Today was the last day of the Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion exhibition at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool.
Whilst The Guardian refers to the Pre-Raphaelites as the ‘punk rockers of their day’, The Spectator asked whether ‘the Victorians [were] really as apathetic and drippy as these paintings suggest?’ and described both the show and the painting titles as ‘twee, treacly or tearful’.
The truth is somewhere in the middle, the leftie down with the kids writing in The Guardian was enough to put one off going to the exhibition, but then the hard-line misunderstanding of The Spectator is hardly like to have made you rush out and bought a ticket either.
The Pre-Raphaelites weren’t ‘punk rockers of their day’ and nor were they ‘twee’. Context, please professional (i.e. paid) journalists, let us have some serious and meaningful context and not excitable headlines and copy. Quite frankly, I am surprised The Spectator’s Freeman bothered going. Did she suddenly expect the Pre-Raphaelites to have painted something else?
The purpose of the exhibition was not to select images that excited tired journalists, or to present the Pre-Raphaelites as producing purely punk rock provocations. The premise behind this exhibition was to consider the role of Liverpool and to argue that the city was, more than any outside of London, of central importance to the success of major Pre-Raphaelite names: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones etc.
The curator Christopher Newall made it plain: “We are saying that Liverpool was a hugely significant place for the Pre-Raphaelites. There was a tradition of art collecting that led to great things … but more than that there was a freedom of spirit, an intellectualism, a non-conformism and self-confidence that allowed this style of art to prosper.”
Newall’s exhibition argued Liverpool’s art scene rivalled London’s, and he did so by placing well selected quotes, information and portraits about patrons, and opening a somewhat forgotten, or perhaps low lying significance, of men like George Rae who had the largest Rossetti collection in the world, and Frederick Leyland, a generous and extremely patient man.
Not only were these men generous in spirit, but also with cash. Whilst the RA in London was sneering at the brightly coloured and sensual works of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Liverpool Academy was accepting and supportive. Liverpool embraced their work and their stylistic bravado. Sandra Penketh, director of art galleries at National Museums Liverpool (NML), said it was exciting to see the show come to fruition: “Liverpool has a long association with the Pre-Raphaelites but the story has never really been told in this way before. It reveals a lot about patronage, philanthropy, the great characters and has nice synergies for today.”
Newall first proposed the idea in 2008 when Liverpool was the Capital of Culture, although nothing came of it. A couple of years later and an interested curator picked up the proposal and things began to get moving. Newall separated the exhibition, which displayed 120 works, into three central conversations: Liverpool’s Academy, the Pre-Raphaelite patrons, and the Liverpool school of artists who embraced Pre-Raphaelitism.
Outside of London, the Liverpool Academy was the most important exhibition venue for Pre-Raphaelite art. The academy had formed in 1810 and was run by its members but supported by wealthy local collectors, just the sort who would later commission the Pre-Raphaelites, until its demise in 1867. It rented space in Old Post Office Place and functioned as an art school and exhibition venue.
It was in one of the Liverpool exhibitions in 1851 that Hunt was awarded the annual prize for his Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1851, BMAG). The type of painting shown there was often that which the RA in London had rejected or had failed to come up with a buyer for. Works we now think of as typically Pre-Raphaelite, e.g. Hunt’s The Scapegoat (1854, Lady Lever) (which was included in the exhibition) and Millais’ The Blind Girl (1857, BMAG) (which won the 1857 £50 prize but was not included in this show for some reason).
Newall’s thesis seems rather broad. Whilst Liverpool clearly had a role in shaping the Pre-Raphaelites, it seems that the desire for this to be significant was more than the evidence on offer. The quotes which as I said were well-selected, would lead you to think otherwise, e.g.:
‘No other provincial town or city was so receptive to this rebellious yet reforming artistic movement. It is a testament to the independence of taste and intellectual freedom in the North West in the second half of the nineteenth century’.
Clearly patrons like John Miller, Frederick Leyland and George Rae were important and I am not arguing otherwise, but then the collections of Sudley House, Lady Lever and the Walker perhaps side with Newall’s thesis. What is interesting to encounter directly is the quantity of Pre-Raphaelite paintings that were displayed in Liverpool during the nineteenth century; and that includes every single painting in this exhibition. Liverpool certainly had an appetite for Pre-Raphaelitism, as the exhibition showed in the third section with works by William Davis and Daniel Alexander Williamson.
The first painting you saw as you entered was Millais’ Isabella and Lorenzo (1848-1849, Walker), now synonymous with Pre-Raphaelitism, so much so that it was placed on a dividing wall in order to stop you in your tracks. Stencilled above the painting and over the muddy brown background were the words ‘Verily, the P.R.B’s are coming thick upon us’, Liverpool Mercury, 1852.
The story is based upon a Keats’ poem, which is in turn based upon the pen of Boccaccio. When first exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1849, it was accompanied by the following verses from the poem:
Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by.
These brethren having found by many signs
What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
And how she lov’d him too, each unconfines
His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
That he, the servant of their trade designs
Should in their sister’s love be blithe and glad
When t’was their plan to coax her by degrees
To some high noble and his olive trees.
The tragic story tells of the doomed love of Isabella, daughter of a noble family, for Lorenzo the household steward. Her brothers have other plans for Isabella and determine she will marry money, and they murder Lorenzo, burying his body in a forest.
In a dream Isabella sees the location of her lover’s grave, and gruesomely retrieves his head and hides it in a pot of basil which she waters with her tears (Hunt painted an exceptional painting of this part of the narrative).
Isabella, as already stated, is now synonymous with Pre-Raphaelitism and this work was testament to the brothers’ objectives during this early period, hence making it a wonderful opening exhibit. The initials P.R.B. appear, not only in the monogram that follows Millas’ signature, but in the form of carved inscription at the base of Isabella’s stool.
The work is full of symbolism, portentous looks, and tragedy. Even the expression of the dog is narratively important, his expression becomes even more anxious in the final version, and he is the one character who alerts us to what the other are oblivious to: the impending doom. Isabella is modest and oblivious, her gaze falls away somewhere toward the symbolic piece of orange fruit she picks up. Lorenzo’s gaze is almost middle-distant but love filled and we the viewer also bite our nails as we anticipate the culmination of this unnecessary impending tragedy.
Although a little tucked to the side of this painting, there was a Simone Martini tempera painting, Christ Discovered in the Temple (1342, Walker) which Liverpool collector William Roscoe was unable to find a buyer for in 1816. It is exactly this sort of colouring and ‘primitive’ flat perspective the Pre-Raphaelites sought to emulate and as William Michael Rossetti wrote in 1858 (as we are reminded by the Walker Gallery) ‘…the course adopted by the Liverpool Academy is right, and the only right one. Pre-Raphaelite art is the vital and progressive art of the day’.
In this section, other seldom seen works could be found, e.g. Hunt’s Little Nell and Her Grandfather (1845, Museums Sheffield) (one of the sickly twee ones which offended Freeman who wrote that you ‘would have to have a heart of stone to look at William Holman Hunt’s portrait of Charles Dickens’s saintly ‘Little Nell…without laughing.’ I think the less said about Freeman from now on the better).
Other highlights of this section are Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852 – 1856, Tate) and Hunt’s The Scapegoat (1854, BMAG).
Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet illustrates the biblical story of Christ washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. Brown has provided the scene with a rather claustrophobic feeling, and as viewers we are made to intrude upon a rather compressed space, a device which adds to the intimacy of the subject. When first exhibited the work was criticised for the characters’ coarseness, in particular for the figure of Jesus who was only semi-clad: because of this the work remained unsold for several years until Brown added robes to the figure of Jesus. Nonetheless it is interesting to note the Academy awarded the work 50 prize at the Liverpool Academy in 1856.
The Scapegoat is a masterly picture although it has been castigated over the years. Right from its inception it has received vehement criticism:
‘This picture, regarded merely as a landscape, or as a composition, is a total failure. Mr Hunt …in his earnest desire to paint the Scapegoat has forgotten to ask himself first, whether he could paint a goat at all’.
And despite Newall’s optimistic thesis about Liverpool’s reception and welcoming of the Pre-Raphaelite avant-garde, the Liverpool Mercury recorded: ‘Here is another unfortunate subject, having a world of labour expended over nothing that interests or gratifies the taste of the beholder’.
These references do nothing to forward Newall’s hypothesis about Liverpool’s receptiveness to Pre-Raphaelitism, in fact they rather undermine it and yet still they appear (whether this is done for academic balance or limited Liverpudlian references is unclear). Newall remarked: “It is an extraordinary painting, it struck the people who saw it as weird and terrifying and mad and I think it has that power still.” The painting certainly carries with it much that alienates and provokes people, whether intentional or not. There is little comfort or solace in this gaudy coloured sacrifice and Newall is right to say the work has ‘power still’.
The second section of the show was designed to explore the patronage of influential Liverpool men, such as William Roscoe MP (whose money came from the banking boom in the North), Frederick Richards Leyland (whose money come from steamships); Humphrey Roberts (his wealth came from the docks); George Holt (shipping), and Miller (cotton, timber and tobacco) and Rae. Miller and Rae enjoyed friendship as well as a business relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Rossetti. Understanding these relationships, which offered hospitality, financial support and ultimately understanding, permits the viewer to position Newall’s thesis. Later patrons like the entrepreneur and philanthropist William Hesketh Lever (1st Viscount Leverhulme) were more detached but evidence of their interest is found in their purchases and their merchant palaces, which were not Liverpudlian so much as purely money based (on the proceeds of his extremely profitable soap business, Lever built the village Port Sunlight, where the Lady Lever Museum is and continues to display his art collection, some of which was included in Beauty and Rebellion). The wealth of these men is important to bear in mind when examining this exhibition, for their money was from business and entrepreneurship; these were self-made men, not aristocrats.
Creating a cycle of patronage with the Pre-Raphaelites worked as well for the artists as it did the patrons, whilst artists need buyers, these newly monied men desired a replication of class and achieved this elevation through endorsing culture and class-posturing. Unfortunately for patrons like Leyland, they were dealing with temperamental artists like Rossetti, who delivered late and consistently broke promises, such as promising to visit Leyland at Speke Hall and then writing in a letter that he doesn’t want to go because it was boring. No doubt this was a rather frustrating scenario when trying to cultivate a climate of culture, a kind of nouveau riche salon.
The Liverpool Academy was instrumental in facilitating this patronage. The Academy’s exhibition took place in the autumn, giving works that had been rejected or had failed to sell at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition a second chance. The Academy even paid the return carriage costs if a work didn’t sell which suggests anticipation there were interested buyers close-by. Newall reads this as evidence of a generous and insightfully modern thinking by the patrons, but a more cynical view may suggest these self-made men had tastes which were less blinded by conventional connoisseurship than their London compatriots, and it is this which became a serendipitous eventuality for the Pre-Raphaelites. It is difficult to suggest they were making a conscious avant-garde choice as to what to patronise, but what we can conclude is that they were open-minded about art and it is this fact which is of importance and underpins this section of Beauty and Rebellion demonstrates.
Rae and his wife were two of the most prolific and effective patrons, and with the opening of their home to their friends the reputation and interest in Pre-Raphaelite painting grew. Rae wrote: ‘The number of persons who desire to see them is increasing… Well — I think of having a Catalogue printed. I must either do this, or allow my wife to be walked off her legs, or talk herself into chronic hoarseness, in performing her part of show woman.’
Positioning the art alongside information and even portraits of the Pre-Raphaelites does prompt one to move beyond the realm of Chelsea and Cheyne Walk, and that is not a bad thing. One particular and never before seen in public portrait was of Miller: a soft and adeptly handled chalk drawing which Rossetti produced in 1870.
One late arrival to be included in the show was Rossetti’s The Salutation of Beatrice (1881 – 1882, Private Collection) which was being displayed publically for the first time. The work belonged to Leyland and still remains in the possession of his descendants. Anne Bukantas, head of fine art at NML, said they were thrilled to be showing the painting. “For an art movement as enduringly popular as the Pre-Raphaelites, it is rare to uncover paintings such as this which are not well documented”.
The Salutation is the second and slightly smaller of two versions of the same picture; the first is in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Leyland originally owned the first version, and acquired the second after Rossetti’s death which Newall posits that it may well have been an attempt by Leyland of protecting the currency of the first version. Perhaps the tried and tested formula was the motivation behind Rossetti recreating the work, after all, he was in dire circumstances by the date of its production, short of money, poor health, and mentally disturbed.
One rare sighting in a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition for a picture which is not in a private collection is Hunt’s May Morning on Magdalen Tower (1890, Lady Lever). It is thought Hunt had the theme in mind since as early as 1851. During correspondence with his friend Edward Clodd, a writer on religion and ethics, Hunt wrote that the theme of the painting was: “without offence in it …and the public may even look at my pictures with more toleration, and it may while satisfying me as a subject of the matter of fact kind, bring much needed grist to the mill…” The work was exhibited in 1893 but remained unsold, its bright palette and mix of characters was too progressive for the average audience and it was only sometime after Hunt’s death that Lever bought it from Hunt’s widow in 1919.
One of Hunt’s Liverpool successes was The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1862, Sudley House) which is a smaller version of that held in BMAG. The work was exhibited in Liverpool in 1904 and was purchased by George Holt. F.G. Stephens, associate, friend and original member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, describes in some depth the figures in The Finding of the Saviour and gives us a fascinating illumination into the reception of biblical imagery in the nineteenth century. You can read this here.
The third section of the show turned to the Liverpool school of painters influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, e.g. artists such as William Davis and John Edward Newton. The section was smaller but then the works displayed were smaller. These are not Martinesque style romantic landscapes, but small intimate landscapes of doorways, dilapidated mills, and ditches.
One beautiful work by James Campbell is The Courtyard at Speke Hall (1854, Walker) which shows the importance of Speke Hall to Liverpool’s art scene, as does the inclusion of Whistler’s Speke Hall No. 1 (1870, Walker) which was also on display in the exhibition. What was interesting about this room was the opportunity to consider works already seen, e.g. landscapes by Brett, Brown, Moore and Boyce, as being influential in the production of those by Liverpool artists Frederick Smallfield and Henry Mark Anthony et al.