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Pre-Raphaelites Exhibition

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by Sandra Lawson (subscribe)
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More Than Flame Haired Beauties on Display at Tate Britain
The current exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art at Tate Britain presents this period of art as an avant-garde movement. It walks you through the 64 years (1837-1901) of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) whilst explaining the origins of the movement and grouping the paintings, tapestries, stained glass and other works of art into various sections.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Picture Courtesy of the Tate Gallery Website)

The PRB was founded in 1848, a time of huge social and industrial change. There were revolutions in Europe, the Industrial Revolution was under full steam, scientific advances were being made, and photography was in its infancy. The founding members of the Brotherhood, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt reacted against the art teaching they received at the Royal Academy Schools and disagreed with the belief that Raphael (1483-1520) was the supreme artist of the high Renaissance, whose works should be aspired to and admired. They looked back to an earlier period when art espoused flat surfaces and bright colours.

There are seven distinctly themed rooms and the following categories illustrate their themes.

Origins and Manifesto demonstrates the influences of early-Renaissance art on the PRB's modernist works. Their early paintings were signed PRB, with no explanation of what the initials stood for. The first work of art in the exhibition is Millais's Isabella.

Isabella by Millais
Isabella by Millais (Picture Courtesy of the Walker Art Gallery Website)

History explains how the Brotherhood developed their own modern forms of artistic interpretations of stories from literature, classical mythology, world history and the Bible. Several of the paintings on view are illustrations of poetry and of Shakespeare.

King Henry's Honeymoon
Rossetti: King Henry's Honeymoon Stained and Painted Glass (Picture Courtesy of the V and A Website)

Nature describes how they were inspired by John Ruskin and contemporary developments in the scientific world of the nineteenth century, including the birth of photography. They also painted in the outdoors, finishing their canvasses in the studio.

Millais: The Death of Ophelia
Millais: The Death of Ophelia (Picture Courtesy of the Tate Gallery Website)

Salvation shows how they engaged with religion, suffering and compassion in the present day life, rather than salvation and redemption in the one to come. They modelled the characters in their paintings on real people, rather than idealised figures and Hunt even travelled to Palestine to view the original settings of the Bible stories.

Holman Hunt: The Light of the World
Holman Hunt: The Light of the World (Picture Courtesy of Keble College Oxford Website)

Beauty marks their turning away from realism and towards aestheticism until they eventually became part of the Aesthetic movement. After 1860 Rossetti began to embrace post-Raphael Venetian colours.

Rossetti: Beata Beatrix
Rossetti: Beata Beatrix (Picture Courtesy of the Tate Gallery Website)

Paradise deals with the input of William Morris and the formation in 1861 of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. This collective produced tiles, carpets, tapestries and textiles, furniture and stained glass. Many of Morris's designs for fabrics and wallpapers are still available today.

Burne Jones: Angel with Instrument
Burne Jones: Angel with Instrument Stained and Painted Glass (Picture Courtesy of the Whitworth Art Gallery Website)

Mythologies is the final stage of the exhibition and concerns itself with the division of the PRB. Hunt, Millais and Ford Madox Brown (a friend and mentor who was never a formal member of the group) remained true to the original concepts of the movement whilst Rossetti and Burne-Jones (who belonged to Morris, Marshall, Faulkner Co) went on to develop the 'poetic' or proto-Symbolist strand, a more ambiguous form of art.

Burne Jones : The Golden Stairs
Burne Jones : The Golden Stairs (Picture Courtesy of the Tate Gallery Website)

Entrance to the exhibition has to be pre-booked, either online, or in person at the gallery. Entry is in half-hourly timed slots, but be warned: it is very busy and crowded. You will find yourself dancing around other visitors and craning your neck in your attempts to view some of the most popular pieces. It's a good idea to leave coats and heavy bags in the cloakroom, to wear comfortable shoes, and to allow a good two hours to see everything in comfort. I would also recommend hiring an audio guide as this provides a great deal more information than is available in the small booklet you will receive. If you wish to learn more, there are several lectures and guided tours connected with the exhibition. All details are on the website.

Statue of Millais at the Rear of Tate Britain
Statue of Millais at the Rear of Tate Britain
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Why? To learn more about the Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement
When: Check the website for details
Where: Tate Britain
Cost: 14 but concessions are available
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