I spent yesterday trapped in a gridlock of uncomfortably warm bodies amongst the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Yes, it was as fantastic as it sounds.
This post isn’t going to be remotely succinct or clever. I just want to gush. I loved it. So many of my favourite things in one place. And having the opportunity to sit and chat with fellow PRB-lovers afterwards was just terrific.
A lot has been said in the press recently, some more sensible than the rest. There’s been the obligatory game of Hunt The Phallus, and general moaning about how the PRB would have been so much better if they’d just dropped a shark into a tank of formaldehyde. But were the PRB truly Avant-Garde?
I come at the PRB from a literature point of view. My MA focused on Rossetti’s cycles of desire and denial in The House of Life. So although I know a fair bit about the PRB’s visual art, the wider subject of Avant-Garde isn’t something I feel I can comment on.
However, I can give my top five moments:
5. I saw Rienzi. It was blue. So blue. Hunt’s colours are so psychedelic and trippy – mountains are purple, flesh is orange, goats are bizarre and terrifying. His work has to be seen to be fully experienced.
4. The passion flowers in Rossetti’s The Blue Bower were like glossy photographs. As Edward Burne-Jones said, Rossetti somehow makes everything look as if it’s under glass, though he swore he didn’t use glaze.
3. Rossetti’s Paulo and Francesca da Rimini. Strangely washed-out and chalky compared to the print on my wall. Francesca’s incredibly long hair has the texture of real long, fine hair in contrast to the lustrous thickness of the hair in his later work.
2. Speaking of lustrous hair, Rossetti’s teenage self-portrait was hung in the first room to lure in all the ladies.
You see, poor Deverell had no luck. So handsome (that’s him in the middle and Rossetti on the right) and so promising a talent, his work was badly hung at the RA, his The Banishment of Hamlet was later destroyed in a gas explosion, and he died of kidney disease and dysentery three months after his 26th birthday.
Deverell’s decline and death hit Rossetti hard. One of the last times Rossetti visited him, “[Deverell] rose up in bed as I was leaving and kissed me, and I thought then that he began to believe that his end was near”.
The whole story is so sad. It was good to see him represented.
I had a few small criticisms, but only on the understanding that the exhibition was wonderful and I’ll probably go back at least twice.
Of course, there were pieces I was dying to see that weren’t included. Julia Margaret Cameron’s Pomona, for one: Alice Liddell, all grown up and threateningly beautiful. And I’m always hoping for a second viewing of a lock of Rossetti’s hair, which I saw at the Fitzwilliam a few years ago (alongside Keats’ hair!) – a sight I never fully recovered from.
I did feel that the show could have been organised differently. It was a mammoth undertaking and difficult to tackle, but I felt that the different facets of the Pre-Raphaelite circle needed their own space. There was an element of jumbling that was interesting for people with prior understanding of the PRB, but perhaps confusing for those coming in cold.
I think the problem in creating an entire PRB exhibition is that you’re dealing with so many people who all evolved dramatically in taste and execution over a period of decades. So you’ve got Rossetti offering tiny jewel-toned watercolours in one room, and then massive red-lipped vampiric creatures in the next. You want to ask what happened.
Perhaps a clearer linear structure could have added something. For instance, ‘this is what they hated, here’s how they banded together, here’s how they evolved and the legacy they left’. I also would have loved to have seen at least part of the manifesto emblasoned somewhere, because everyone loves a good manifesto.
And then there was the gift shop. The £25 strings of plastic beads would have left William Morris reeling. Expensive satchels and striped scarves were very nice but had nothing to do with the PRB. We were hoping for a bit more effort. Having said that, my life has been enriched by the possession of a Scapegoat fridge magnet.
Overall, though, what an overwhelming experience. Next up, Edward Burne-Jones at Kelmscott!