The National Gallery of Australia’s current Pre-Raphaelite survey exhibition, co-curated by Carol Jacobi from Tate and Lucina Ward from the NGA, feels like a family reunion. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52) and John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888) have made the long voyage from England to join stellar works from Australian collections, such as Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead?’ St Luke, Chapter XIV, verse 5 (c.1875–90) from the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Also in attendance are lesser-known pieces, such as Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s Kit’s writing lesson (1852), that, on occasion, dare to outshine some of the more iconic images.
The three famous founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt – are well represented. But works by James Collinson, an overlooked member of the Brotherhood, are also on show, along with works by the younger generation of artists who adopted different aspects of the Pre-Raphaelite style, such as Edward Burne-Jones, Waterhouse, and Frank Cadogan Cowper. The outcome is an exhibition that is impressive in scale, ambitious in scope, and reaches well beyond the mere five years of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s existence between 1848 and 1853.
Thankfully, the title, Love and Desire, which plays to the association of the Pre-Raphaelite circle with monastic chastity (e.g. John Ruskin’s unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray) on the one hand, and debauchery (e.g. Millais’s very successfully consummated marriage to Effie Gray, Rossetti’s affairs with Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris, etc.) on the other, does not reflect the complexity and sophistication of the exhibition itself. The wall panels are informative and nuanced, as are the catalogue essays and entries. There is an unfortunate lack of works by the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood’; two watercolours by Siddal are tucked away in a corner, adjacent to works by Rossetti. But, from the outset, due attention is paid to the challenges faced by women during the Victorian period. Madonnas, maidens, mothers, mistresses, heartbreakers and the heartbroken, mythological goddesses, historical heroines, and modern-day martyrs abound.
The exhibition features a series of real showstoppers: Ophelia and The Lady of Shalott, of course, but also Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1852–65), Hunt’s The Shadow of Death (1870–73), and Rossetti’s The Beloved (1865–66/73), to name but a few. That the NGA managed to bring these iconic paintings to Australia is an impressive feat, matched only by the generosity of Tate and the other lending institutions and collectors. On the walls of Tate Britain, Victorian paintings tend to be tightly packed in a traditional hang. By contrast, the works on show at the NGA are generously spaced and hung ‘on the line’, allowing viewers to examine the works with the close attentiveness they deserve. With Pre-Raphaelite art, pleasure lies in close looking. Make sure that you examine the astounding attention to naturalistic detail in the foliage surrounding Millais’s drowning Ophelia and the woodchips lying at Christ’s feet in Hunt’s The Shadow of Death. The Pre-Raphaelites were known for their use of coloured pigment on white ground that produced gem-like colours never before seen on the walls of the Royal Academy of Arts. This revolutionary use of colour is well illustrated by the dawn sky and scattered flowers in Hunt’s May Morning on Magdalen Tower (1888–90).
If ‘Love’ and ‘Desire’ get you in the door, then the themes around which the exhibition is developed – Modern Life, Truth to Nature, Faith, Love and Desire, Romance, Morris and Friends, Myth, Portraits, and Femme Fatales – will keep you riveted. In the room dedicated to modern life subjects, Brown’s Work is prominently displayed. This iconic depiction of different types of modern labour enters into a meaningful dialogue with Stanhope’s picture of a nostalgic prostitute in Thoughts of the Past (1858–59) and Martineau’s tragic picture of the feckless aristocracy in The Last Day in the Old Home (1862). A room that may take you by surprise is Morris and Friends. Combining textiles produced by Morris & Co. with books published by Kelmscott Press and earthenware by William De Morgan, the true breadth of Pre-Raphaelite creativity and the intimate collaborations that fuelled it can be duly appreciated.
When we reach The Wheel of Fortune (1871–85) and The Garden of Pan (1886–87) by Burne-Jones, the atmosphere of the exhibition shifts. No longer a happy reunion; the mood turns icy. Burne-Jones is considered one of the last Pre-Raphaelites, and there is currently a major retrospective of his work on show at Tate Britain (a compensation, perhaps, for the loss of the Pre-Raphaelite favourites currently in Canberra). But the cold tonality of his statuesque classical nudes represents a dramatic departure from the bright fleshiness and religious symbolism of Hunt’s largely unclothed Christ. Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott can be found in the final room, which is dedicated to the ‘Femme Fatale’. A more convincing femme fatale than The Lady of Shalott is the very last painting of the exhibition, also by Waterhouse: Circe Invidiosa (1892). This jealous nymph, seen here pouring a fluorescent green poison into a liquid monster at her feet, provides a fitting conclusion to the exhibition by illustrating the flipside of ‘Love and Desire’ – jealousy and demise.
Love and Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate is exhibiting at the National Gallery of Australia from 14 December 2018 to 28 April 2019.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Copyright Agency's Cultural Fund and the ABR Patrons.