The Pre-Raphaelites: One of the Most Important Artistic Movements of the 19th Century

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery has one of the Finest Pre-Raphaelite Collections in the world…

The last time I visited the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, long before the lockdown, the interior housekeeping was very poor, with the building, inside and out, in dire need of repair and decorating. I know the city council are strapped for cash but they cannot allow this beautiful old building, and its galleries, to disintegrate any further. It no longer looks as good as the photograph below.

Anyway, I came to see the Pre-Raphaelites, and once I’d made my way past a couple of closed galleries, I found what I was looking for, and all my disappointment about the state of the building fell away. I was amongst friends.

Birmingham has one of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world, most especially the work of William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown (who was never an official member of the PRB) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — which was made up of seven original members, most notably Hunt, Rossetti, and John Everett Millais — was formed in 1848 at 83 Gower Street, London, when, as A.N. Wilson describes: “…a group of art students vowed ‘to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.’…” which they did in abundance, creating one of the most powerful art movements of the 19th century, only eclipsed by the Impressionists a few decades later. But there can be no question that the great Impressionist, Manet, was certainly influenced by Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown, whose paintings, Work and The Last of England, are the stars of Birmingham.

Work is an extraordinary painting that, in fine and explicit detail is almost cinematic in its breadth, depth, exquisite colouring and, not least, its social, personal and political content and comment. As Wilson points out in his book, The Victorians, sewage and drainage provided “… the inspiration for one of Victorian arts most self-conscious efforts to make a social comment in paint.”

Ford Madox Brown started the painting in1852, to celebrate Edwin Chadwick’s campaign to eradicate cholera, successfully resulting in the Public Health Acts of 1848. Not surprisingly, given its detail, the painting took forever, and was not finished until 1863, and not exhibited for another two years.

Wilson informs us that:

“The idea came to the artist when he saw men digging in Heath Street, halfway up the Mount in Hampstead. He painted it under the mistaken impression that they were constructing a fresh water supply, whereas they were in fact constructing new sewage pipes. The picture, a punctiliously executed and recognizable London view in a blaze of summer sunshine, is heavy with symbolism. Poor ragged children…scrabble in the dirt in the foreground; behind them loll the rich, their superfluity of wealth depicted by the groaning tray of the pastry cook [top left under the lamp post]…”.

Wilson is right, the Pre-Raphaelites were all about symbolism: they were highly educated young men working at a time when society was changing at an alarming rate, and being studied by such as Carlyle, Marx and Ruskin. They also came from very wealthy homes, owned by parents who kept many servants, with factory owning, or sugar trading fathers who fuelled the ever growing economy, which enabled a proportion of the parents of those ragged children scrabbling in the dirt to buy pies from the pastry cook, who had probably started her small business to feed the ever increasing population crowding into London, and other cities, to work, perhaps for those lolling rich. And those young artists had enough leisure to develop their talents as artists, and well read enough to question the origins of their father’s wealth, and to question society about its contradictory attitude to sex and class.

But, for the casual viewer, Work is a precise, and delightful, portrayal of the 1850s, which was not so different to the 1950s when new sewage pipes were being installed in my road, with kids scrabbling in the dirt, young women talking to the workmen, and dogs digging in the dirt and running around the traffic free roads. There’s a whippet in the painting wearing a very 21st century red coat, which gives the whole thing a sense of the now. In the distance there’s a man opening his front door, and, as Wilson mentions, election posters, and men commenting on the work, and the politics of the work, and the politics of the men digging the trench (who, in this instance would not have had the vote), and the nation, whose women did not have the vote. Nothing has really changed (except the vote) and Brown, and the rest of those brilliant young artists bring it home as we absorb the detail of Work again and again. It is a masterpiece of the ordinary and the simplicity of the extraordinary.

As is Brown’s The Last of England, hanging just a few feet away from Work.

This painting is a depiction of loss and hope tinged with despair and gentleness, fear and love. It is all there in the stormy weather and unwelcoming sea, in the receeding white cliffs of home, in the rigidness of the faces, the fear in the eyes, and the clasped hands, and the hand of the hidden child. It is a painting that breaks your heart, but at the same time fills you with pride in the departing (going who knows where) couple’s bravery. I have to sit down to look at the painting: it’s almost too much to bear with its bag of mixed emotions. It is, like Work, hugely cinematic: but this time it’s a close-up of heart-break and all the other emotions mentioned above, whereas Work is a deep focus, all embracing tracking shot. We have seen both scenes a thousand times in a thousand movies. Those two paintings are, now, as they were not then, part of our very being, whether we’ve seen the paintings or not.

The work of William Holman Hunt glows in the dimly lit gallery, especially his remarkable The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, with the young Christ starring strongly and confidently just to one side of the viewer. He has an almost imperceptible glow that is etched around his body, pushing him forward and away from his parents and the assembled priests. It is piece of painterly genius that could only be Holman Hunt.

Hunt visited the Holy Land in 1854, where he made many colour sketches of the temple scene, using locals as models. He completed the partially painted canvas back in his London studio, as he did The Scapegoat.

There can be no doubt Hunt was pathologically obsessive — some think mad — but what an artist. One can spend hours examining his work inch by inch and never absorb it all. A good enough reason for going back to Birmingham for another look.

The small portrait of one of the most infamous of Pre-Raphaelite artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (by Holman Hunt), dominates the gallery with those dark eyes, eyes that have just been raised to catch your look. It is a piece of Holman Hunt magic that captures the magician that was Rossetti.

Born in London of an expat Italian family, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the guiding light of the PRB changed art and poetry forever, as did his sister, the poet and religious thinker Christina, and his brother, William, a literary critic (who championed the work of Walt Whitman in the UK), and full time civil servant. They were an extraordinary, and hugely influential, family: members of the establishment, yet always questioning, and fighting for change.

All of that is in Rossetti’s paintings, whose style is much less detailed than Brown’s or Hunt’s for instance, but with an edge of sensuality that can be overpowering at times. He was certainly the most impressionistic, and experimental, of them all.

There is not enough space here to write in depth about the work of John Everett Millais (another time), but for a while he was a leading light of the PRB, with his study of Ophelia a shimmering masterpiece.

But we must mention Edward Burne-Jones (a Birmingham man), whose massive canvasses dominate a couple of the galleries at Birmingham. They are not strictly PRBs but are hugely influenced by them. In cinematic terms they are wide screen Cinerama, and hugely romantic and very sexy. Burne-Jones was a great friend of William Morris, with whom he designed, made, and installed, in the 19th century, some of the most beautiful stained glass windows you are ever likely to see. I must leave their hugely influential story for another day.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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