05 May 2013

The William Morris Society visits the National Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Bocca Baciata (Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
On Saturday, April 20 a group of 12 dedicated Morrisians traveled to the National Gallery in Washington to view Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900 on a tour led by Diane Waggoner, Associate Curator in the Department of Photography and in-house curator for this exhibition. The show originated in London last fall at Tate Britain, where it was titled Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. It will be on view at the National Gallery through May 19.

The exhibition was designed as a follow-up to the first major show devoted to the Pre-Raphaelite movement (also held at the Tate) in 1984. The curators of the current exhibition set out to address the substantial scholarship inspired by the earlier show, a goal achieved with great success. The inclusion of decorative arts, photography and work by female artists are just a few of the aspects of the movement brought to light by recent research and placed on display in London and Washington.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Danis Amor (Tate), the central painted panel that once adorned the cupboard
doors of a settle made for William Morris when he lived in Red Lion Square, London
Dr. Waggoner led the group through the sumptuously displayed exhibition, which is divided thematically into thematic sections: Origins, Literature, Salvation, Nature, Beauty, Paradise, and Mythologies. The first gallery includes John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (Tate), the painting which raised the critical call to arms when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850 for its gritty genre-like depiction of a religious subject. It was this painting that goaded Charles Dickens’ scathing review in his weekly magazine Household Words. Also in this gallery, the rarely seen Walter Howell Deverell, Twelfth Night (Private Collection) is not to be missed. From this tour de force opening salvo, visitors are overwhelmed with one Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece after another.

The “Literature” section includes the Rossetti diptych, Salutation of Beatrice in Florence and Salutation in the Garden of Eden (National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa) hanging alongside the same artist’s Dantis Amor (Tate), thus uniting three panels from the cupboard doors of the settle originally made for Red Lion Square and now in Red House.

William Dyce's Pegwell Bay, Kent – A Recollection of October 5th1858 
(Tate), an example of Pre-Raphaelite technical brilliance.
 “Salvation” is a visually incongruous mix of paintings selected to hammer home the close relationship of faith and morality during the Victorian period. Religious images, such as Ford Madox Brown’s compelling Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (Tate) hang across from images of modern life. These scenes of contemporary London include Rossetti’s Found (Delaware Art Museum), the depiction of a young countrywoman fallen on hard times, collapsed at a London street corner, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Thoughts of the Past (Tate), depicting a prostitute in her room just after the departure of a client.

The gallery devoted to “Nature” includes William Dyce’s technically brilliant Pegwell Bay, Kent – A Recollection of October 5th, 1858 (Tate) which captures with microscopic accuracy the rock formations of Ramsgate and commemorates the historic passing of Donati’s comet. Also not to be missed in this gallery are two similarly detailed paintings of the outdoor world from the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead and Millais’ The Blind Girl.

The gallery focusing on the theme of “Beauty” includes Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (Tate), Bocca Baciata
(Museum of Fine Arts Boston), and Lady Lilith (Delaware Art Museum) representing a triumvirate of Pre-Raphaelite stunners – Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, and Alexa Wilding. Throughout the exhibition sculpture and photography associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement enrich our understanding of the influence of this group of artists utilizing varied media and methods. Also included in this gallery are photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron and sculpture by Alexander Munro.
A caricature of William Morris by Edward Burne-Jones, from Jones's
North End House visitor's book. (Mark Samuels-Lasner Collection),
displayed in the companion show, "Pre-Raphaelites and the Book."

The extent of this cross-pollination concept is further demonstrated in “Paradise,” the room following, devoted to the decorative arts. Here a chair from Red House (The Arming of a Knight, Delaware Art Museum) shares space with embroideries, tapestries and Kelmscott Books, including TWO Chaucers! 

And speaking of books, also on view at the National Gallery is a small “perfect marvel” of an exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites and the Book. The exhibition includes volumes of Rossetti’s poetry, wood-engraved illustrations by several Pre-Raphaelite artists, and materials related to the Kelmscott Press. Beautifully illustrated Kelmscott books are displayed alongside Morris' elaborate ornament designs and his own manuscript illumination. The works in the exhibition are drawn from the National Gallery of Art Library and the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library.

Margaretta Frederick
Chief Curator of the Delaware Art Museum
Curator of the Bancroft Collection 

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