Exhibition Review – Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion

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I recently visited the Walker Art Gallery‘s latest exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion. Having grown up on visits to the Walker Art Gallery, the Lady Lever Gallery at Port Sunlight, and the Manchester Art Gallery – home to the collections of the northern industrialists who were some of the Brotherhood’s most prominent patrons – I was somewhat skeptical as to whether the show would provide any new perspective on the art of the Pre-Raphealites and their peers.

Despite these concerns (and the show’s rather formulaic title), the exhibition did far more than simply trace the histories and preoccupations of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite artists. Instead, the exhibition emphasised a number of less explored avenues – namely, the work of lesser known ‘Pre-Raphealite’ painters; its presentation of ‘modern life’, and the movement’s relationship with the city of Liverpool.

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Guest curated by the Pre-Raphaelite scholar Christopher Newall, the exhibition displayed well-known works, including John Brett’s The Stonebreaker (1857-8) or William Holman Hunt’s arresting The Scapegoat (1854), alongside paintings by those who shared the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s commitment to ‘truth to nature’, incredible detail, and luxuriant colour, such as Arthur Hughes’ In the Grass (1864-5, above).

The exhibition also tried to place ‘Pre-Raphealite’ art within its domestic context, displaying smaller works on paper, such as watercolours, in a wall-papered and painted space, supposedly reminiscent of the Victorian home (pictured below). Within the airy and elegant galleries of the Walker Art Gallery, these neatly zoned spaces powerfully conjured the intimacy of viewing art within the home.

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Most significant however, was the exhibition’s account of the the relationship between the development of Pre-Raphaelite painting and the city Liverpool itself. Charting the Brotherhood’s Liverpudlian patrons, as well as their participation within the city’s exhibition culture (namely through the city’s Autumn exhibitions), the exhibition compellingly reinforced Liverpool’s ‘position as the Victorian art capital of the north’. (For more information on this, see the museum’s post about the Scottish-born Liverpool-based patron, John Miller.)

Whilst works by Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais were all present in the exhibition, these were by no means its main draws. Instead, intimate works, domestic settings, and scenes of modern life set it apart from the glut of Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions that have proceeded it. By exploring lesser-known artists and the exhibition culture and patronage network of Liverpool and Northern England, the exhibition attempted to provide nuance to what can often feel like a rather monolithic movement, dominated by accounts of its three most famous participants.

The exhibition runs until 5 June 2016, and its catalogue, written by Christopher Newall, is available here.

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