The turquoise hall at Leighton House

The current show on at the glorious Leighton House is entitled Pre-Raphaelites on Paper: Victorian Drawings from the Lanigan Collection. Organised by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottowa, this exhibition offers visitors the chance to see over one hundred delightful Pre-Raphaelite drawings, sketches and watercolours not previously exhibited in England before.  Victorian Art Historian Christopher Newall describes the National Gallery of Canada’s collection as ‘unrivalled’ and views it as ‘the most remarkable, complete, complex collection of British 19th-century line drawings in North America’.

The sounds and textures of Leighton’s Moroccan riad room, alongside the turquoise tiled hallway and the green silk room make his home an idyllic setting for a series of works which are tender, beautiful, intimate, low key and, sometimes faint of touch. The lavishness of the architecture helps focus ones eye upon the pencil lines. It is hard to imagine the same experience being had in Canada’s National Gallery which is a large glass filled building with a stark white modernist interior.

National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa

Whilst the show features the most prominent names from the Brotherhood: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, there are also drawings by other Victorian legends, such as Sir Frederic Leighton, Sir Edward Poynter, and John Ruskin as well as rare works by Lizzie Siddal, and John Melhuish Strudwick.[1]

There are no tombstone tags alongside each work and although you are given a guide book to manoeuvre around the house there are one or two errors. The volunteers were on hand should you need guidance though and the pictures in the guidebook make it fairly easy to work out if you are looking at the right image. It is a useful way of displaying art, firstly because it allows you to move at your own pace and therefore engage with the works in your own time (and order – picture first, text later or vice versa) and secondly because the aesthetic of the display is unbroken and adds to the delight of the works (and more practically the delicate nature of the interiors mean it is not possible to attach wall labels). One has to luxuriate in the red and gold wallpaper in the dining room as much as one does the olive green silk upstairs. Lighting is kept quite low for conservation purposes, but this again adds to one’s natural inclination to get up close to the works. The guidebook is a nice memento, particularly as not all of the works are available on-line (and the catalogue which accompanied the larger exhibition of the same theme at the NGC in 2015 is £25).

The Silk Room, Leighton House

The works on display form part of Dr. Dennis T. Lanigan’s collection which has been growing since the 1980s when Lanigan became fascinated with Victorian art after he spent a month in London. It was Burne-Jones who particularly captured Lanigan’s eye, after he visited the Hayward Gallery’s retrospective. Inevitably Sonia Del Re, Associate Curator of European Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Canada, has included several Burne-Jones’ wihin the exhibition choices.

The rooms are titled thus: Romantic Middle Ages, Biblical Times and Morality, Antiquity: A Dream of the Past, Renaissance Men and No Time like the Present. This makes the objective of this exhibition a little unclear, aside from the obvious collaboration between the two institutions and the ‘making known’ of these rarely seen works. Lanigan’s view of collecting perhaps provides clarity:

“If even one young man or young woman came and developed a life-long interest in the art of this period it would have been worthwhile for me to have shown my collection here.”

This is a noble aim and presenting drawings alone feels a rather brave, although conversely conservative, choice. We should not be scared of drawings, of learning and understanding the process of design but we are not particularly used to engaging with drawings, certainly when it comes to Pre-Raphaelitism drawings tend to remain hidden in drawers. One only has to go to the Drawing Rooms at the Tate to see how many works are kept from the gallery walls. Lanigan said: “I guess I’ve always been interested in drawing even when I was a boy. It gives you insights into the creative process, the mind of the artist at work — how the painting develops, how the artist changes the position of an arm or a leg or the entire pose of a model, how things evolve in his mind until he reaches the final design.”

Sandys, King Pelles’ Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sanc Graal (1861, NGC)

Romantic Middle-Ages

The first room invites you into the Middle-Ages where you meet Hughes, Crane, Sandys, Siddal, Paton, and Muckley amongst others. The works are generally of a really high quality, although Gilbert’s Cordelia (1857) is a real disappointment and quite frankly would have been better being sent back to Canada.

The date range of these works is surprisingly broad including some from the 1850s as well as much later works e.g. two by Crane are dated 1899. The piece Leighton House have used in their advertising is in fact one of the most striking in the room; Sandys, King Pelles’ Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sanc Graal (1861, NGC). Sandys’ drawings are always of the highest quality, and this pen and ink is no exception, particularly when compared to the finished oil (obviously this is not in the exhibition but there are occasionally prints on the tables for comparison – although these are of a dreadful quality and Leighton House really should have done better here). Like many of Sandys’ drawings this one reflects the prints of Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) whom was greatly admired by Sandys, Morris, Rossetti and many of the Pre-Raphaelites.

King Pelles' Daughter bearing the Sancgraal
Sandys, King Pelles’ Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sanc Graal (1861, Leicester)

Morris’ study for La Belle Iseult (1857, NGC) is surprisingly convincing and reminds us that Morris’ artistic talents, although never as advanced as Millais or Hunt’s for example, could have become more with time. The subject depicts Iseult mourning Tristram’s exile from the court of King Mark and shows Jane Morris in a medieval dress (Morris and Jane were married in 1858). The oil version of La Belle Iseult (1859, Tate) is the only completed oil, suggesting Morris took the production of both the drawing and the oil most seriously.

Morris, Study for La Belle Iseult (1857, NGC )

Two works which caught my eye were The Knight and Lady on Horseback Led by an Angel (1861) and the Siddal design for A Capital with Angels with Interlocking Wings (1855, NGC).

The Hughes work captures much of what the Drawing Room display intended: chivalry, romance, honour, Christian faith etc. The look and feel of the work fits comfortably with early Pre-Raphaelite fascination about Arthurian legend. The heavy outline and features of the Knight and Lady are reminiscent of Rossetti’s early Catholic looking designs, although the rather large horse also recalls Millais’ A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford (1857, Lady Lever). The angel is not immediately apparent and bearing in mind one has to look in the guidebook to see the title, it is feasible that you would gloss over the figure. There is a halo, albeit a faint one, and the triangle protruding behind the neck of the horse is the tip of the angel’s left wing. The angel is leading the horse and its riders through the steadying of his hand upon the reins. The angel acts as their guide, securing their passage and providing them protection – the angel as guardian was a Catholic theology but a growing Anglican Protestant one during the Victorian era. To ensure the figures are further protracted the Holy Spirit flies above them -guiding the angel, guiding the guide. This work has a calmness, a security, and a strong sense of faith within it. Although the narrative of the piece is in transit, as are the figures, and we know not where they are travelling to, there is a definite sense of passage. The figures coming out of the dark and moving toward the light (only the background is dark: the Holy Spirit, the angel, and the Knight and Lady on the horse are all illuminated). Whilst the angel is not in the foreground, the importance of his role is indicated by the title, the narrative of the journey, and the symbolism of Christian faith.

Siddal, Design for A Capital with Angels with Interlocking Wings (1855, NGC)

The calmness of the Hughes angel work is overturned in the angelic anxieties & infinities of Siddal’s design for A Capital with Angels with Interlocking Wings (1855, NGC). In architectural terms, a capital (in Greek kapita meaning head) would sit at the top of a column. The work is like a Celtic knot and the angels fold in upon themselves. One cannot differentiate between the wings and limbs of each figure. This work is exquisite and it was invaluable to see it. The control of the graphite on wove paper was a pleasure to see and the freshness of the design was impressive. Each angel’s face was carefully drawn and the features are distinctly female, perhaps a mixture of an ideal Pre-Raphaelite stunner and a self-portrait. The work is an advance upon Rossetti’s Study for the Head of a Child Angel for The Blessed Damozel (1876, Private Collection) which has something of the same interconnectedness but Siddal’s work is more powerful. Combining the sense of the six winged Seraphim, Siddal turns her angels into wings and their wings into angels. We have no sense of individualism or separation, the bodies are one, they are as the title suggests, interconnected. Rossetti’s angel is more Renaissance in style, perhaps one could say it is more conventionally angelic (a little Raphael-esque cherub really) but Sidda’s design is impactive, brave and intelligent. It is a shame that neither this, nor a comparable Millais architectural Design for a Gothic Arch (1853, BMAG) were ever used in their intended places.

Rossetti, Study for the Head of a Child Angel for The Blessed Damozel (1876, Private Collection).

Transitions and the movement between states is a key theme within the Drawing Room displays but also the exhibition at large. We witness the moments before death, or the moments between consciousness and sleep, and the moments between doubt and faith. We are asked by Solomon to witness the passions behind revenge, by Paton to stand idle under the spell of Prospero’s enchantment and in the Dining Room Poynter asks us to witness life as it becomes death in the hands of Judith (Judith and Holofernes, 1856).

Biblical Times and Morality

In crude terms, the Dining Room display examines the post-Darwinian crisis of faith by focusing upon the Christian narratives and the Victorian attempt to realign people’s anxieties via an increasing volume of stained glass designs and religious works. The confusion between Catholicism and Anglicanism and a growing secular community of thinkers meant the symbolism within Victorian Art became more ambiguous and less one strain or another.

De Morgan, Mater Dolorosa (1900, NGC)

De Morgan’s charcoal and coloured chalk Mater Dolorosa (1900, NGC) is demonstrative of a blurring of religious symbols and interests, and a multi-layered aesthetic. Mater Dolorosa translates as ‘Mother of Sorrows’ and its inevitably Marian roots make it a common form of art for the Catholic Church, rather than the Victorian Anglican one. The sorrows of the Virgin Mary are presented here in classical androgynous Michelangelesque terms. The Virgin’s face is chiselled and the drapery and bandage like head binding are very Mannerist. This is not a Victorian Holy Mother.

Charles Fairfax Murray (1849 – 1919) was an English painter, dealer and collector who became associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. Taken under Ruskin’s wing at the age of 16, he was installed as Burne-Jones’ first studio assistant in 1867. There are several of his works on display but one key piece is his St. Cecilia and Her Companions (1875).

St. Cecilia is the patroness of musicians. Renowned for singing her praises to the Lord during her marriage, she is an important saint in both Catholicism and Anglicanism and appears in many Pre-Raphaelite drawings, paintings, and stained glass windows etc. Like St. Catherine, another favourite of the Pre-Raphaelites, much of St. Cecilia’s story is thought to be invented although she is believed to have both existed and been martyred (beheaded like Catherine).

Cecilia is usually depicted playing an organ and surrounded by at least two angels, as she is in Murray’s version. Interestingly, in other Pre-Raphaelite designs the angels are usually clearly identified by their wings, Murray is less clear, preferring instead to create a more synaesthetic piece attracting all our senses to the possibility of music and tone. The date of 1875 would be in keeping with such a change, and is certain to be more Symbolist in tone, rather than earlier angelic pieces where the Christian iconography is more overt. One only has to look at William De Morgan’s Tobias and the Angel at the River Tigris (1865, NGC) to see how differently angels were treated ten years prior. In this watercolour and gouache, with various scrapings, you can clearly identify the angel through his customary garb and pose. William’s work is not particularly commendable but it serves as an interesting example of his range and of the depiction of the angelic figure in Pre-Raphaelitism at this time.

William De Morgan’s Tobias and the Angel at the River Tigris (1865, NGC)

The other painting of note here is the aforementioned Poynter’s Judith (1856 – 69). This work captures moonlight in a way that injects the Torah’s narrative with a secretive menace that is more typically illustrated by colour and blood. The reinvention of antiquity and the past was further taken up in the Antechamber and the Silk Room

Antiquity: A Dream of the Past

In some ways this room shows the antithesis of Pre-Raphaelitism by focusing upon artists like Alma-Tadema, Moore, and Leighton who adopted a more classical, or rather neo-classical style. The classical draperies we have already seen appearing in works by De Morgan were more wholly embraced by Alma Tadema and Leighton.

Alma-Tadema’s study for The Vintage Festival (c.1869, National Gallery Ottowa, Canada) shows a Pompeiian procession and was the first of many works by the artist to concentrate on Roman Bacchic festivals. We are familiar with Tadema’s graceful red-headed Roman women surrounded by rose petals and marble, and in this sketch we greet a series of frieze like figures dancing as if they were upon Greek maenad reliefs.

Alma-Tadema, Study for The Vintage Festival (c.1869, National Gallery Ottowa, Canada)

The Leighton studies for Cymon and Iphigenia (1883) are a delight. Once again these are transitional moments as is fitting of the narrative. In Boccaccio’s Renaissance text, Cymon, a brute, stumbles across Iphigenia. Struck by her beauty, his brutish character is transformed and he is transfixed by her beauty. Rather than awaking Iphigenia, as in the Sleeping Beauty narrative (which Burne-Jones illustrated and resides at Buscot House), Cymon leaves her sleeping preferring instead to admire her beauty. This is in opposition to the sexual awakening of Sleeping Beauty. Leighton no doubt recalls the work of Ingres’ The Odalisque and the Slave (1842, Walter Art Museum, USA) (Leighton purchased this work in 1860), as well as referring to classical sculptures he would have seen in the British Museum.

The sitter for Iphigenia was Leighton’s passion, Dorothy Dene. She was just a nineteen year old actress when they met and he was 49 and president of the Royal Academy. Leighton became Dene’s Svengali, her moulder; he gave her money, elocution lessons and a new name. Whilst slowly transforming Dene Pygmalion-like (their relationship was in fact the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion) into a new better class of women, Leighton drew her frequently. These drawings portray much of the couple’s intimacy.

Leighton, Study of the Head and Arms of iphigenia for Cymon and Iphigenia (1883, NGC)

The other drawings of note in this room is Poynter’s study of a Nymph for The Cave of the Storm Nymphs (1901). The finished oil (1903) is a wonderful painting although sadly it is in a private collection. The siren figure was popular in both Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art, and the sculptural quality of the nymphs bodies recalls classical sculpture and the combination of the gold coins allows us to recall the classical myth of Zeus and Danae. The nymphs’ bodies are surprisingly lithe and modern looking, and the hair is auburn, a infusion of Pre-Raphaelitism; after all what people associate most with Pre-Raphaelite is their bright and vivid tones and red hair is it not? The drawings for Poynter’s oil are gentle and intimate, private almost. Both Poynter and Leighton seem to have had an ease about their drawings, and although the women turn into cold beautiful marble in their hands, the women, the nymphs, remain desirable and beautiful although they are a classical Pre-Raphaelite body, for a start there is far too much flesh for these females to be Pre-Raphaelite. They may be timeless and ethereal but these nymphs are the viewers’ private dream, they are not some celestial being who inhabits a symbolic space. Poynter and Leighton’s women are not angelic beauties, they are classical statues, mythological safe-houses. Leighton’s sketches permit us to inhabit the male eye, we can indulge our fantasies whilst Iphigenia safely sleeps, unaware of our admiring eyes. As the Leighton House curator Daniel Robbins says the drawings “often sacrifice emotion for technique”.

Poynter, The Cave of the Storm Nymphs (1903, Private Collection)

This lack of emotion perhaps stems back to the original Pre-Raphaelite interest in early Renaissance (Primitive) art. Although this morphed in the hands of different artists in differing results, the Renaissance Men section shows a further interest of the Pore-Raphaelites: that of a Titianesque sensuality.

Renaissance Men

Although Burne-Jones and Waterhouse and Leighton all appear in this room, there are other names which are worthy of attention. For example, Robert Bateman’s Reading of Love, He Being By (1873, NGC). Bateman, a member of the ‘Poetry without Grammar School’ (a reference to Rossetti’s criticism by Buchanan) was heavily influenced by Burne-Jones. He particularly revered Mantegna and in this work we see him combining both Pre-Raphaelitism, the style of the old Florentine Masters, and producing his own style. It was typical of the Pre-Raphaelites to include a layering of the classical / medieval, the Victorian, and the personal. The angel has become disconnected from Christian symbolism in this work, instead he has morphed into a kind of classical Cupid allegory. His body is definitely male and his wings are strangely reminiscent of something from the sea. He listens keenly, and is definitely not the arbitrator of the action. The scene is symbolist, it is quiet sand restful, and we are asked to listen to the reading, which we must assume from the title to be Christian. The work is a strange amalgam of Classical, Pre-Raphaelite and something new.

The past may have provided inspiration, but Victorian draughtsmen were equally excited by the present. They drew landscapes, myths, literary narratives, lovers, children, and classical stories. Robbin describes this as being a “new energy in drawing”.

Bateman, Reading of Love, He Being By (1873, NGC)

The past may have provided inspiration, but Victorian draughtsmen were equally excited by the present. They drew landscapes, myths, literary narratives, lovers, children, and classical stories. Robbin describes this as being a “new energy in drawing”.

In order to reflect these interests, the final room is entitled thematically arranged. Collectively entitled No Time Like the Present the display captures images of people, landscapes, travel, social issues, and literary themes.

No Time Like the Present

Some of these arrangements feel a little abrupt. For example, Holman Hunt’s two wives are presented more or less alongside each other (a little uncomfortably so) allowing the viewer to meet the narrative of Hunt’s complicated private life.

When Hunt’s first wife, Fanny, died in childbirth he became closer to her family. Fanny’s sister, Edith, became close to            Hunt during this time and despite their relationship being illegal in Britain, they were committed enough to pursue marriage, which they had to do in Switzerland.  The image of Fanny is a rather snooty nosed, aloof one, and Edith’s is a more attractive figure. It is hard not to impose a posthumous narrative on these works, particularly because of their proximity in the exhibition. William Rossetti’s drawing of Hunt hangs between the two sisters.

The relationships between models and sitters is tentatively drawn in this room, and it feels more of an attempt to appeal to the ‘fans’. We must not overlook the scandal of Effie, Millais and Ruskin, nor should we forget the tragedy that was Siddal’s lot in life. But these narratives are supplementary to the works now, and we should be less gossip-led, and more critically minded when looking at these works. Let us not pursue this tragic woman icon of Siddal, not when we have some of her intelligent drawings to admire in the exhibition.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Profile Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal with Irises in her hair, 1854
Rossetti, Profile Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal with Irises in her hair (1854)

We must admire Rossetti’s drawing of Siddal though for it is beautiful but let us admire it as a piece of art, not as having any other tragic story. We must not feed this gossipy Pre-Raphaelite narrative. Rossetti’s drawing of Siddal is intimate but not like his drawings of her painting or sitting. There is something contrived about this work, the irises in her hair indicate this work was more constructive than purely indulgent. Perhaps Rossetti was considering an idea. Unusually for Rossetti, Siddal looks rather less like herself, or herself as Rossetti saw her. Her eyes are large and her nose seems less her own. The intimacy in this drawing seems somehow less love-strewn than the sketches of Dene by Leighton.

Throughout the exhibition though, intimacy is the recurrent theme. The drawings are not just unfinished abstract ideas, they are nearly all complete works in their own rights. Observing artists’ techniques and their thought processes in the works this exhibition presents is a privilege and a rare opportunity. Pre-Raphaelites on Paper is an intimate examination of nineteenth century medievalism and classicism and it should not be missed.

Pre-Raphaelites on Paper is on until 29th May at Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road, W12 8LZ. Leighton House Museum is open every day except Tuesdays from 10am-5.30pm. Tickets are £10 for adults (£8 for concessions and £5 for NT members) and can be bought on the door.

[1] The Leighton works were included from the Leighton House collection, as a compliment to the more ‘conventional’ Pre-Raphaelite names.