Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

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Yasmin Newman, third year student on the BA (Hons.) Visual Culture degree, reflects on Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition

If you have only ever seen the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and contemporaries in books or on a projector screen, or even not at all, this is a must-see show. Personally, I came away wishing to my tutor that I could stay and live in the exhibition forever.

The exquisite detail can only fully be appreciated first hand through these sensually provoking paintings, sketches and applied arts. The array of media in this exhibition provides a great opportunity to see the small scale Elizabeth Siddal works and applied arts together with the ‘high art’ we know well.

What divided my colleagues was the separation of ‘Beauty’ in its own room, especially with all but one of the paintings depicting the female subject, highlighting the vulnerability of women from this period. However it does show the development of the Pre-Raphaelite movement from the naturalistic to the Aesthetic, all the while retaining its realism (the movement was often compared to the new medium of photography). The exhibition offers a contextual view of the subject rather than the biography of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which has been done previously (therefore moving in a less chronological order than most exhibitions). It also extends beyond the Aesthetic to that of the Arts and Crafts movement represented by the works of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in the ‘Paradise’ room.

The use of the Virgin Mary cobalt blue colour is prevalent throughout the exhibition accentuating the moral stories of the Pre-Raphaelites and the affluence of their benefactors. Lapis lazuli blue (once the most rare and expensive pigment) is, of course, a symbol of material wealth, which could also be a comment on women of the period, who were seen as commodities or as spending a huge amount on commodities. These vivid colours are achieved through the use of a white ground under artificially pigmented paint. The Pre-Raphaelites also experimented extensively with paint techniques.

My seven must-sees:
• Edward Burne-Jones, Sidonia Von Bork 1860, for the complexity of the subject’s dress.
• James Everett Millais, Mariana 1850-1. The cobalt-blue velvet dress is so real.
• William Holman Hunt, The Shadow of Death 1870-3. Hunt went to Israel to create his truthful representation.
• William Holman Hunt, Isabella and the Pot of Basil 1866-8, retouched 1886. This sense-provoking painting made me almost smell the basil growing in the pot above her dead lover’s head, which she waters with her tears.
• Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith 1866-8, altered 1872-3.
• Edward Burne-Jones, The Baleful Head 1885-7.
• William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott c.1888-1905.

It is important to emphasise the beauty of Millais’ Mariana. The blue of the subject’s dress is so vivid; the velvet appears realistic, as if it could be touched. One can smell the cold air penetrating the stained glass windows, sympathise with her melancholic gaze and feel the ache in her back from hunching over her workbench. None of these can be achieved in reproductions of the image.

I would also recommend reading Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott poem before the exhibition, and taking a good few minutes to take in the wonder that is Hunt’s interpretation in the ‘Mythologies’ room. It is so very different to the famous J.W. Waterhouse painting of the same name.