The Pre-Raphaelites Exhibition at the Tate Britain

This article is an account of my visit to the Pre-Raphaelites Exhibition, subtitled Victorian Avant Garde, at the Tate Britain.

In brief the Pre-Raphaelites were a group of painters and poets who assembled in 1848 for the purpose of changing the manner in which art and literature were presented at the time.

The founding painter members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rosetti (amazingly only 19, 21 and 20 years old at the inception of the group) though about thirty other painters were associated, loosely or otherwise, into the group. In all about 800 paintings (listed on Wikipedia) have been attributed to this Pre-Raphaelite era though many do not reflect the Brotherhood’s founding policies.

Their reasons for proposing change were that in their opinion art had become traditional and dull in colour. They wished to go back to an era when the subjects were more true to life and the colours brighter and richer. This meant adopting principles prior to Raphael and the time of the Renaissance.  Also they wished to incorporate a realism into their paintings by depicting a more true representation of nature particularly by attention to detail and colour, i.e. nature in the raw. This policy would have accorded with the public’s increasing interest in natural history

Out would go the traditional religious imagery and in would come a more ordinary, everyday depiction of religious settings. Often their paintings incorporated characters and scenes from literature typically Chaucer, Shakespeare and Keats and represented personal dramas, emotionally charged situations and psychological states.

Whilst many have offered other reasons the probable reason for their personal need to effect change was that photography had been invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre which meant that Joe Public was able to see his exact likeness or indeed a reproduction of any subject he might chose. This aspect must have been an eye opener to many painters as (a) their livelihood was in danger and (b) their work would be compared with the absolute precision of a photograph, albeit in black and white.

Whilst many might disagree I think this would have weighed heavy on the minds of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Also the world  was approaching an age of discovery and invention and also design and manufacture so change was about in many disciplines.

Furthermore it should not go unnoticed that similar artistic  “revolutions” were taking place in Europe at that time and generally the “classicism” of education was being overturned.

Initially the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were considerably criticised for being blasphemous and regressive but gradually they garnered support particularly from John Ruskin and eventually their paintings became very popular were and being bought with the new money of the industrialists.

At the exhibition there were about 150 paintings and mainly from the core members –Millais, Hunt and Rosetti together with those of Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne Jones, Elizabeth Siddall, Charles Aston Collins and others.

Together these painters epitomised the original doctrines of the Brotherhood whilst other s came in at different angles. Possibly the founding doctrines only lasted for about a dozen years before the core members began to follow their personal inspirations. Millais in particular adopted a broader approach to his paintings with looser brushwork and more subtle modulations of colour.

Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century the pre-Raphaelite movement was on the wane having given way to Impressionism and by the turn of the century the movement was finally extinguished. Modernism was on the way.

My observation of most of the paintings was the artists attention to detail particularly by Millais and Holman Hunt. Their affection for nature is reflected in the fine detail they incorporate into their painting. Every leaf, blade of grass is there.

In many of the paintings where people are featured in a country setting the background and surrounds were painted on site whilst the people were painted later in appropriate poses in the studio. Ophelia in Millais’ famous painting of the same name was painted lying in a bath in his studio and not in a stream in the woods as depicted.

Millais attention to detail was such that it is said that whilst painting Ophelia he might only paint in a day an area that would cover a 5p piece.

                    Ophelia                                      Christ in the House of his Parents

Christ in the House of his Parents is another great Millais picture. It depicts what is effectively a religious setting as one of ordinariness, common people in a carpenters shop. The picture challenges the iconic representation of religious characters in the past.

It would not be easy to say who was the best but for me Millais was the most skilled with regard to style, technique detail and colour. I was also attracted to the pictures of William Holman Hunt, Edward Burre Jones, charles Allston Collins, Ford Madox Brown and Thomas Seddon as their paintings stood out from the others on display for similar reasons.


                           Lady of Shallot – Holman Hunt         The Golden Stairs – Burre Jones

May, in Regents Park  Charles Allston Collins