Pre-Raphaelite Sisters @ the National Portrait Gallery

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was an art movement set up initially by three idealistic young art students (John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt) in 1848 and lasted in its first form until 1853.

However, the initial founders were joined by followers, including the young disciples William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who evolved a style of medievalising, idealising and spiritualising art which endured till the end of the nineteenth century. In the latters’ hands many of the PRB values evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement which went on to influence craftspeople across the country and abroad.

Possibly the most memorable style associated with the original Pre-Raphaelites is the depiction of long-gowned, long-necked beautiful women with cupid lips and frizzy hair, brought to perfection in the later paintings of one of the founders and central figures, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877) The model is Jane Burden, daughter of a stableman, who married William Morris, became the iconic beauty of the movement, and for whom Rossetti developed an unhealthy obsession during the 1870s

The Pre-Raphaelite World

Reading about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood often reminds me of the the Bloomsbury Group, the group of writers, artists, critics, historians and economists which loosely associated before, during and after the Great War. The two groupings were:

  • a complex matrices of artists, writers, critics, friends and extended families, and wives and lovers, who all bring with them the complicated stories of their intertwined adulteries and affairs
  • many of the wives or children or grandchildren or greatgrandchildren capitalised on their connection to write biographies or memoirs, which helped to add to the ‘legend’ of the group as a whole

Both are characterised by the very pukka English trait of everyone in the group thinking that everyone else – their friends and partners and lovers – was a genius.

Of course this was partly because they all suffered from attacks by the brutal English critics and, quite naturally, sprang to the defence of the paintings / designs / poems / novels or whatever else, produced by their close friends, or bothers, or sisters, or lovers.

The result is that entering the PRB world, like entering the Bloomsbury world, is to quickly become aware of the legends and well-told stories surrounding each of them, of the way the commented on and supported each other’s work, and of a small industry of secondary and tertiary artworks and criticism and writing devoted to them, with a number of descendants working alongside devoted scholars, to pour out a never-ending stream of PRB-related material.

When you go into the shop (which you have to walk through on the way out, just as you have to walk through the shop on the way out of V&A or British Museum exhibitions) you realise that, in any case, this or that new book about the PRBs – in fact all scholarly or biographical writing about the PRBs – forms only a small subset of the wider merchandising surrounding the movement. Alongside the many biographies and memoirs are the posters and prints, reproductions, cards and label pins, fridge magnets, tote bags, scarves, pillowslips and duvet covers, and much more, much more, extending out to the huge range of William Morris-inspired designs you can buy at Liberty’s for wallpapers and carpets and tapestries and so on.

And that’s before you get to the talismanic geographical locations you can visit connected with the group, such as William Morris’s house in Hammersmith, the William Morris museum in Walthamstow, the Red House (now a National Trust property) in Bexleyheath, the remnants of the Morris and Co fabric factory at Merton Abbey Mills, the restaurant at the Victoria & Albert Museum decorated by Arts & Crafts designers, and so on.

So to engage with one or other of the Pre-Raphaelites is not just to go and see a bunch of paintings, it is to enter a large and complex and multifaceted imaginative world. I think this is part of what draws the PRB devotees: the fact that the PRB world is so large, so complex, there were so many of them, who produced so many works, that once you’re in, you can forget all about the actual world we live in and never come out again.

Georgiana Burne -Jones, long-suffering wife of adulterous Edward Burne-Jones, with her children Philip and Margaret in the background, painted by Edward Burne-Jones (1883)

The Pre-Raphaelite Women

As you might expect, many of the women connected to the Pre-Raphaelites – their wives and lovers and models and muses – have been extensively written about, and even had films made about them (for example, a quick search on Amazon shows that the first woman in this exhibition, the model Effie Gray, has had two books written about her, plus a 2015 movie based on her life).

But, rather surprisingly, this big show at the National Portrait Gallery appears to be the first exhibition ever devoted to putting the female point of view of all the women connected with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, as a whole, as a group.

Specifically, the exhibition showcases the lives and works of twelve Pre-Raphaelite woman, bringing out the extent to which many of them were not passive models or wives-in-the-background, but were studio managers, businesswomen, promoters, mothers, sisters, lovers and muses, as well as – and this is the key revelation of the exhibition – often being notable artists in their own right.

Having pondered how to convey this information, I’ve fallen back on the actual layout of the exhibition as being the most objective, least subjective way of presenting it. The main NPG exhibition space is divided into 12 rooms or parts of rooms, each devoted to one of the twelve women they are showcasing. These are thumbnail portraits of the women’s biographies and achievements:

1. Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, wife and businesswoman

Euphemia (‘Effie’) Gray married the art critic John Ruskin in 1848. She was very beautiful and John Everett Millais used her as the model for the woman in The Order of Release painted during the movement’s first period, in 1852. This hangs as the centrepiece of the first room and we are drawn to the unusual realism of Effie’s face.

The Order of Release 1746 (1852-3) by John Everett Millais

Millais went on a trip to Scotland with the Ruskins, during which Effie’s profound unhappiness became clear. The exhibition includes sketches made of the couple by other guests on the holiday. While Ruskin was totally absorbed in writing up the notes to his masterpiece about architecture. The Stones of Venice, Millais and Effie fell in love. In 1854, supported by her family, she brought a case to annul her marriage, and the following year married Millais. She became his business partner, helping with research, production and marketing of his artworks, researching locations, sourcing costumes, cultivating clients etc. She became Lady Ruskin in 1885 when her husband was made a baronet and there is a painting of her looking very haughty indeed.

2. Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet

Christina was sister to the leading Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and another brother, the critic Michael Rossetti. They were all brought up in an intensely religious atmosphere which is conveyed, here, by the painting of the Annunciation which Dante made in 1850. In 1858 she started working in a home for girls thought to be sexually at risk, an experience which (apparently) inspired her most famous poem, Goblin Market, with its ripe sublimated sexual imagery.

Christina went on to publish three volumes of adult poetry, verse for children and devotional works, was recognised and admired in her time. Fans who gave her good reviews and promoted her works included Tennyson and Browning. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ – Here is an example where that is simply not true.)

Beside portraits of her by others, the exhibition includes some of her own drawings and illustrations, her notebook containing a sonnet on Elizabeth Siddal – In an Artist’s Studio – plus a funny cartoon by her brother of Christina having one of her famous ‘rages’, in the cartoon she is smashing up a Victorian living room with an axe.

There appear to be at least six biographies of Christina, plus umpteen editions of her verse and critical studies

3. Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model and muse

The daughter of a soldier, Annie grew up in poverty in the backstreets of Chelsea, close to the studio of William Holman Hunt, one of the three founders of the RB movement and, arguably, the most conventionally Christian. He was introduced to her and used her as a model for the woman in his astonishing painting, The Awakening Conscience.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853)

Hunt paid for her to be taught to read and write and good manners and deportment, with a view to marrying her. But then he went off to Palestine for two years (1854-6) to paint meticulously realistic Biblical paintings in the actual scenery of the Holy Land, and while he was away Annie also modelled for Millais, Rossetti, Arthur Hughes and others. On his return Hunt was disillusioned by her character which had become, he thought, lazy and addicted to luxury. He broke off the engagement and offered to send her overseas, but she preferred to stay in London and pursue a career in modelling.

By the early 1860s she had found herself an eligible husband, Thomas Thompson, a cousin of Lord Ranelagh, who she married. They moved to Richmond, had children, and in later life Annie was at pains to play down her association with disreputable bohemian artists.

There appear to be no books specifically about Annie.

4. Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) Model, artist and poet

The working class daughter of a cutler whose shop was in Southwark, Lizzie Siddal was plucked from the street to model for another Victorian painter, before gravitating into the circle of the PRBs and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti to whom she became a passionate muse. Her most famous commission was as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s awesome painting of her floating in full dress amid flowers.

But Lizzie was also an artist. She was the only woman exhibitor in an 1857 PRB exhibition which was held in America, the producer of a series of watercolours taking Tennyson and medieval legends as her subject. She also wrote poetry and the exhibition includes a manuscript of her poem, At Last.

After a long and stormy courtship Siddal finally married Rossetti in 1860, but the next year she had a stillborn son, and was lunged into such a deep depression that she committed suicide by poison. Distraught, Rossetti placed the manuscript of his poems in her coffin. A year later he was reluctantly persuaded to re-excavate the coffin, open it, and retrieve the poems, a taboo actions which oppressed him for the rest of his life.

5. Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model and lover

Born plain Sarah Cox into a blacksmiths family in Sussex Fanny took her name from her sister who died in infancy. She encountered Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown and Millais in the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London and quickly began posing as a model for various paintings.

In 1860 when Rossetti married Siddal, Fanny married Timothy Cornforth, but it appears to have been a holding operation because, when Lizzie killed herself, Fanny moved in with the distraught Rossetti.

For over a decade she sat for many of Rossetti’s mature paintings of the classic pre-Raphaelite look – willowy dresses, long neck, strong jawline, cupid lips, billowing tressed hair, such as one included in the exhibition, The Blue Bower.

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865) The model is Fanny Cornforth, famed not only for her strong pre-Raphaelite jawline, but her sumptuous, tressed, blonde hair

Half-time thoughts

The obvious point about the exhibition so far is that, with the outstanding exception of Christina Rossetti, a notable poet in her own right, and maybe Effie Millais for her efforts as a businesswoman on her husband’s behalf, the women covered so far

  1. mostly do conform to the limited stereotype of model and ‘muse’
  2. are extremely well-known, having been on the receiving end of one or more biographies and even films, and featured in at least two BBC TV dramatisations of the lives of the PRBs

So that you begin to wonder a bit in what way this exhibition is overturning any preconceptions.

It’s in the second half that the show – or its polemical purpose – lifts off, with a raft of women who were clearly notable artists in their own right, and/or had much more to them than

6. Joanna Boyce Wells (1831-61) Artist

Joanna was encouraged to paint by her businessman father, artist brother and sister. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ here is another example where that is simply not true.)

Her father paid for her to study art and her first exhibited piece was shown at the Royal Academy in 1855.

Elgiva by Joanna Boyce Wells (1855)

There are half a dozen other paintings and drawing by Joanna in her section, including The Boys Crusade and Head of a Mulatto Woman. Some of them are marvellous, some of them a bit more run of the mill. Difficult to get worked up about this head of an angle. It’s the kind of rather second-rate image you get on umpteen Christmas cards.

Thou Bird of God by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

Joanna married Henry Wells during a visit to Italy in 1857-8, and set up a joint a artistic partnership when they returned to England, Lizzie Siddal being quoted approvingly commenting that Joanna was very much the head of the firm’. It was a tragedy when she died aged just 30 from complications of childbirth.

Up till now the exhibition had featured little more than paintings and drawings. Here for the first time was an object, the exact dress which Joanna wore for a portrait of her done by her husband, Henry. This was a fascinating object in itself, with asymmetrical patterns and the jet black Victorian exterior fitted inside with bright scarlet trim.

The presence of objects in the second half of the exhibition made it feel much more interested and rounded – with a dress, a pair of shoes, a handbag, medallions and so on giving a much fuller sense of the times, and of the range of artistic channels which were available.

7. Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

Possibly the most striking revelation of the whole exhibition was the life of Fanny Eaton. She was black, born in Jamaica, came to England with her mother in the 1850s and married working class carter and cabman James Eaton.

By 1859 she had been discovered as a model and sat for Rebecca and Simeon Solomon and Albert Moore. She had a thin face and frizzy hair and one of the best things about this exhibition is the way it’s pulled together half a dozen paintings by different artists which use her as a model, along with her biography and a simply stunning pencil drawing of her by Simeon Solomon.

Fanny Eaton by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

8. Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Wife and model

Georgiana is one of the core figures of the PRB myth. She was one of five MacDonald sisters who all went on to achieve fame and eminence, one of her sister’s sons, for example, going on to become the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Her main role in the mythology is a) long-suffering wife who b) suppressed her own talent in devotion to her husband. At the age of fifteen she was engaged to Edward Burne-Jones, who gave her craft and engraving lessons, and then was apprenticed to Ford Madox Brown.

She married Burne-Jones and moved into the core of the movement, getting to know Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddel, between them they discussed plans to publish a volume of illustrated fairy tales.

But the birth of her daughter Margaret put a temporary end to her own artistic aspirations. She was then dismayed by her husband’s very public infatuation with the artist Maria Zambaco. While he painted ever more torrid and sensual pictures featuring Maria as model, Georgiana found herself sidelined into the fate of motherhood, managing her husband’s studios and business, and Being There to comfort him when he returned from a series of infatuations and affairs.

A classic example of the wife as Mother and Martyr.

9. Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, muse and sculptor

Maria Cassavetti was born to a wealthy Anglo-Greek businessman based in London, with patron connections with the PRBs. In 1861 she married a Paris-based doctor but the marriage failed and she returned to London with their children. Here she began modelling for Burne-Jones, an activity which quickly developed into ‘an intense love affair’.

Burne-Jones described her as ‘primeval’ and the siting of Maria’s section right next to Georgiana’s beings out Georgiana’s dowdy, proper Victorian demeanour and helps you understand why the uninhibited Greek beauty must have swept Burne-Jones into a new realm.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, née MacDonald (c.1882) photographed by Frederick Hollyer

Now compare and contrast the naked body of Maria, modelling for B-J’s astonishing painting The Tree of Forgiveness.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones (1882)

This is one of three massive paintings which fill the end wall of the exhibition, the other two being Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin, which also features Maria as model, and Proserpine by Rossetti. If you love PRB painting this is one wall with its trio of massive paintings are worth kneeling and praying to. They make you realise that at their peak, the works of Millais, Burne-Jones and Rossetti were of an other-worldly brillance in the sense that they are consummate exampes of the art of painting, but also that they successfully create an Otherworld of the imagination, vastly more rich and sumptuous and perfect and wonderful than the actual fallen world, in which Burne-Jones looked like a kindlier version of Rasputin and his wife looks like a tired childminder.

The world they all aimed to create utterly transcended this one to take us into a world of perfect bodies, perfect colours and shades, and uplifting stories of noble figures from the Bible, the Middle Ages of Greek legend.

Anyway, after the affair with Burne-Jones ended, Maria became a sculptor, studying with Alphonse Legros in London and Rodin in Paris. She produced figurines (none of which, alas, are in the exhibition) and also became an expert at portrait medallions and there are four spirited examples of portraits set in circular medallions. Apparently, most of them have been lost, these four survive because Maria presented them to the British Museum soon after they were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy? I thought the nineteenth century was the age of the patriarchy when all women were forbidden from practising art or writing… apparently not.

10. Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, muse and craftsperson

Jane Burden grew up in poverty and was destined for domestic service until she met the young Pre-Raphaelites who were undertaking a commission to paint a mural at the Oxford Union. Rossetti painted her as a tall elegant noble Queen Guinevere and Morris married her in 1859. She became his partner in what became Morris and Co., managing the embroidery commissions, and a close friend of the Burne-Jones family, whose children called her Auntie Janey. Henry James called her a ‘grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings ever made’ and photographs of her as a young woman confirm that she had the super-strong features, the strong jaw, cupid lips and tressed hair beloved by the male painters.

Jane Morris at Tudor House (1865) photographed by John Robert Parsons

In 1868 she resumed modelling for Rossetti and they began an affair which lasted until his nervous breakdown in 1876, and inspired a series of his major mature works like Proserpine, above.

Jane was a renowned needlewoman, who also experimented with bookbinding and calligraphy and the exhibition features an evening bag sweetly designed and stitched by her.

11. Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model and artist

Born, like Maria Zambaco, into the Anglo-Green community in London, Marie’s sister was painted by James Whistler and Marie herself was then asked to pose for the note Victorian woman photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  The famous Victorian woman photographer. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is an example of that simply not being true.)

Spartali decided to become a painter and studied with Ford Madox Brown, who became a lifelong mentor and her first paintings were exhibited in 1867. (So she’s supported by her male father, by her male mentor, given an exhibition by a male gallery owner, and taken up by a male dealer.)

She married an American and went with him to Italy and Greece on business, painting all the while, for her male husband supported her career. She developed a particular style, ‘notable for colour harmony and evocative atmosphere’, depicting late medieval scenes from Chaucer, Dante or Petrarch.

The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman (1889) Note: this work has never been public displayed before so this is a rare opportunity to see it in the flesh

If this painting is anything to go by, her paintings are detailed, colourful and take colourful historical subjects. But they feel weak and underpowered. All the characters are limp-wristed and so are their poses, and the colouring, which is vague and wishy-washy on outline.

Sorry to be predictable, but compare and contrast with The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones, which has a tremendous dynamism, and a pictorial excitement, by which I mean he has total command over the medium of oil paints to create a wonderfully dynamic and involving image.

Back in the Jane Burden section there’d been a painting of Kelmscott Manor, the Oxfordshire home of William Morris, painted by Marie and which, it seemed to me, suited her style more than human compositions – a landscape as if on a rather misty morning, the house and garden a little foggy and unclear, making it all the more poignant and expressive.

Kelmscott Manor by Marie Spartali Stillman

Apparently her landscapes like this sold well, particularly in America, where you can imagine them providing exactly the kind of idealised view of a picture postcard Cotswold England which rich American collectors warmed to.

Objects: The exhibition includes a pair of evening shoes designed and stitched by Spartali, who was an accomplished seamstress.

12. Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

Evelyn was born into an aristocratic family, the great-grand-daughter of the Earl of Leicester, her uncle was the Pre-Raphaelite artist J.R. Spencer Stanhope. She was a prize-winning student at the Slade School of Art. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is another example of that simply not being true.)

She exhibited alongside Marie Spartali and others at the Grosvenor Gallery (hang on, I thought the Victorian patriarchy prevented women from expressing themselves, becoming artists or selling their work) before in 1887 marrying the noted ceramicist William de Morgan. Together they built a close professional and personal relationship, her art sales subsidising his pottery production.

She came a generation after the first PRBs and her style shows a kind of off-shoot of the style. There are several large paintings by her here and their obvious quality is a kind of cartoon simplification of the PRB style.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan (1878)

This huge painting, Night and Sleep, is done with consummate skill, the figures, the faces and the drapery all extremely good. And yet, overall, the composition lacks a certain… vigour? Life? I can’t quite put it into words, but – placed amid so many other masterpieces – it didn’t quite do it for me.

Conclusion

1. The art

None of the women artists shown here are as good as the best of the male artists.

Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali, Evelyn de Morgan and Maria Boyce Wells are often good, sometimes very good – but nothing they made matches the tip-top best of Rossetti, Burne-Jones or Millais. We could argue about this for a long time, but for me, walking from the pallid rather lifeless pictures of de Morgan back to the big works by Rossetti and Burne-Jones was to move from the alright, quite nice, so-so, to supersonic masterpieces.

The exhibition allows you to size up de Morgan’s painting of a dryad:

The Dryad by Evelyn de Morgan (1885)

And then stroll 20 yards back through the gallery to Burne-Jone’s Tree of Forgiveness, above, in order ot make a direct comparison of their treatments of a nearly identical subject.

It was obviously her artistic choice to treat the subject like this, but de Morgan’s painting seems to me thin and cartoony. Good, but… empty and undemanding. Almost naive art. Whereas the Burne-Jones painting has tremendous, muscular energy which lifts you up into the action, like a movie, like a good book.

BUT – all that said – the exhibition DOES work in showing us that these women were not just ciphers and sidekicks. Many of them really were good and notable artists in their own rights and, as new overviews and histories are written, hopefully their achievements will receive a more coverage and understanding.

AND it brings together into one place works that have either never been seen before like The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman or have not been seen in public for 25 years like Thou Bird of God by Wells, and the cumulative effect – especially in the more artist-focused second part of the exhibition – is to create a kind of communal critical mass where you realise that there were a lot of them, they were very talented, and they did have a lot to say.

2. The lives

In a different direction, the exhibition fleshes out the lives and achievements of the women it is easy to dismiss or overlook as ‘simply’ wives or models. Thus, even though they were only, in the end, quite small sections about each of them, I nonetheless got a much better feel for the lives, hopes, aspirations, achievements and frustrations of figures who had often been only names to me (not being a PRB or Arts & Craft completist) such as:

  • Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth
  • Jane Burden and Lizzie Siddel
  • and a sad feel for the quiet mournful figure of Giorgiana MacDonald.

And the complete revelation of the character and importance of the black model, Fanny Eaton, whose life story is presented here for the first time.

The exhibition curator Dr Jan Marsh, writes:

When people think of Pre-Raphaelitism they think of beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours. Far from passive mannequins, as members of an immensely creative social circle, these women actively helped form the Pre-Raphaelite movement as we know it. It is time to acknowledge their agency and explore their contributions.

I suspect people will continue for a long time to associate Pre-Raphaelitism with ‘beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours’ – simply because that’s what the best of their paintings depict and are famous for depicting and nothing is going to change that any time soon.

If you’re already a fan of the PRB and the later Arts & Crafts movement this will already be a must-see exhibition. But even if you’re not, it turns into quite an eye-opening revelation as to the roles and work and achievements of many of the women who have only hovered on the periphery of the stories up till now. I don’t think it will turn the average person’s view of the movement upside down… but this exhibition marks a distinct shift of the dial.


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Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

A Victorian Obsession @ Leighton House Museum

The Leighton House Museum is worth visiting at any time, but especially so when it is hosting an exhibition like this one – A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection at Leighton House Museum.

One of the paintings on display references Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words (SWW by John Melhuish Strudwick). Why not listen as you read?

1. Leighton House Museum

Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-96) was one of the most eminent artists of the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign, with a particular interest in classical subject matter. In his twenties his prodigious skill already had people speculating whether he would become President of the Royal Academy, an ambition he achieved in 1878, and Leighton is the only British artist to have been raised to the peerage.

Leighton acquired this plot of land in Holland Park, west London, in the 1860s and for the rest of his life collaborated with architects to build and extend and improve what became an artistic creation in its own right, ‘a showcase for artistic and aesthetic taste’. The house is lavishly decorated and ornamented throughout but the most famous part of it is the Arab Hall, built between 1877 and 1881.

Leighton House Arab Hall (1) -®Will Pryce

Leighton House Museum, London: The Arab Hall. Courtesy of Leighton House Museum and Will Pryce.

The hall was based on the reception room at the twelfth-century palace of La Zisa at Palermo in Sicily. It was built to showcase Leighton’s collection of 16th and 17th century Islamic tiles and every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling contribute to the wonderful ambience, with mosaic floors, a gold mosaic frieze designed by Walter Crane running round the walls, elaborate alcoves with views over the garden and, in the centre, a small floor-level fountain trickling into a yard-wide pool. There are chairs so you can sit and relax. It is an extraordinary thing to find in a Victorian house.

Next in impact is the large, north-facing studio Leighton had built at the top of the house, to contain his easels, works in progress and the huge collection of photographs, sketches and oils which he kept around him. I was struck that Leighton had commissioned someone to run a scale version of the Parthenon frieze along the top of the longest wall in the room, a living link between his work and the classical Greek image of bodily perfection (a notion currently displayed and discussed at the British Museum) and which he saw as the ultimate source and validator of his work.

2. A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection

The Pérez Simón collection is named after the man who collected it, a successful Mexican businessman with an eye for Victorian art and the money to acquire it: he owns the largest collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside Britain. This is a rare opportunity to see more than fifty paintings from the Leighton era gathered together in a house which beautifully preserves the ambience and feel of the time.

The staircase in the Leighton House Museum ©Todd White

The staircase in the Leighton House Museum, with paintings from the Pérez Simón collection © Todd White

The artists

The exhibition includes works by:

Timespan

The 60 or more paintings on show stretch from 1862 to 1916, from the heart of the Victorian era through the Edwardian high summer and on into the year of the Battle of the Somme.

Though they are not displayed in order, I think you can observe a development in interests and technique across the period. Very roughly the earlier paintings have a Pre-Raphaelite interest in the Middle Ages, an interest in Arthurian and other medieval legends and a soft-focus approach, a blurriness about the features which carries on in Burne-Jones’s work into the new century. This is a rare nude by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, using his most-painted model, Alexa Wilding.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Venus Verticordia 1867-1868 Oil on canvas The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Venus Verticordia (1867-1868) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

The later group of artists are sometimes referred to as the Olympians because they were interested in the life of ancient Greece and Rome (and Egypt) – not least because archaeological discoveries were publicising and popularising these cultures. Whereas the Pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti or Burne-Jones painted a fantasy of medieval life, the next generation of painters, like Poynter or Goodall, had travelled extensively in Italy, Greece and even Egypt and prided themselves on an almost photographic accuracy of setting, clothing and detail.

Tennyson’s influence

If you read biographies of the poet laureate of Victorian society, Alfred Lord Tennyson, you discover that he and his closest friends at Cambridge debated long into the night and wrote treatises and poems addressing what was for them the burning issue of the day: Should the artist write about the reality of daily life (and, by implication, of the technological, political and social turmoil of the times) or turn his back on society and describe only an Ideal Beauty?

We know what happened: with occasional sideways references to contemporary life (glimpsed in Maud, The Princess or In Memoriam), Tennyson ultimately developed into the poet of escape, epitomised by the Idylls of the King (1859-85) which retold the legends of King Arthur in a particularly drowsy, dreamlike style. The artists collected here followed his path and their tremendous technical proficiency is used to depict dreams of heroism and chivalry, like the chocolate box perfection of Millais’ The Crown of Love.

John Everett Millais The Crown of Love (1875) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

John Everett Millais The Crown of Love (1875) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Tennysonian escapism

The art on display here is wholeheartedly escapist, awash with Arthurian stories or myths and legends from Greek, Roman or Biblical sources. There is none of the squalor and haste of Victorian life, let alone the innumerable small wars of Empire which Kipling was to write about from the late 1880s.

Instead, the viewer is transported back in time to the lazy lives of the leisured classes of long ago. Hardly any of the paintings depicts activity: a deep languor hangs over them, and the later in the period they are created, the lazier the lives depicted.

Are we to indict these artists for failing to depict the squalor and misery of their times, as if all art must always be about the most sordid subject matter the age can provide; or celebrate them for providing visual antidotes to it, for following the almost universal contemporary belief that art exists to create the inspiring and uplifting, the ‘beautiful’?

The female image

Woman as embodiment of virtue ‘A preoccupation at the heart of pictorial expression during this period is the representation of female beauty’ (the guide). Why? Women, constricted and constrained by Victorian laws and conventions were, paradoxically, turned into the embodiment of what men were fighting for, what men were working for, what needed to be protected. In the social realm, whether they wanted to or not, women had forced upon them the role of Embodiment of the Good, of Virtue.

Male pleasure In the realm of Art, pale, white, virginal, half-naked women were obviously pleasurable for male artists to paint and male critics to judge and male patrons to buy and stare at. Thousands of artists devoted their working lives to equating the category of beauty with the female face and body, an object to be coveted, fantasised and dreamed about.

Market forces A couple of times the commentary mentioned specific paintings being composed and created with an eye on the market. An artist has to earn a living. If images of scantily-clad young women sold, then the artists would produce every variation on the theme, placing scantily-clad young women in settings as diverse as imagination allowed, from Arthurian myth, to the legends of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Model power That said, art then – as maybe fashion or pop music today – offered an escape route from lives of poverty and low expectations, for the artists (some of whom came from very humble backgrounds) and also for their models, often illiterate girls plucked from the street.

Dorothy Dene

One such was Dorothy Dene, born Ada Pullen, the daughter of an impoverished engineer from Clapham. She became Leighton’s favourite model and muse for the rest of his career; she changed her name to Dorothy Dene and Leighton helped her start quite a successful stage career, paying for acting lessons and pulling strings to get her roles.

It is pleasing to read that Dene was one of the last people invited to visit Leighton on his deathbed in 1896 and that he left her the vast sum of £5,000, more than any other beneficiary of his will.

Crenaia

The vertical shape of the painting below reflects the waterfall in the background, a realistic depiction of the highest waterfall in Ireland, part of the river Dargle, which ran across the estate of Lord Powerscourt,  the painting’s first owner. Like so much art, it is about power and money and control – control of a foreign land which no doubt came with serfs and vassals, a fine house full of willing servants, and the leisure to stare at the white, elongated body of a beautiful young woman with her clothes just gently falling off her.

Frederic, Lord Leighton Crenaia, the nymph of the Dargle (1880) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederic, Lord Leighton Crenaia, the nymph of the Dargle (1880) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Is Crenaia pornographic? Not really, not as our age knows pornography. Is it a form of soft porn or titillation? Probably, yes. I think it must have pandered to its patron’s sense of seigneurship and that it flatters any man who looks at it with a momentary sense of ownership of a woman of such soft pink perfection. But it is a very deliberate work of art and so, at a level above that, it flatters the owner’s connoisseurship: because, putting the sexuality of the figure to one side, it is a striking composition, so tall and thin, depicting a body elongated to echo the falling waterfall, and the whiteness of the gown and the white pinkness of the flesh stand out as if spotlit against the deep darkness of the background. The gown to the left is mirrored by the waterfall to the right and both could be mistaken for wings; it is almost one of the fairy paintings which were such a feature of Victorian art. So, multiple layers of visual and psychological pleasure.

Aestheticism

It’s hard to understand that these swooning beauties represented something of a rebellion against the art establishment. In the 1870s and 80s the movement which was known variously as Aestheticism or Art For Art’s Sake rebelled against the heavy hand of Victorian moralising. A great deal of Victorian art is anecdotal, telling a story, all too often one which thumps out a great moral lesson, quite often about the perils of infidelity. Although he never went as far as the polemical aestheticism of a painter like Whistler, Leighton created a number of marvellous canvases which are quite obviously more interested in form and design, in the harmonious arrangement of colours and fabrics, than in any particular myth or legend. Probably the most famous is Flaming June (1895), but on show here was the equally stylised and striking Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea, a much earlier work from 1871.

Frederic, Lord Leighton Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea (1871) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederic, Lord Leighton Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea (1871) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

The Roses of Heliogabulus

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, OM, RA, is the most famous painter of the classic Olympian scene, set on an airy terrace overlooking the sea. This painting, The Roses of Heliogabulus (1888) was given a room to itself, complete with various preparatory studies and some joss sticks filling the room with the aroma of roses. It depicts the (rather improbable) story from an account of the 3rd century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (203-222) who, among other corrupt and vicious behaviour, was said to have smothered guests at a feast with flower petals.

The striking thing about Alma-Tadema’s masterpiece is, of course, the complete lack of fear or violence; it looks like a lazy fin-de-siècle joke, all decadent music and fluttering rose petals. Far more noticeable than the nominal subject matter is Tadema’s characteristic attention to the detail of the surfaces, to the patterns in the marble pillars, the shimmer of the silk pillows.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus(1888) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Women on the terrace of a villa maritima

I am grateful to this exhibition for giving me the words to characterise these Olympian paintings, so many of which feature, as the guide puts it, ‘women on the terrace of a villa maritima‘; the image of women in togas looking over a marble parapet out across the blue Mediterranean is a stock image of the period, the speciality of Alma-Tadema in particular: charming anecdotes from antiquity.

Some highlights

  • Andromeda (1869) by Edward John Poynter – apparently, the first depiction of pubic hair anywhere in British art. As usual, the graphic nude is permissible because it is disguised as an uplifting and authorised Greek myth.
  • Passing Days (1875) by John Melhuish Strudwick – an allegory of life as figures pass from youth to age to death. Very Pre-Raphaelite in the samey vacancy of the faces. I liked the medieval attention to the detail of the background.
  • The Finding of Moses (1885) by Frederick Goodall – Goodall visited Egypt in 1858 and 1870, both times travelling and camping with Bedouin tribesmen, bringing back sundry artefacts and remaining fascinated by its legends and architecture. The very white pharoah’s daughter and Moses contrast with the dark serving girls. White is power, purity and, in this Biblical story, godliness. Note the detail of the carpet, and the frieze of hieroglyphics on the low wall behind her, and the Egyptian figures on the temple wall and the chevron of white birds rising from the trees. And I love the muddy realism of the water, giving the bottom quarter of the image a mirror-like depth.
Frederick Goodall The Finding of Moses (1885) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederick Goodall The Finding of Moses (1885) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

  • A Bathing Place (1890) by Albert Moore – the pose and the outdoor setting give this a surprising freshness. And it’s just a stunningly harmonious depiction of a perfect body.
  • The Crystal Ball (1902) by John William Waterhouse – lush velvet dress reminiscent of Millais at his best. Apparently there was a ‘Waterhouse profile’, a specific outline of the female face.
  • The Saz Player (1903) by William Clarke Wontner – what’s interesting is how this woman is so obviously English of the Edwardian, Downton Abbey type, and yet the drapery is very revealing. In its last years this genre became more shameless.
  • A Song of Springtime (1913) by John William Waterhouse – significantly different from the Crystal Ball, the roughness of the brushstrokes, and overlayering of paint creating a looser more spontaneous and open air feel. Although not ‘modern’ art, it has emerged from the Victorian syrup to become something more sturdy and independent.
  • A Passing Cloud (1895-1908) by Arthur Hughes – I think this is interesting because it shows the fag end of this tradition: a subject, a composition and a technique which have become hollow and superficial. The finish of the dress and the Delft tiles in the fireplace and especially the coat of the dog are little short of wondrous. But the whole painting is empty, it bespeaks an art which has migrated to the chocolate box and then been consigned to the attic. Leighton was long dead and the last survivors of his generation and his way of seeing things would die out on the eve of the Great War, which would sweep away their world, their fantasies, their ideas of Beauty, their visual imprisonment of women, and give rise to whole new ways of being and seeing.

My favourite

  • Greek wine (1873) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema – hidden next to a pillar was the highlight of the show. I liked it because of the vividness of the frieze copied from Greek pots at the back, because of the postures of the old man leaning up on his elbow and of the youth with his back to us pouring the wine, and because of the tremendous realism of the ageing, mottled flesh of the old man. An amazing depiction of the human body – and, as it happens, one of the few paintings with no women in it.

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