Celebrating the work of Brothers in arts

Ian Collins While celebrating the deathless beauty of drawings about to be shown at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Galery, Ian Collins says that it clearly wasn’t healthy to be a Pre-Raphaelite muse.

Ian Collins

In 1848, when political revolutions were rocking Europe, seven young men got together to plot an artistic revolt. After much debate they called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

From that first meeting, in 83 Gower Street, round the corner from the British Museum, only three of the gang really counted - William Holman Hunt (21), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (20) and John Everett Millais (19).

And even then these three highly individual talents and temperaments were to prove unlikely brothers. At least the manifesto hatched by the angry and ambitious art students showed a union of touching naïvety:

t To have genuine ideas to express;

t to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;

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t to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and

4 most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

Certainly there was a vagueness to those avowed aims. And perhaps all that acute emotion was only asking for trouble in relationships destined to run dramatically awry.

All the brothers admired the art of the 14th and 15th centuries before Raphael and the High Renaissance, which they felt to be artificial and grandiose and fatally distanced from nature.

They wanted to regain the freshness, simplicity and genuine feeling of the earlier period, and to revive a seriousness of purpose by taking subjects from poetry, mythology and religion which best lit up their burning ideas.

Precise and detailed, early pictures were based on intense scrutiny of the world and an excitement expressed in the sort of heightened colour you get from sudden shafts of low sunlight in a sky almost smothered in storm clouds.

More friends and kindred spirits - Ford Maddox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon and the Norwich-raised Frederick Sandys - were drawn into an increasingly fractious fold as Pre-Raphaelite art up to the 1880s

became more muted, imaginary and poetic.

In the drama of the Pre-Raphaelite movement - as the Brotherhood even ran to one or two Sisters (such as Marie Spartali Stillman and Frederick Sandys's sister Emma) - two of the biggest players were to be the art critic John Ruskin and the creative and campaigning genius that was William Morris.

But the illuminating new exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery - an untimely loan from the National Museums of Liverpool at the start of the Mersey centre's one-year-reign as European City of Culture - demonstrates that fine drawing remained at the heart of the project.

Since many of the paintings were to entail complex groupings and backgrounds, preparatory sketches were essential to the planning process. But, as works of art in themselves, the drawings often best expressed the intense observation and feeling so crucial to the Pre-Raphaelites.

The selection now coming to Norwich, and culled from the collections of the sublime Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery and Sudley House, shows landscapes, animals, and a mass of figure studies revealing key aspects of character, attitude and gesture.

In the portraits particularly we can see the scrutiny and intimacy beloved of the Brotherhood - not least because they focused on themselves, their family and friends.

Some were the equivalent of snapshots, perhaps to be exchanged as tokens of love and friendship. Others were working tools for struggling artists hard put to pay for models.

Maddox Brown's portraits of his wife, Emma (his former model), baby and children have the charming stamp of the family man and doting father, even if they were to reappear in such sprawling tableaux of Victorian life as Work, his celebrated painting of a teeming street in Hampstead.

But the images of women are the most haunting - such as Holman Hunt's ravishing study of Mary for the 1858 painting The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, the Burne-Jones mermaid's head for the 1886 picture The Depths of the Sea and, most especially, the obsessional portraits by Rossetti.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, son of an Italian political exile, sibling of our greatest female poet and ring-leader of the Brotherhood in 1848, demonstrated most vividly the chasm between these radical artists and the society of the day.

Rejecting conventional ideas of beauty he and his pals went for what they called “stunners” - tall, striking and often androgynous looking women, with unruly waves of red or golden hair and costumes that were shockingly loose or lacking.

Here were the origins of today's supermodels.

Rossetti had fallen for Elizabeth Siddal, a very gifted and thwarted painter discovered working in a milliner's shop near Leicester Square and fatefully taken as a muse.

When Lizzie killed herself with a laudanum overdose, in 1862, aged 31, a guilt-stricken Rossetti had his poems buried with the body - only to have second thoughts.

His most sinister friend was then charged with secretly digging them up again.

He had become fatally hooked on Jane Morris - whose pencil portrait of around 1870 in the castle show looks the image of the unhappy wife she proved to be.

(Millais would also make off with Ruskin's unsatisfied spouse, Effie, in a scandalous elopement - the passionate painter taking his former mentor's Truth To Nature maxim rather too literally).

Poor old William and wife had lately taken a break in Southwold - Rossetti declining to join them because, while Morris was the architect of a rural utopia, he himself was a hot-house plant who hated the wild countryside.

Rightly suspecting that steamy letters were being swapped by Jane and Dante Gabriel (the go-between being that sinister friend, Charles Augustus Howell), Morris would remember the setting of a lovelorn holiday as a “mournful place”.

By the time of the stupendous 1878 Rossetti portrait of Jane in coloured chalks, the sitter exhibits all the Pre-Raphaelite power of a temptress.

She is tellingly cast as Pandora poised to open that mythical box of tricks and send out sin across the world so that only hope remained for the would-be virtuous.

Jane looks no happier, however, as the arch seductress than she did as a bored spouse. Then again, happiness is a very big word…

Our own Frederick Sandys, who took an actress as his common-law wife with whom he had 10 surviving children, provides a model of 1870s respectability and contentment in the pending Norwich exhibition via the image of Kittie - the well-to-do Miss Ellen Ellis, seen cradling a pug pup.

But she is far removed from more notorious Sandys pictures - particularly Medea, his sultry masterpiece of 1868 (which alone is worth a trip to Birmingham art gallery).

Painted while he was living with Rossetti in Chelsea, and depicting a gipsy he'd picked up in Norfolk called Keomi (his mistress before the actress), Sandys portrayed the sorceress preparing a murderous potion.

Accepted for display in the Royal Academy, that stunner was never hung. Closer inspection had revealed that ingredients ready for the mythical

mix included a pair of copulating toads.

Ever since the model for Millais's drowned Ophelia nearly died of pneumonia in a freezing studio bath, it clearly wasn't healthy to be a Pre-Raphaelite muse.

But some of these reckless and ruthless pioneers did most damage to themselves - just by being themselves. None more so than Simeon Solomon, whose Leonardo-like drawings are not being shown at the castle, alas.

An associate of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Morris, Solomon was lionised by arty society in the 1860s then shunned, from 1871, when sentenced to 18 months in jail for homosexual offences (a cautionary tale Oscar Wilde would later fail to heed). Although the sentence was suspended, the effect was life-long.

For his last two decades Solomon lived in St Giles Workhouse, in the Seven Dials slum adjoining Covent Garden.

He became a pavement artist and a seller of matches and shoelaces.

t Pre-Raphaelite Drawings are at the Norwich Castle from Saturday January 26 until Sunday April 6. They will also be shown alongside fine works from the Norfolk museum collection. Open Mon-Fri 10am-4.30pm, Sat 10am-5pm and Sun 1pm-5pm (school holidays Mon-Sat 10am-5.30pm, Sun 1pm-5pm). Art and exhibitions zone adult admission £4.45, concession £3.80, child £3.25.