieval. Rossetti, together with four other artists (Arthur Hughes, Val Prinsep, Spencer Stanhope and Hungerford Pollen) produced a mural at the Oxford Union in 1857-9.

The museum has an excellent collection of early Pre-Raphaelite pictures, including paintings and sketches from Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Arthur Hughes and two of the paintings from the Brotherhood’s first stormy showing at the RA Summer Exhibition of 1850.

A painting of a woman wearing a red flowing dress with long brown hair is carrying what looks like a small box. Red smoke is wafting out of the box.

Pandora, Dante Gabriel Rossetti © Faringdon Collection Trust, Buxted Park.

The Faringdon Collection of British Painting at Buscot Park in Oxfordshire is an extensive holding that features some important examples of Pre-Raphaelite art.

In particular, the collection offers a great opportunity to experience the sheer scale and grandeur of the work of Burne Jones, most notably in the Legend of Briar Rose, a typically imposing adornment comprising of four large canvases and ten connecting scenes.

There are also some famous Rossettis, including an interpretation of a popular theme of the day, Pandora. The painting features a typically pouting and luxuriant rendering of that most famous of Pre-Raphaelite 'stunners,' Jane Morris, who as well as being the wife of his colleague and friend William Morris, was for many years his not-so-secret lover and muse.

Kelmscott, the Morris' residence, is just down the road; Rossetti was an enthusiastic and regular visitor, before eventually moving in following the death of his wife Lizzie Siddall.

Whilst in Oxford it is also worth taking a look at Keble College Chapel, where Holman Hunt's The Light of the World can be found in a specially constructed side chapel. The surrounding buildings designed by the architect Butterfield are also a treat for Victorian enthusiasts.

A painting of a woman, dressed in a red skirt and shawl and a straw bonnet sat on a crowded boat holding an umbrella above her head. A man with a brown overcoat and wide-brimmed hat is sat next to her.

Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England (1855) is about the departure of Thomas Woolner, sculptor and founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for Australia in 1852. Courtesy of The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University.

Not to be outdone by this strong Oxford connection, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has, amongst its impressive array of works by Degas, Picasso and others, some important examples of Pre-Raphaelite art. These include a version of Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England and Rossetti’s Joan of Arc and Girl at a Lattice.

The Fitzwilliam also boasts Ford Madox Brown’s William Tell’s Son, the sitter for the portrait being the artist’s grandson - Edwardian novelist, Ford Madox Ford. In another slightly oblique angle on the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic the museum also houses a rather fine collection of armour - the very stuff of many a Burne-Jones and Rossetti composition.

One can only surmise as to whether the artists made study visits to this peculiarly Victorian collection.

A painting of a man with a beard wearing armour sat at the foot of a woman in a simple grey dress. He is looking up at her. She is also sat down and looking straight out of the picture.

This study for King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Coley Burne-Jones is just one of the hundreds of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and studies held by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery © Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Leaving the heart of English academia behind we move into the geographical heart of nineteenth century industrial Britain. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery perfectly reflects a heyday of Victorian civic pride and houses one of the biggest and best Pre-Raphaelite collections you’ll find anywhere in the world - and that includes Lord Lloyd Webber’s mansion.

Amongst the famous paintings on show are Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, Millais’ The Blind Girl, extensive tapestry panels of Morris and Co. and a version (another!) of Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England.

There is also an ever-rotating selection of drawings taken from the gallery's collection that runs to over a thousand items, but the gallery’s main specialisation is Edward Burne-Jones. Boasting the largest collection of his works anywhere in the world, here you can really appreciate the sumptuous detail and scale of this prolific painter – no more so than in the massive watercolour, Star of Bethlehem, actually commissioned for the gallery in 1897.

Besides these bombastic but beautiful masterpieces, the gallery is also home to the sexually charged paintings and drawings of one of the more tragic of Pre-Raphaelite artists. Simeon Solomon's promising career on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite circle was cut short after he fell foul of late Victorian morality. Charged and convicted of indecency and attempted sodomy, he ended his days as a penniless alcoholic ostracised by his former friends in the St Giles Workhouse in London.

shows a shot of the Pre-Raphaelite Galleries at Manchester Art Gallery. Two older ladies can be seen walking between the exhibits which consist of paintings hung on blue-painted walls and a glass case containing what looks like ceramic artefacts.

The Pre-Raphaelite Galleries at Manchester Art Gallery © Manchester Art Gallery

For another classic Victorian 'civic' gallery in a great industrial city we move north to Manchester Art Gallery. Designed by Sir Charles Barry in the Greek Revival style this recently refurbished gallery was built by public subscription between 1827-34.

It is also home to some true classics of the Pre-Raphaelite genre. One of the most popular art prints of the late Victorian period, William Holman Hunt’s, The Light of the World can be viewed alongside a very different picture from the movement; Ford Madox Brown’s classic symbol of Victorian labour and industrialization, Work.

The gallery also holds Millais' Autumn Leaves and William Lyndsay Windus' The Outlaw, both prime examples of the importance the movement gave to realism in nature.

Holman Hunt’s early gaudy experimentation with the use of realism, The Hireling Shepherd, is also on view along with John William Waterhouse’s classical rendering of Hylas and the Nymphs – a painting that neatly bookends the later period of Victorian painting with its heady mix of idealised beauty, romanticism and sensuality.

A painting of three women in a very ornate gold-coloured frame.

The Blessed Damozel, (1875-79) Dante Gabriel Rossetti © National Museums Liverpool/Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

No investigation of pre-Raphaelite art would be complete without a visit to Liverpool. Quite apart from hosting one of the biggest Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions for some years, with Rossetti, The Walker also has one of the most impressive permanent collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world.

And so it should be: Liverpool was the only place outside of London to have its own circle of Pre-Raphaelite painters – patronised by the many merchants and industrialists in the city.

The Walker has some important works by Holman Hunt and Rossetti, which can be viewed alongside the work of the aforementioned local painters John Lee, William Davis and James Campbell.

The gallery is also the permanent home of Millais’ first fully Pre-Raphaelite oil painting Isabella. Executed entirely on the brotherhood’s principles, it shows how the artist attempted to achieve a truth to nature whilst developing a highly styled archaism, both became central tenets of the 'Pre-Raphaelite technique'.

A painting of a man and a woman in an embrace. He is wearing military uniform. She is dressed in white silk. There is red carpet on the floor and a green-patterned wall with a painting hung on the right in the background.

John Everett Millais, The Black Brunswicker. Courtesy of National Museums, Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Staying in Liverpool another important collection is located at the Lady Lever Art Gallery and Collection. This wide-ranging holding (once the pride and joy of an Edwardian philanthropist and soap magnate), features yet more famous examples of Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Amidst the paintings by the likes of Constable and Gainsborough is one of Holman Hunt’s portraits of a mountain goat, The Scapegoat as well as works by Millais and Rossetti.

A painitng shwoing a group scene. A man with flowing robes and a headress is whispering to a boy dressed in blue. Behind is a man wearing a turban. On the right are a group of men sat on the floor in robes and headresses.

William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, oil on canvas, 1862 © National Museums, Liverpool/Sudley House

Not content with two excellent galleries, Liverpool's credentials as a major centre for British Victorian painting are confirmed by a fine third collection at Sudley House Art Gallery.

Overlooking the Mersey, this former home of the Victorian shipbuilder George Holt is filled with his personal collection of 18th and 19th century British art.

Here you will find works by Gainsborough and Turner, but it’s the in situ collection of Victorian interior decoration that offers a perfect context and environment to view paintings of the period. Highlights include Hunt's vibrant and detailed The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, as well as works by Millais and Rossetti.

A painting showing a woman lying on the ground in what looks like a woodland. Her head is resting on her hands and she is looking thoughtfully upwards.

The Rift Within the Lute, Arthur Hughes. Oil on canvas 1861-2 © Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery

Moving out of this Pre-Raphaelite stronghold and further northwest, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle houses a wealth of nineteenth and twentieth century art that includes a notable collection of Pre-Raphaelite works.

There is a series of Burne-Jones ‘cartoons’ made as studies for a set of glassworks as well as pieces by Ford Madox Ford, Rossetti and William Morris. There are also some good examples of Arts and Crafts movement furniture, textiles, pottery and metalwork.

The fascination with the Pre-Raphaelite Bortherhood goes on unabated and 2005 saw another important exhibition of their works. The premier Pre-Raphaelite collection in the United States, belonging to the Delaware Art Museum was at Nottingham Castle between June 25 and September 4 2005 under the banner Waking Dreams: Art of the Pre-Raphaelites.

This impressive collection was largely ammased in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuires by textile baron and patron of the arts, Samuel Bancroft Junior. Since its bequest to the Museum in the 1930s, the holding has been augmented and developed into one of the most impressive collections of its kind in the world.

Most of the practitioners of the Pre-Raphaelite style are on show including, John Everett Millais’ The Waterfall (1853) and A Highland Lassie (1854), Ford Madox Brown’s Hampstead – a Sketch from Nature (1857) and Frederick Sandys’ Mary Magdalene (1858-60).

A fine selection of Burne-Jonses are also accompanied by some early Rossetti's, a couple of Ford Maddox Browns and examples by Sandys together with furniture by William Morris and jewellery by Winifred Sandys.

The exhibition includes 130 pieces of artwork including oil paintings, watercolours, drawings, ceramics, jewellery and furniture created by the Pre-Raphaelite Movement’s most important and well-known members.

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