The Beloved, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
My Dad took me to a gallery when I was very little and we stood gazing at a painting of a glamourous woman for some time. He pointed out the model's deep red long hair. I was transfixed. I loved the fact something so simple and lovely could capture my Dad's imagination.
I didn't know it at the time but I was looking at a PreRaphealite work; probably my first foray into the world of pin up girls. Of course these Victorian models didn't have the cheeky knowing smile of an Elvgren or the Hollywood styles of a Vargas, but they were glamorous and untouchable all the same, with their own particular brand of beauty.
I've loved the PreRaphaelites ever since that moment, and my roadtrip to Liverpool was based around seeing as many of the original works as I could.
I began at the Alice In Wonderland Exhibition at the Tate. I had a vague memory of Lewis Carroll knowing the PRB's. It turns out he, Rosseitti and Holman Hunt were good aquaintances, Lewis, a keen photographer took pictures of the Rossetti family.
There I also saw Rossetti's painting, The Beloved. I've always enjoyed this work because of it's pseudo exotic appeal. It's been read in many ways over the years; some seeing the inclusion of the black boy in the foreground as racsit. Others recognising that Rossetti, a keen suporter of anti slavery, was possibly using the figure as a means of support towards the cause. There is also a mixed race woman in the background, Fanny Eaton, a popular model to the PreRaphaelites and their asscociates.
The Walker Art Gallery was next on the list; I was lucky enough to catch a talk about the PreRaphaelites while I was there. I was part of a large group who dutifully carried our fold up chairs with us as we were guided from one painting to the next.
The Martyr, John Everet Millais
Some of the tidbits I learnt were: Millais painting, The Martyr (another favourite of mine) was part of a much larger painting at the start of it's life. The original picture showed the martyr of Solway, so called because she refused to recognise the Church of Scotland (so they very Christianly chained her to a rock to be swallowed by the tide) naked, about to be saved by a knight. She brazenly looking directly at her rescuer.
Victorian audiences were outraged! Millais cut the offending figure away from the work and clothed her, creating the smaller work you can see above.The proof can be seen in this Xray:
We were also treated to examples of the traditional Victorian painting which had become the Royal Academy's norm back the the first half of the 1800's; sentimental muted images always two thirds dark one third light, a hangover from Sir Joshua Reynolds who the PRB nicknamed 'Sir Sloshula'.
The Strawberry Girl, Sir Joshua Reynolds
It was the PreRaphaelites mission to change this style, taking inspiration from nature, medieval art and poetry. A great representation of this being Millais Isabella.
Issabella, John Everet Millais
Here we saw, bright colours, distorted perspective, rampant symbolism and a truth to nature. Quite refreshing. I enjoyed working through the story with the guide. Basically, the guy offering his blood orange to the girl is in for a stormy ride; her brothers on the opposite side of the table don't agree with the romance and eventually kill him. Isabella finds his body, cuts his head off and plants it in a pot of basil to keep it safe, watering it with her tears. It's all there if you look...
I then rounded off my roadtrip by travelling to the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight. This place is a well hidden treasure box! The village is chocolate box perfection and nestled between the quiet timber framed houses is a gallery filled with art goodies!
Work from the symbolists, asthetics and PreRaphaelites fill the walls, while glorious white marble figures fill the two staute halls.
I was really looking forward to seeing Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel but it was being exhibited on loan to Paris. However I did find a Rossetti I never knew existed, A Christmas Carol;
I recognise that hair ornament as worn by many other Rossetti girls, including one of the musicians from the Bower Medow, housed at Manchester Art Gallery. It was a real treat to find this gem, especailly as it was hidden below some stairs and I might have missed it if it weren't for the fab gallery staff!
I had a great time on my roadtrip, I saw A LOT of art, not only PreRaphaelite but many amazing works which would be too many to mention here, all housed in these wonderful public galleries. It's worth remembering that our history and culture are only a visit away waiting to be explored!