The glass door swings open and we walk into a memory, a room full of loose drawings and personal sketches made by each other for each other by Hunt, Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). These portraits float ghostly around the early voices which gave inspiration to the PRB. Stand and be mesmerised by William Dyce’s brilliantly lit and “King Joash shooting the arrow of Deliverance” which was much admired by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Here we see the early kohl-like firm black outlines of the subjects which the PRB adopted and made their own. But look, his face is obscured by his right arm, so our focus shifts, our eyes travel to the taut muscles, tense as he extends the arrow and then fall to the colours and textures in the textiles loosely covering his loins. All is detail, all is oil paint Kodachrome.
On the back wall is Millais’ “Isabella”. What do you think? I hadn’t noticed it before, but in many of Millais’ scene paintings, the faces of the people in them seem not be focused on anything in particular, it’s as if each is suspended in their own world, unconnected. Why was that? If you have an answer I’d love to know! But I love Millais’ style, the light, the theatricality, the detail, the allegory.
MYTHS Room 2 is clothed in mythology, poetry and literature. The room seeps romantic Greco-Roman history. However my eye is caught by a tiny tiny black ink and pencil drawing by Elizabeth Siddall, “The Lady of Shalott”. It is so delicate. Seek it out. A little bird perches on the top of the loom where our lady sits, her hair is tidy, her dress long and smooth but almost heavy and immobile like a Henry Moore sculpture. She turns to a window behind her, which yawns wide and rectangular, fields and trees line sentinel in the fields outside. She is seeking Lancelot’s return, but fates are sealed because as she turns she accidentally releases the weaving with her fingers and like breaking strings of a lyre they ping and crash into the wall opposite breaking the mirror. The whole is delicately feminine.
In a square glass cabinet on a plinth in the centre of the room is a black-painted plaster sculpture Puck by Woolner. All rotund and deliciously squidgy! But he has wings and so despite his little firm round muscles, he stands so lightly on the toes of his left foot, while his right toes are just about to tease a toad which is on the point of being attacked by a long detailed slithering snake. Have a look at the fingers on his right hand. do me a favour, take your shoes off, stand on one leg and try and grip with your right toes, you will notice that the fingers of your right hand will also gesture to do the same. So in this sculpture, Woolner captures this marvelously, his fingers also start to clench. See his playful smirk, his ears points, his wings like some demonic dragon, folded, tipped. His neck huge and strong, a pint size muscular bundle of trouble!
Another Millais dances into my chosen list on this visit. “Ferdinand lured by Aerial”. Rossetti said that high colour key stimulates vision, and this is true here. Stand and look for 5 minutes at the details. The intense concentration of study in the scrub. you can smell the country, lizards hidden in the rocks, blues and greens. All the while Ferdinand looks out of place, he is painted with such intense colours, such detail that he looks as if he is almost superimposed on the painting. This is accented by the light loose green wash sprites who float in a liquid dream, Ariel slips close to Ferdinand and whispers in his ear. A dream.
SCULPTURE Some of you know that I sculpt, not frequently, nor always with consistent results, I won the David Bellamy prize for sculpture a million years ago for a wave I did in blue ceramic… but my eye always gravitates to sculpture in exhibitions. And none more so that the pure white ashen bust of Dante by the dazzling Alexander Munro. If you approach the sculpture from behind, by the way it’s lit, you will see Dante’s shadowy face reflected in the glass and you can see the gallery through the glass, it’s as if he is trapped like the icon he is in literature and mythology, stuck surveying the past, the present and what will come. His high cheek bones and arched Italian nose is caressed by the top light that falls softly on the smooth white marble.
PUNTERS AND PEOPLE The whole exhibition has a mixture of attendees, all ages, all backgrounds and the atmosphere seems more intimate that others I’ve seen at the Tate. The feeling is benevolent to the work. There are the conventional chocolate box viewers: “I’ve had a calendar with that on it” to the leather trouser clad rocker style artists hanging around the gothically illustrated Tennyson. It is also one of the slowest in terms of traffic, people are taking longer to look at each painting. They are taking their time. They are all facing the paintings. It is like they are receiving warmth from the paint.
NATURE, MOUNTAINS AND FRESH AIR ROOM 3 For the photographers among us, there is a Roger Fenton early Albumen print of the Double Bridge on the Machno (1857). There is also Ruskin’s daguerreotype of the Cascade du Dard in Chamonix (1854), it’s beautiful smooth reflections, wet. The arched mount and framing so typical of the day, sparked a thought in me that we have forgotten how creative a mount and frame can add to the message or feeling of the work created. If you think about it, the PRB were also masters at wood carving and more often than not made their own frames. For them the whole creation, from concept to final work was to be a work of art, a thing of beauty, a message. We have forgotten this, preferring to stick things in plain black frames and a cream mount…. but am just planting a seed, sometimes a decorative artisan made frame can be enhance or even form a complementary part of the art work itself. IDEA : Collaborate with a framer, an artist, a wood carver or a sculptor and see what you come up with for your next piece of work. Random thought huh? Collaboration. That’s what the PRB were all about, and that’s what is being resurrected now with the internet is it not? Partnerships and brotherhoods of artists and creatives springing up on a global basis. Collaboration can be as inspiring to an artist just as much as solitary practice is needed or craved.
There are so many more paintings, many we know but some we don’t. John Brett’s “Val D’Aosta” was full of glacial air, sharp focus throughout from the snow capped mountains to the purple hued mountain slopes, to the softest whispy white hair of the mountain goat in the foreground… and yes, they are tiny tiny tiny branches of vines in the fields in the middle range. He spent 5 months painting it. But who has heard of John Brett? That was what was good about the exhibition, it highlighted more than just the big five. In this room we also have Ophelia floating in her permanent bath of cold water which of course was the undoing of the model in real life. The Hireling Shepherd with his apples of temptation on the lap of his russet haired maiden, all is loose and rustic, free, vibrant, lush and fertile.
PART 1: Rooms 1 to 3 of the Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde at the Tate Britain 12 Sept 2012 – 13 Jan 2013