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August 18 2012

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain – in pictures

A selection of images from Tate Britain's historic pre-Raphaelite show, featuring work from Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and others, along with shots of the exhibition coming together

The pre-Raphaelites: behind the scenes at a modern blockbuster

Tate Britain has spent five years bringing together some of the greatest pre-Raphaelite works for a show that repositions the artists as the radicals of their day. We witness the culmination of a huge project, as everything, from the largest Burne-Jones to the smallest fridge magnet, finds its place…

In a huge house in a mysterious part of London, a tall, energetic man called Rupert Maas is showing me a drawing: The Lady of Shalott by Elizabeth Siddal. "It's absolutely lovely, isn't it?" he asks, though I have the strong impression that he doesn't give two figs whether or not I agree with him. "There are no more ethereal drawings produced by any of the pre-Raphaelites than those by Lizzie, and this is a very, very good one." His voice runs on: not dreamily, exactly, but clotted with a certain kind of passion. "It has this febrile intensity. It's deeply sexy, for some reason. Look at the tightness of her dress, the yearning quality of it." Somewhat trepidatiously, I tell him that, to me, this particular Lady of ShalottLord Tennyson's Arthurian maiden, condemned forever to see Camelot only in the reflection of a mirror, was a favourite subject of the pre-Raphaelites – looks a little like a doll. "Yes, well... I think that might be part of it," he says, with a smile.

Elizabeth Siddal, the redhead who is perhaps best known as the model for John Everett Millais's Ophelia, was married to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the seven founders of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, from 1860 until her death from an overdose of laudanum in 1862 – though their relationship began in about 1851, when she first started sitting for him. "The relationship between Rossetti and Lizzie is absolutely central to the pre-Raphaelite spirit," says Maas, still peering over my right shoulder. "She is Beatrice to his Dante." But Siddal, who had humble roots and had previously worked as a milliner, also longed to be an artist in her own right; in 1855, John Ruskin agreed to subsidise her career, paying her £150 a year in exchange for every drawing she produced. "It's well-documented," says Maas. "He [Rossetti] taught her. He stood over her while she drew, and he did bits that she couldn't manage. It was a thing they did together: a journey of love into another world; a medieval paradise for them both." Did Rossetti work on The Lady of Shalott, which is dated 1853? "I think he might have had something to do with the sprite carved on the chair. I think they did that together."

In the next few days, The Lady of Shalott will depart this house for Tate Britain, where she is to appear in the gallery's autumn blockbuster, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. There, it will join works owned by, among others, Jimmy Page and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Is it thrilling to lend to such an august institution? Not for Maas. This is the second time Siddal's drawing has holidayed at the Tate (the first was during the gallery's last pre-Raphaelite show in 1984), and there are other, equally wonderful works in his collection. "I do it all the time, quite honestly," he says. "I think it's a public duty. When it's there, I won't even look at it; I'll go and look at something I'm not familiar with instead." He grins. "But, of course, when it comes home, I'll have a jolly good gloat."

Maas inherited some of his collection from his father, Jeremy, an art dealer who in 1969 wrote a celebrated book about 19th-century British art, Victorian Painters, and who began buying 19th-century British paintings when they were still amazingly affordable. (Rupert now runs his father's Mayfair gallery.) The rest, he bought: "I'm not one of those dealers who feels he shouldn't collect." So what is it about Victorian art in general, and the pre-Raphaelites in particular, that speaks to him? They haven't always, it's fair to say, been terribly fashionable.

"Yes. But when people say they hate Victorian art, you have to ask: what is it they're hating? They're hating themselves, because they're hating the stuff of which we're made. Most middle-class people in Britain still live in Victorian houses. They gave us all sorts of things we take for granted. And Victorian genre paintings deal with such serious social issues. Look at Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England [a painting about emigration and poverty that will also be in the Tate's exhibition]. He's asking big questions in pictures."

As for the pre-Raphaelites proper, with their penchant for swooning damozels and complicated allegories, he hopes that the Tate's vast new show will persuade visitors to reconsider them. The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, was determined to rebel against dreary Royal Academy conventions; for this reason its members have sometimes been compared, in spirit, to the Young British Artists of the 1990s. Maas, though, likens them to punks; every young artist wanted to be one. "Millais was the greatest draughtsman. Rossetti was the romantic, the natural heir to Blake. Holman Hunt is more difficult: the priggishness, the religiosity, the density: these are some seriously wacky paintings. But they're all so big, so brightly-coloured, so powerful. You can just imagine how they must have seemed once, when everyone was used to seeing Sir Sloshua Reynolds and his school." His eyes widen. "They must have seemed seriously psychedelic."

It has taken Alison Smith, a Tate curator, more than five years to put Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde together. The idea for it came to her after the Tate's Millais exhibition in 2007. It encouraged visitors who thought of the artist as a painter of fancy chocolate-box pictures to see him in a different, more audacious light, and Smith found herself wondering if she couldn't do the same for his colleagues in the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. "I wanted to show them as modern artists rather than as soft romantics," she says. "That was my agenda."

Her case successfully argued (the Tate's programme is driven not by potential visitor numbers but by intellectual inquiry, with the result that every show must have a thesis), and the exhibition safely in the schedule, she began work. The Tate has a peerless collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings, among them Ophelia by Millais, The Golden Stairs by Burne-Jones, The Beloved by Rossetti, and The Triumph of the Innocents by Holman Hunt. But she also had a list of must-haves to be borrowed from elsewhere: Millais's Isabella, which hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool; Holman Hunt's Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother, which is in a private collection and had not been seen in public since 1984; Ford Madox Brown's Work from Manchester City Galleries; Holman Hunt's The Light of the World, from Keble College, Oxford; and, most fabulous of all, Holman Hunt's The Lady of Shalott, from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. This massive painting, overpowering and, some would say, overwrought, has not been seen in Britain since 1951.

So how did she do? Lizzie Siddal's drawing, just across the river, must have been relatively easy to clinch. But what about the others? "Oh, we secured them all," she says, almost nonchalantly. "Everything we wanted, we got. The Lady of Shalott was in doubt for a while; there were conservation issues, and we had concerns about travel and costs. But, in the end, all the problems were resolved, and this astonishing late painting [it was completed in 1905 after the artist's death by an assistant, by which time its subject was already long out of fashion] will be the final work in the exhibition." And once the names on her list were ticked off, did she dance a little jig? "No. But you feel good for the show. You feel it's finally coming together."

Its major paintings bagged, the exhibition began to spread its tentacles outwards. All hands on deck. Backstage in London, Kiko Noda, the show's registrar, embarked on the complex logistical task of arranging the transportation of every loan. "Most lenders insist on a representative being present when a painting is hung," says Smith. "And once a work has been hung it cannot be moved. You can't go back and say, 'Oh, that would look nicer there.' A big lender might have five or six works in different rooms, so drawing up an installation schedule is perhaps the trickiest thing of all. That's where Kiko comes in."

In America, Smith's co-curators, Tim Barringer and Jason Rosenfeld (the exhibition will travel to Washington), started working on their scholarly essays for the catalogue. At Tate Enterprises, the team began thinking about merchandise: scarves inspired by the gown Rossetti's model wears in The Beloved; bags and cushions made from fabric designed by the pre-Raphaelites' friend and supporter, William Morris; and, of course, fridge magnets and postcards, which sell in their thousands. (Tate Enterprises earns between £2m and £3m a year for the galleries, so ordering the right merchandise is a serious business.) And the marketing department considered how best to attract younger visitors. Among their ideas: pre-Raphaelite-inspired fashion shoots; a pre-Raphaelite Pinterest page; a roll call of "modern day muses" with pre-Raphaelite sensibilities (Paloma Faith; Florence Welch, from Florence and the Machine).

The months, and the years, ticked by. It's now August and the paintings are finally arriving; Kiko Noda receives every one personally. They will be hung by a team led by Geoff Hoskins, a senior art handling technician of 20 years' experience, in the fortnight before the show opens on 12 September (the wall texts were completed only in the past few days – Smith's American colleagues slaved through the night to finish them on time). What will it be like to see the work in the galleries at last? Smith smiles. "For me, the most wonderful moment is installation. It's the culmination of everything. That's when you feel you are deep in the heart of a project." And when it opens to the public? "The personal attachment loosens a bit, but you're still concerned. It's a like a child going out into the world: you want it to do well."

The Tate's pre-Raphaelite paintings are among its most popular (Ophelia by Millais, so lush and yet so plangent, has long been the gallery's bestselling postcard). "They're always on display," says Natasha Walker, a paintings conservator. "And when they're not, they're often on loan to another gallery. So it's quite rare that we get the opportunity to look at them. That's why we like these big shows. It gives us the chance to get our hands on things."

Some time ago, Walker and the other conservators examined all of the Tate paintings that will appear in the exhibition. "We have priorities," she says. "Obviously, if something is stucturally unsound, that's the first priority. This one [she reaches for some images] was displayable, but we wanted it to look its best. So I spent five months cleaning it."

The painting in question is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix (1864-70), a portrait of the poet Dante's wife, Beatrice, that was also a memorial to Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddall (the painter used sketches of his late wife to complete it). It's an exquisite piece, smaller and more intimate in scale than many pre-Raphaelite works, and softer, too, being more dimly lit. Beatrice/Siddal has her eyes closed, though whether she is in a state of religious or sexual ecstasy is unclear. Meanwhile, a bird, a messenger of death whose feathers are the colour of dried blood, drops a poppy into her open palms (this must, surely, be a reference to Siddal's death from an overdose of laudanum shortly after she gave birth to a stillborn child). In the background is Dante, looking towards the haloed figure of Love, in whose hands the burning heart of his wife flickers and wanes.

"The painting had a natural resin varnish over it," says Walker. "It would have been added to improve its colour rendition, the gloss of it. But it had become quite discoloured." After doing some tests to find which mixture of solvents would best remove this layer, she set to work with a cotton wool swab. "It's very painstaking. You have to be careful with the paint layer." She shows me some before and after pictures. "Look at the colour shift. Before, it was warmer and quite yellow in tone. Varnish tends to make things look quite unified. The contrast between highlights and shadows is so much greater now, and her flesh is cooler, not quite so glowing."

During the conservation, Walker x-rayed the picture; she also photographed it while casting light at an acute angle over it. "I found out quite a lot. The story goes that Rossetti had made and abandoned an oil sketch of his wife, and that it lay in his studio for many years, until his dealer took it to be adhered to another canvas, and brought it back for Rossetti to finish. The x-ray showed that there were indeed canvas additions at the top, sides and bottom, all of which would have allowed Rossetti more scope for background." She shows me the x-ray. "I could also see these losses in the lead white preparation under the paint. Rossetti left these losses. A more meticulous artist would have filled them before recommencing. When I cast light over the picture, I could also see brush hairs, studio dust and debris in the paint, which tells you something about the state of his tools."

It took Rossetti six years to complete Beata Beatrix, a long time for a painting of this size. "When I looked at the green of her cloak I could see that it had aged and cracked over a period of time; his red monogram had been added over the cracks. I could even see some of the red pigment caught up in the varnish, which tells me that he signed it and then quickly sent it away."

How do these discoveries make her feel? Shivery, is the answer – though in a good way. "You've seen it in books, or on walls. But this brings you so much closer." It's a visceral thing, a connection with the artist himself. What do her discoveries tell us about Rossetti's state of mind? Walker is reluctant to say: "I'm not an art historian," she laughs (her degree is in zoology, the chemistry she learnt then a great help). But to me it seems obvious. Rossetti took his wife's death hard, burying the bulk of his unpublished poems with her in Highgate cemetery. Afterwards, he grew increasingly depressed. Beata Beatrix was a painful piece to paint; it took him an age. But when he finally felt able to let it go, he couldn't wait to get it out of his sight.

It's not only paintings that must be conserved. When Walker and I have finished talking, she takes me to the studio of Alastair Johnson, a frame conservator. For the past year, Johnson has been working on the frame of Burne-Jones's enormous oil, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – a project that will be completed any day now, when picture and frame are once again reunited.

King Cophetua was completed in 1884. It was inspired by a Tennyson poem, The Beggar Maid, and tells the legend of an African king who disdained women until he met Penelophon, "a beggar maid all in grey", with whom he fell in love at first sight. In the painting, the king gazes at Penelophon devotedly (the theme of male enthralment to female beauty was a favourite of Burne-Jones's), having put aside his crown and shield in deference to her beauty. A deeply sensual work – with her gently rounded belly and her curled toes, there is something so straightforwardly sexy about Penelophon – Burne-Jones's friends bought it for the Tate after the artist's death in 1898.

The painting's frame was made for it, in the Renaissance style, by the Vacani family. But a few years after it joined the collection it was altered to accommodate a glazing door (in other words, an ugly sub frame was fitted inside the original one). "The alterations were substantial," says Johnson. "They had to insert four inches of material in the bottom of the frame, removing one putto's head, and replacing it with two. They also built up the columns at the side and removed altogether the frame's lovely moulded [internal] edge."

How did Johnson know what the original frame looked like? Luckily, there existed a photograph by Emery Walker of the painting in its original frame; Johnson found it at the National Portrait Gallery, where Walker's archive is kept. Using this as a guide, he set to work. First he removed the additions. "They were quite brutal," he says. "You could see the saw marks where they'd cut the bottom of the frame in two." Then he made moulds of a putto's head elsewhere on the frame. "I used a silicon rubber mould; prop-makers use them; they're incredibly detailed. The heads themselves are made from composition, a doughy mixture of plaster or chalk." Then he set about copying the moulded edge. "Usually we find another frame which has something similar as a guide. But I couldn't find one anywhere. In the end, I just modelled a section up in Plasticine."

Finally he guilded his repairs. Johnson leads me to the frame itself, in the centre of the room. Wow. What a wonderful thing it is. But will he age his own additions? They're a bit bling at the moment. "Yes. I'll probably use watercolour: something I can easily remove, or add to. And perhaps a bit of household dirt." It will, he says, be an anxious moment when the painting is put into the frame. "A very expensive piece of Perspex – it's called Optium – will replace the glass. It has an innovative coating which makes it look like low-reflective glass. It also has an inherent flexibility, which is important with a painting of this size. Unlike glass, it won't crack." How will he feel when he sees it in the gallery? "Oh, it'll be wonderful," he says, with great feeling. "But I'll also be praying I measured the painting correctly."

As both Walker and Johnson point out, thanks to their efforts, when visitors to the exhibition come to gaze on Beata Beatrix and King Cophetua in a few weeks' time, they'll be seeing them pretty much as Rossetti, Burne-Jones and their contemporaries saw them. Will this make a difference to their understanding of these artists? Perhaps not. Only experts and passionate fans will notice such subtle changes. On the other hand, as the late, great Robert Hughes put it, for the pre-Raphaelites, "God was in the details: in the petals of a cornflower or the vein of an elecampane leaf, in the grain of stone or the purling of a brook."

Rossetti and his friends would, I think, have adored the care the Tate has put into this show. Such attention, loving and precise, reflects the extreme trouble they went to in their own pursuit of accuracy. Though what they would have made of fridge magnets is anyone's guess.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain, London SW1 from 12 Sept to 13 Jan 2013; © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 30 2012

Fateful journey: The Lady of Shalott

The pre-Raphaelite JW Waterhouse evokes the Arthurian age in this melancholic scene, painted from Alfred Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott, showing the young woman journeying to Camelot and certain death

April 16 2012

Pre-Raphaelites exhibition celebrates 'revolutionary' art

Tate Britain's big autumn show is the first major survey of the 19th-century movement in nearly 30 years

For some, the work of the pre-Raphaelites represents little more than a nice birthday card image or chocolate box cover. But that is to underestimate these "revolutionary" paintings, according to Tate Britain, which has announced details of a show presenting the artists in a new light – as radicals who did nothing less than change the world.

The gallery in London said its big autumn show this year would be an exhibition five years in the planning, the first major survey of the 19th-century movement in nearly 30 years.

"We want to present the pre-Raphaelites as the Victorian avant garde," said curator Alison Smith. "Painters who self-consciously reacted against convention, against orthodoxy and established new a benchmark for modern painting both in Britain and internationally."

She said the pre-Raphaelites were revolutionaries. "The movement was invented in Britain and spread abroad. It is the one time when a British art movement changes the world."

Interest in the pre-Raphaelites – in film, TV and music – has rarely been higher, but there has not been a major show since 1984. Before that, the biggest exhibition was in 1948, the movement's centenary year.

The exhibition will argue that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – a movement led by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais – were radicals in terms of technique, choice of subject matter, composition and the way they engaged with the viewer. They explored social, moral and political issues in a way that was new and often shocking.

Smith said the gallery had been planning and negotiating loans for the past five years. Among the highlights will be Hunt's Lady of Shalott, owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, which has not been seen in the UK since 1951. More than 150 works are due to be exhibited along with photography, furniture and sculpture.

Smith added: "We'll also be showing how they advocated a co-operative or collaborative working practice, to which end they sought to obliterate distinctions between the fine and the decorative arts in order to place art at the centre of life and society."

The pre-Raphaelites entranced audiences but infuriated many critics. Millais even stopped exhibiting publicly because of the hammering he got in the press, but by the end of the century the artists were superstars. "Everyone knew their names and they were the equivalent, you could say, of Damien Hirst today," Smith said.

The Tate will show works that have aroused immense passions. Wyndham Lewis, for example, once hailed Edward Burne-Jones's The Doom Fulfilled as one of the great paintings of all time. Other paintings in the show include The Pretty Baa-Lambs by Ford Madox Brown, perhaps the first time a figure had been painted outside, and many other crowdpleasers such as Millais' Ophelia.

The show will run in London from 12 September to 13 January before travelling to Washington DC and then the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

Some Victorians thought this painting was of a brother and sister in a parlour and at first glance it does look fairly innocent – a bit of playfulness between a man playing the piano and a woman on his lap.

It is, though, nothing less than an explosive exploration of sex, morality and prostitution.

The painting is stuffed with symbolism and required audiences to read it in a completely new way.

The woman is in her undergarments and must be the man's mistress because she is wearing rings on all her fingers bar her wedding finger. The man, a member of the vulgar nouveau riche (all the furniture is brand new), has just arrived and has been fondling her bottom. The shawl around her hips accentuates erogenous parts of her body.

She's in a mess. The man's fallen glove suggests her fate as a discarded mistress will be prostitution while another clue to her plight is the tangle of threads in the bottom right hand corner. The garden reminds her of her innocent past. The light suggests salvation is possible.

It is a good example of Pre-Raphaelist provocation. Curator Alison Smith said: "The colours shock the eye and force you to look at the composition and read it bit by bit. Rather than it being art where you escape from reality, it is art as a means of making you engage or think about something you'd rather not think about." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 22 2011

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite radical

First exhibition in 50 years sheds new light on the man whose work was described by the establishment as 'grotesque'

Manchester Art Gallery will on Saturday open the first major Ford Madox Brown exhibition in nearly half a century, bringing together 140 works which cast the artist in a fresh light.

Brown may not be the best known of pre-Raphaelite artists, but those staging the exhibition will argue that he deserves to be seen as one of the most important – a true pioneer and radical who was decades ahead of his time.

The conservative Victorian art establishment was genuinely shocked by Brown, said the show's curator, Julian Treuherz. "People found his work grotesque, offensive, disturbing," he explained. "The sort of things that people want contemporary art to be now, but in those days it was thought to be entirely unsuitable."

Now, for the first time in more than 25 years, Brown's two best-known works will be displayed together. They are Work, an epic painting of real life which took up 12 years of his life, and Last of England, which shows a grim-faced husband and wife emigrating.

The show also includes a painting thought lost until only two years ago. The Seraph's Watch has not been seen in public since 1896 and is a significant work, not least because it is a painting Brown got a young Rossetti – something of a fan – to copy when he was giving him art lessons. Treuherz recalled getting the call that the painting might have turned up in a private collection in Worcestershire. "It was a wonderful surprise. When you do an exhibition like this you want things that no one has ever seen and this is one of them."

Similarly, a portrait of London silk manufacturer James Bamford, which marked a change in direction by Brown, has not been seen in public since 1865 and appears in the show having been specially cleaned.

Another picture is interesting because it has probably the first and possibly the only tricycle in a portrait – and it is thanks to the Guardian. The subject is Madeleine Scott, daughter of the great CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian and cycling nut, who rode every day from his home in Fallowfield to the office. It was painted in 1883 at the height of a tricycling craze.

Treuherz said Brown was a man ahead of his time who became a mentor figure for younger pre-Raphaelites. He did everything the Victorians said should not be done. He painted subjects with an unsentimental realism – children were what they looked like – and showed the poor and working class without condescension.

He also designed furniture before the arts and crafts movement said that this was what all true artists should be doing and used techniques often attributed to later movements. In one of his most controversial works – it was called "an insult on the public intelligence" by one writer – Brown shows the colours visible in shadows, an innovation usually credited to the French impressionists. It was also painted entirely in the open air, something no other artist was doing.

The work is The Pretty Baa Lambs (left), which shows a woman and baby in a field of gambolling lambs, and to modern eyes it seems remarkable that it shocked. It seems pretty almost, but Treuherz said: "It is very stark, there's no grace about it. If you think of Victorian ideals of beauty you think of a regular face, very pale and here she's got flushed cheeks and she's looking down."

People who came to see it thought it must mean something – what on earth was Brown trying to do or say? Was it a Madonna and child? Brown said it was just a lady and baby looking at lambs, which infuriated people all the more.

Two companion pieces will be shown together for the first time since 1964: The English Boy, which is in the Manchester collection, and The Irish Girl, on loan from Yale Centre for British art in New Haven.

Brown was born in Calais and lived in London but he will for ever be associated with Manchester because of his remarkable murals in the town hall. Maria Balshaw, director of both Manchester city galleries and the Whitworth, called him "perhaps the greatest 19th-century adopted Mancunian. He is a very important part of the cultural history of this city."

The murals were the crowning achievement, the culmination of Brown's career, taking him more than 12 years and will be open to a public who do not necessarily know they are there on Sundays throughout the exhibition.

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer is at Manchester art gallery from 24 September to 29 January. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 16 2011

Ford Madox Brown: working class hero?

Although he shares some stylistic traits with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the artist preferred the mess of everyday life to the lofty mythological subjects of Rossetti and Burne-Jones

Hear the words "Ford Madox Brown" and "Manchester" in the same sentence, and you think automatically of the Town Hall murals, that 12-part picture book of the city's history which Brown was commissioned to paint on the interior walls of Alfred Waterhouse's neo-gothic civic palace in 1878. Here, in bold outlines and strong colours, looped around the magnificent Great Hall, you can trace the moment the Danes were expelled from the city in 920, or the day in 1761 the Duke of Bridgewater opened his eponymous canal, allowing coal from his mines to be delivered straight to the heart of "Cottonopolis".

Look closely at the murals, though, and you'll see they have none of the grand swagger usually associated with Victorian public art. The Danes are keystone cops, tripping over each other as they quit the city, while the duke – a confirmed teetotaller – looks suspiciously excited and flushed. Surprisingly perhaps, these sly subversions are not the work of a young man. Brown was 72 when the paintings were finally finished in 1893 and they represent the summation of a five-decade career. Moreover, as this Autumn's Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer at Manchester Art Gallery reveals, such inspired mischievousness had been wound into Brown's work from the beginning. Starting with his first apprentice pieces in the late 1830s, he had been testing and tweaking the rules of established art practice in a way that frequently piqued his critics and still gives his admirers much to ponder today.

Brown's work has none of the hyper-loveliness of the pre-Raphaelites with whom his name is so often bracketed, even though he was never a formal member of the Brotherhood, that group of seven excitable young men who made a pact in 1848 to revolutionise English art by returning it to the purity of the 14th century. While Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt rendered their historical, literary and mythological subjects with a metaphorical high varnish, Brown welcomed in the mess of every day. In his paintings hard noon light casts unflattering shadows on his sitters, who grimace and squint in protest. Colours clash, as they are apt to do in real life, while the children Brown loved to paint have the look of pudgy potatoes. Even his women are less than perfect. While technically Emma Hill, Brown's second wife and favourite model, was a working-class "stunner" chased from his studio into his bed, she departs from the bruised sensuality of Lizzie Siddal or Jane Morris in important ways. Instead of the rivers of hair and beestung lips there is a neat coif and an oddly shortened upper lip, which makes Mrs Brown look less like a medieval temptress and more like an amiable rodent.

All this strangeness comes together in Brown's painting of 1851-9, Pretty Baa-Lambs. Ostensibly a picture of a woman in 18th-century dress holding a baby and petting some sheep, it is impossible to know quite what to make of it. The antique costume might suggest rococo pastoralism, something after Gainsborough perhaps. But Brown has added a sharp dose of the here and now. The painting was made entirely en plein air, all the better to capture the effects of a fierce midsummer sun. The woman's face is bright red, an English rose flaring unflatteringly in the heat, while the baby's sheeny arms look like over-stuffed sausages. Contemporaries were scarcely impressed – "a facetious experiment upon public intelligence" suggested one – and even now it is hard to decide whether it is, or is not, absolutely horrid.

The main reason that Brown never joined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was that he was already embarked on a similar project. He was born in 1821, which made him a good seven years older than Rossetti, Hunt and Millais (Rossetti, indeed, had first made contact by asking whether Brown might take him on as a pupil). Brown's training had been different too. While the others had mostly come through the Royal Academy Schools, Calais-born Brown had attended the academies of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, where he had absorbed the realism and fine detail of the early Flemish and Dutch painters. His admiration for the sincerity and truthfulness of art made before the high Renaissance was further boosted by a trip to Italy in 1845, where he was able to see the great altarpieces and fresco cycles of Giotto and Fra Angelico at first hand.

The subjects that Brown chose to paint were particular to him too. While the other pre-Raphaelites often lost themselves in a dreamscape of the distant or mythologised past, Brown's work was just as likely to crackle with the dilemmas of the present. In 1852 he started on his masterpiece, Work, a sprawling multi-figured composition which went someway to meeting Baudelaire's urgent demand that artists should take as their subject "the heroism of modern life". The scene is Heath Street in Hampstead, where navvies are digging up the road. Around and beyond them cluster sightseers and passers-by drawn from every level of society: a do-gooding lady with pamphlets, a man selling chickweed, some itinerant farm labourers, a scraggy little girl in charge of her younger siblings and, standing to the side, two middle-class men whom a contemporary viewer would easily spot as Thomas Carlyle and the Christian Socialist reformer, the Rev FD Maurice. The detail is inexhaustible and the purpose multiple. On one level the painting serves as a reminder that this newly urbanised society depends on a variety of labour that would have been unthinkable even 50 years earlier. But in its careful delineation of individual characters, the painting also suggests that every man and woman, of whatever social class, needs work as a kind of soul medicine. Or, to quote Carlyle, one of the "brainworkers" in the picture, "In Idleness alone is there perpetual despair."

It wasn't just the subject of Work that was new. The painting dispenses with visual hierarchies, so that on first viewing it is not clear which are the most important figures. Incidents spread over the picture without ever quite coming into focus, which makes the eye skitter frantically over the picture plane. Each subsequent viewing reveals new clusters of characters, all absorbed in their own mini-dramas. Brown, wedded to the pleasures of narrative, wrote detailed backstories for each of his people: the pot boy, he explained, may well be wishing that leafleting do-gooder would listen to his opinion for a change, while the girl turned thuggish childminder is coping with an alcoholic father who will soon be up before the bench. In contrast to one of those big crowd scenes painted by William Powell Frith, the figures here push beyond their symbolic envelopes to become fully imagined men and women.

The painting was remarkable too in the degree to which it was painted out of doors: Brown rigged up a trolley and wheeled the canvas every day into position. In this commitment to catching the exact play of summer light on a leafy street he anticipated the Impressionists by several decades. Meanwhile, the figures, modelled by friends, acquaintances and amenable members of the working class, were done in the studio where Brown agonised for weeks over such details as the potboy's fancy waistcoat. Even his pre-Raphaelite associates, known for taking pains, worried that Brown's "excessive elaboration" meant that Work would never be done.

Painting en plein air, though, was not always possible. Brown's other great masterpiece, The Last of England, was conjured from his imagination or, as he put it, painted "as it would appear". The work concerns a young, shabby, middle-class couple setting out for a new life in Australia. The name of the boat – Eldorado – suggests that they are part of the southern hemisphere's short-lived gold rush of the 1850s. Their faces are blank and baffled by the scale of the step they are taking while their bodies radiate the pinched exhaustion of people who have no choice. The woman is based on Emma. The man is Brown himself, known in his youth as handsome, but here modelling the kind of sullen impotence you might see on a clever young man who has come down in the world. As ever, Brown lightens the whole effect with sly touches of humour: where you might expect to see lifebelts he has hung a row of scurvy-beating cabbages.

Underpinning these two great paintings lay Brown's abiding interest in the underdog. Unlike his friend William Morris, he was never a systematic socialist, opting instead to make a series of pragmatic and personal interventions in the lives of the poor. He taught art at the Working's Mens' College and, later, set up the Labour Bureau in Manchester. In the same way, his art is one of engaged observation rather than noisy propaganda. Perhaps this was because, unlike the independently wealthy Morris, Brown understood poverty to be a complex, nuanced business. While never actually starving, he spent at least two decades of his working life harried by a lack of cash. The Last of England sold for less than it should, and Brown's hyper-sensitivity also meant that he tended to crash up against the institutions and people who would have done him most good. On one occasion, when John Ruskin, that great champion of the pre-Raphaelites, asked him why his recent An English Autumn Afternoon featured such an "ugly" view of Hampstead's rooftops, Brown flashed back sulkily "because it lay out of a back window".

A difficult family life – his first wife died young, his second wife was an alcoholic, and he also lost his two beloved sons – hardly helped Brown to live in the strong sunshine that he so often chose to paint. That did not mean, though, that he plunged into sourness. Some of his most successful drawings and paintings are of children, whom he managed to capture without resorting to Millais's later kitsch (it is impossible to think of Brown making a painting like Bubbles). In his sketches of his own babies he shows them not as cherubs, but as snuffling young animals. Later, while living in Manchester and working on the Town Hall murals, he painted Madeline Scott, daughter of CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, sitting proudly astride her tricycle – the first time that such a contraption had ever been wheeled into a portrait painting.

As this suggests, Brown found Britain's premier industrial city to be a conducive place to spend the last decade or his working life. Although he had no prior relationship with Manchester, its brisk, nonconformist atmosphere suited him particularly well. While reviewing the city's history to find subjects for his murals, he found an abundance of moments that chimed with his own subtle understanding of the human condition. The Trial of Wycliffe, AD 1377, for instance, suggests a profound sympathy with proto-Protestant Wycliffe's project of democratising ancient mysteries. Meanwhile in John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle, AD 1753, Brown shows us Kay fleeing from furious machine breakers, a wry reminder that what one man deems to be "progress" can also mean a downward tumble for countless others. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 25 2011

The Last Pre-Raphaelite by Fiona MacCarthy - review

A magnificent and deeply felt biography of the enigmatic Edward Burne-Jones

On midsummer's eve 1898, a strange and melancholy watch took place in the parish church of Rottingdean in Sussex. The ashes of Edward Burne-Jones lay, in a plain oak casket, on his old drawing table in front of the altar, surrounded by four candles. Among those who took turns to sit beside them through the night before the funeral were his widow, his daughter and two of his nephews by marriage, Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. From the windows some of his most recognisable works, a squadron of great stained-glass angels, looked down. They were, Kipling felt, "much more him" than the ashes.

Still less true to the spirit of the quiet country church was the memorial service two days later in Westminster Abbey, at which another of Burne-Jones's relatives, his pompous brother-in-law, the artist Edward Poynter, took charge. Every inch the eminent Victorian, Poynter, as president of the Royal Academy (from which Burne-Jones had resigned), led a grieving nation in its tributes.

Yet both scenes said something about the enigmatic and not entirely likeable man they commemorated. As well as pre-Raphaelite sweetness and light there was, as Baldwin noticed, "iron and granite" in Burne-Jones, who, despite his belief in the value of art as a force for social unity, improved his name (from Jones) and took a baronetcy. He did this on the grounds that it would please his son, causing his old friend, the revolutionary socialist William Morris, to remark that he supposed "a man can be an ass for the sake of his children".

At the heart of the contrasts in his life and character, Fiona MacCarthy suggests in this thoughtful and sensitive account, there was a closely guarded kernel of self, a "citadel of the soul", as his long-suffering wife Georgiana described it, that nobody could penetrate. As a child, when his over-solicitous nurse wanted to know what he was thinking, Burne-Jones invariably answered "camels" and when, in his 40s, a model asked him about the oddly erotic painting of a mermaid then in progress in his studio, he told her it was a portrait of the dowager countess of Dorking.

One source of this self-protective isolation, MacCarthy writes, lay in the circumstances of his birth. Not long before he died, Burne-Jones wrote to one of his many female confidantes that he did not think it was "ever out of my mind what hurt I did when I was born". He was six days old when his mother died, leaving her only child alone with his father in a household characterised by "nervousness and gloom". Mr Jones, "a very poetical little fellow", as his son remembered him, spent the week making a precarious living as a picture framer and on Sundays took his son to spend long hours beside his mother's grave.

No wonder, perhaps, that Arthurian quests for unattainable love should have become such an enduring theme in Burne-Jones's work. But if MacCarthy is right to say that his life is "self-evident, embedded in the art", then there was, as she also argues, something much more ambivalent than yearning in the feelings about women and sex that he guarded in the citadel of his soul.

Burne-Jones worked his way out of his unhappy Birmingham childhood by study, arriving at Exeter College, Oxford at the same time as William Morris. Both expected to become clergymen, but as the afterglow of the Oxford Movement faded so did their faith, to be replaced by a love of art and architecture. Finally, one night on the quayside in Le Havre, after a walking tour of French cathedrals, they resolved to give up the church. Morris was to be an architect, Burne-Jones a painter. After that he drifted away from university without taking a degree and went to London, where his hero, soon his mentor, was the troubled moving spirit of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Rossetti introduced his acolyte to London life and in particular to the artistic set gathered around Sara Prinsep at Little Holland House, where intense young women in flowing dresses lay about languorously on lawns while intense young men – and some, like GF Watts, who were considerably older – drew them. Sara was one of the Pattle sisters, all beauties and each in her way brilliant, whom Ruskin described as looking like the "Elgin marbles with dark eyes". It was the look that became the Burne-Jones type.

Beside Rossetti's passionate auburn stunners, Burne-Jones's figures are marmoreal, still and, in some of his best-known works, literally in a state of suspense within the picture frame. The beggar maid who catches the eye of King Cophetua is perched uneasily halfway up the canvas, while in The Golden Stairs, the painting that became the quintessential aesthetic movement image, the procession of young women is frozen in perpetual descent.

Burne-Jones loved girls who were similarly poised between childhood and sexual maturity in a way that has made later generations feel queasy, but which among his contemporaries was by no means unusual. When Watts tried to adopt the teenage Ellen Terry, his fellow painter Spencer Stanhope objected that she was too old. Watts then suggested marrying her instead, to which Stanhope responded that she was too young. Watts did it anyway, with calamitous results. Burne-Jones preferred infatuation. A succession of "pets", as he called them, were the recipients of intense emotional outpourings and hand-holding. He was heartbroken when they married, and his furious reaction to his daughter Margaret's engagement was especially revealing. "What do girls want with men?" he demanded in a letter to Kipling, "didn't I flatter her enough, glare at her enough, fetch and carry and be abject enough!"

His view on one thing girls might want is suggested by his emphatic horror at anything that might count as "lust". Only once did this restraint, or repression, give way, in his extra-marital affair with the Greek beauty Maria Zambaco. The relationship lasted several years and ended in a hysterical scene outside Robert Browning's house. As Rossetti, who was more used to this sort of thing, told it, with a certain relish, Maria threatened to drink the laudanum she had brought with her before attempting to throw herself into the Regent's Canal and being wrestled to the ground by Burne-Jones just as the police arrived.

MacCarthy resists too much analysis of her subject's sexuality, leaving him mostly to speak for himself. This he did somewhat laconically in his 60s, when attempting to comfort Elfrida Ionides, whose husband had just left her, with the information that "men do that sort of thing". What he said to his wife is not possible to know, but the damage inflicted by the Zambaco affair was never quite repaired. He later reflected that Georgie would have been happier if he had never been born, adding sharply that then she could have married a "good clergyman" instead.

Georgie, strong-willed, strait-laced and Methodist by upbringing, stuck stoically and, some observers thought, foolishly by her husband while maintaining a considerable intellectual independence and finding outlets in social work and feminism, which irritated Burne-Jones. MacCarthy attempts to draw Georgie out from her husband's shadow, but it is not an easy task for she seems reluctant to be drawn. After Burne-Jones's death, the great project of Georgie's widowhood was her book of tactfully selective Memorials of Burne-Jones's life and work.

The relationship that MacCarthy depicts with most warmth and subtlety is the long attachment between Burne-Jones and Morris. They were complementary opposites, and Burne-Jones's mixed feelings of admiration, love and resentment were played out in the series of cartoons he drew of them, Burne-Jones always thin and feeble, Morris fat and energetic. Of their last collaboration, the Kelmscott Press edition of Chaucer, Burne-Jones wrote that it was the sort of book they had dreamed of long ago at Oxford: "we have made at the end of our days the very thing we would have made then if we could." For MacCarthy, too, who has written a monumental life of Morris, this magnificent and deeply felt biography brings with it a sense of completion, not least in its account of one of the greatest and most fruitful Victorian friendships.

Rosemary Hill's God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain is published by Penguin. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 12 2011

Why I've rediscovered Victorian art

The news of a lost – and now found – Ford Madox Brown painting and an exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelite painter fail to excite me. But the cultural legacy of the Victorians does

The news that a lost painting by the 19th-century British painter Ford Madox Brown has been rediscovered and will be shown in an exhibition dedicated to this Victorian painter at Manchester Art Gallery next month fills me with moderate interest. Excitement would be too strong a word. But I am not being sarcastic, either. This artist is indeed interesting, as are his Victorian contemporaries.

Britain is saddled with an enormous legacy of Victorian art. There was a profound enthusiasm for art in 19th-century Britain. Just as today, people were passionate about the artists of their own time. There were new movements such as Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism. Just as today, artists became rich, as you can see if you visit Lord Leighton's house in west London. And just as today, the monied bought new art. In those days the money was in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool – and so Britain's regional city galleries ended up with vast collections of Pre-Raphaelite art that are often their most abundant and prominent exhibits.

This is a legacy to ponder. While one museum is excited it has found a Brown, Bolton Council recently sold off a painting by Millais, who was actually the greater artist of the two, in a disturbing move towards paring down public collections as a response to the cuts.

If regional collections do start selling off art, Victorian paintings are in the firing line as they are both abundant and popular, with plenty of collectors keen to buy them. But this must not happen. Britain must keep its public collections of 19th-century painting for some very good reasons.

When I say this art does not necessarily thrill me, I am speaking with a formalist, aesthetic art critic's hat on (plenty of absurdity there for commenters to expand on). Look: for all the energy of Victorian artists, they never broke through into the new dimensions being opened up by their French contemporaries such as Monet. Set a painting by Ford Madox Brown next to one by Monet and you have to face it, the French were seeing in more exciting, and truthful, ways.

But that does not make Victorian art worthless; it is fascinating. Brown's painting Work is a masterpiece of social portrayal, the visual equivalent of a 19th-century novel. And Victorian art is full of such surprises. It abounds in both erotic myth and social commentary. It is an essential part of the world of the Victorians, who shaped modern industrial Britain and in whose big footsteps we walk. The skill of these artists is always impressive, as is their intensity. If they rarely reach the heights of the French, the reasons they don't are in themselves fascinating.

Britain's cities, still reeling from the decline of the industrial wealth that made them, exist in the shadow of the Victorian age that built their museums as well as their town halls, bridges, warehouses and factories. Anyone who wants to understand modern Britain has to understand the Victorians, and that is why their art must always be a cherished part of our cultural life. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 14 2011

Tate Britain makes a splash with watercolours

Curators set out to make watercolours cool - even the British landscapes

It is arguably one of the most ambitious surveys of watercolour staged in London but any visitor expecting safe, gentle and reserved should prepare for a surprise. "We do hope to confound preconceptions, yes," said chief curator Alison Smith.

Tate Britain on Millbank is staging a show simply called Watercolour, opening on Wednesday, which the curators hope will blow away the myths and falsehoods about a medium sometimes seen as very British, profoundly conservative and, to put it bluntly, not very cool.

"From the outset we wanted to get beyond the association of watercolour with landscape, which really defines British watercolour practice," said Smith. "We wanted to think about the longer, grander history."

It is a big show. On display are more than 200 works spanning 800 years. The diversity of the medium is striking. It is, of course, used for pretty landscapes and there are examples in the show. It is also used for scientific accuracy in botany, for abstract work and to document war.

There are shocking images, including an Eric Taylor painting of human bodies piled up at Belsen concentration camp. Another painting difficult to look at. by Charles Bell, is of wounds sustained by soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo, showing a French lancer who has had a sabre in his belly.

"I wanted to get beyond this idea that watercolour was used just for the softer subjects," said Smith. "Because watercolour is so flexible and direct it can be used to convey gritty subjects." It is also ideal for war because watercolour red pigment is good for blood and wounds.

Watercolour should not, the curators say, be seen as a standalone medium. One arresting work is Graham Sutherland's stage-like depiction of a bombed East End street from 1941, in which he has used gouache and crayon and pencil as well as watercolour.

Given the association of watercolour with British painters, another surprise is the identity of one of the earliest watercolour painters of British landscapes: the Flemish Anthony van Dyck. A coastal landscape painted between 1635 and 1641 is one of the first exhibits.

The show includes works by Turner, the pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burra as well as contemporary artists including Howard Hodgkin, Tracey Emin and Peter Doig.

Watercolour will always be seen as a preserve of the amateur – nobles, princes, people of leisure and murderous dictators can vouch for its restorative qualities – and there are examples in the show.

One of the better is Victor Hugo who experimented with blots, ink stains and even his own blood in his watercolours producing hundreds of works, all of which he kept to himself. The one on display at Tate Britain is a memory of a holiday in Normandy, executed when he was a political exile on Guernsey.

Smith hopes the show will challenge assumptions. "It is private, it's fragile, it's vulnerable. It doesn't have the kudos and commodity status of work in other media, it doesn't attract sensational media headlines but as people will see, it can be used in an extraordinary variety of ways."

Watercolour is at Tate Britain from 16 February to 21 August © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 05 2011

Liquid asset

Despite associations with Victorian ladies and flower paintings, watercolour has often been far from wishy-washy. The Tate's new survey – from the haunting visions of William Blake to intimate scenes by Tracey Emin – shows the medium's versatility and power

Historically, watercolour has been perceived as the medium of the dabbling amateur. Children, ladies and gentlemen of leisure have all been drawn to its cheapness, speed and apparent ease. Its subjects, too, have tended to be minor in size and scope: a domestic scene here, a botanical drawing there, stretching at most to a charming landscape. When professional artists use watercolour, so the grand narrative goes, it is to make preliminary sketches, try-outs, what-ifs that are supplementary to the real business of art, which involves painting in oils.

Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition, entitled simply Watercolour, aims to unsettle these easy assumptions. If painting in watercolour really is irredeemably minor, then how to account for the haunting visions of William Blake, the proto-modernist landscapes of JS Cotman, key symbolist work by Edward Burne-Jones, Paul Nash's hellish war paintings, Edward Burra's grotesqueries, not forgetting some of Tracey Emin's more affecting pieces? And what about JMW Turner, who frequently used watercolour not as a medium in which to rehearse, but rather as the best way to convey his finished vision? Look again at his Blue Rigi of 1842 and you see not just a perfect rendering of the play of light on water, but also an essay in the essential qualities of his chosen medium. Broad layers of pale colour have been washed in to create an ethereal translucency impossible to imagine in dense, sticky oil.

What initially drew amateurs to watercolour, though, was not Turner's virtuoso example so much as the fact that it was convenient and cheap. To make your mark all you needed to do was add water to a concentrated cake of pigment bound with gum arabic and let your brush do the rest. By the middle of the 19th century, companies including Reeves and Winsor & Newton would sell you charming little boxes primed with six essential shades, exactly the kind of thing that the young Queen Victoria was rumoured to take with her when she ventured en plein air. And for those who felt confident, there was always the option to fiddle with the formula. Professional painters stirred in egg yolk to make tempera, achieving the kind of long-lasting finish employed by medieval artists working directly on vellum and plaster. Others preferred to add white pigment or chalk to make gouache, a denser paint that mimicked the opacity of oil but retained the fluidity of water.

Technically, the Tate's curators say, anything can be used to make a watercolour. Paul Sandby, working at the end of the 18th century, added crumbs from his burnt breakfast roll to achieve a rich brindle. In our own times, Andy Goldsworthy has used pulverised red stone from the river bed of Scaur Water in Scotland to produce his pooling Source of Scaur; and in her delicate abstracts the young artist Karla Black experiments by mixing water with Vaseline, toothpaste and hair gel.

This makes watercolour sound facile whereas in fact it is versatile. It can be applied in a loose, diluted wash to paper that is already damp – a technique known as "wet on wet" – to produce the palest tint. Or it can be used almost dry to make a broken line that scrapes along textured paper. It can be "lifted off" – blotted out with a rag while still damp – or "scratched out" when already dry. In both cases the aim is to reveal and incorporate the whiteness of the paper underneath. Cotman's unfinished study of Rievaulx Abbey (1803) uses lifting off to depict a smudge of barely-there foliage, while 80 years later Walter Langley employs scratching out in his But Men Must Work and Women Must Weep to create tiny stray hairs on the heads of the two women whose anxious presence dominates the picture.

Turner and Cotman belonged to the period known as the golden age of British watercolour, which spanned the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Under the romantic spell of Wordsworth and Coleridge, a generation of young artists turned away from composing historical and biblical scenes in the studio to face their native landscape head on. Urged to paint directly from nature, they climbed in Snowdonia or clambered over the Yorkshire Dales before setting up their easels in the open air. This was where watercolour showed its special virtues: easily carried in a pocket, it was in a sense contiguous with the landscape itself. All you need do was scoop some water from a mountain stream to release a flood of colour on to the page.

As they straggled up and down the country, these young painters were continuing a long tradition of recording landscape in watercolour. For centuries "stained drawings" had been the approved means for antiquaries, topographers and military men to map the lie of the land. Now a new generation started to use the full potential of the medium to add an extra dimension. Sandby's Part of the Banqueting Hall of the Royal Palace at Eltham shows a draughtsman's discipline in the way it delineates the ruined palace's arched windows and steeply pitched roof. But Sandby also uses his skills as a consumate colourist to show the differing textures of brick, stone, wood and foliage. His decision to add a group of figures adds a present-ness to the scene which reminds the viewer that this is no mere map-maker's exercise. Meanwhile, Thomas Girtin's Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland (ca 1797) is a vertical wall of stormy stone and ruined fortifications. High above the scene glowers a sky of operatic intensity, all scudding clouds and sudden bursts of sunlight. Anyone who doubted that watercolour was able to achieve intimations of the sublime so central to the romantic project had only to look at what Girtin – who died at a melancholy 27 – achieved here.

But even these peaks of achievement did not impress the Royal Academy, which, since its early days in the 1770s, had insisted on disparaging watercolour as the preserve of drawing masters, illustrators and amateurs. Indeed, for several years landscape art had been entirely banned from the academy's annual exhibition, since mere "transcripts" from nature could hardly be expected to occupy the same sanctified space as carefully constructed historical or biblical scenes. Such a mindset must explain why exquisite work by William Capon, who rendered the streets of late-Georgian London in fresh, delicate colour, seems to have been regarded as useful documentary rather than bona fide art. Even when the academy did admit watercolours to its exhibition walls, it did so grudgingly, crowding them together in dark corners where they appeared to sulk.

By the early 19th century artists who worked mainly in watercolour developed their own clubs, cultures and marketing strategies. From the start there was something inherently middle class about the whole enterprise. Watercolours tended to be both small in size and polite in tone, making them ideally suited to the wall of a suburban sitting room. There was less embarrassment, too, about the need for artists to make a sale. Buyers who saw something they liked hanging on the exhibition wall could simply put down a deposit before returning several days later to carry off their purchase under their arm.

Luckily there were always painters with sufficient confidence or cheek to pay no attention to the rules, whether old or new. William Blake, who worked in watercolour, simply showed his work at home. Turner, who used both watercolour and oils, hung both media side by side in his own Harley Street gallery. Meanwhile, a new generation of painters, including several of the pre-Raphaelites, pointedly ignored expectations about what watercolour could and couldn't do. In 1864 Edward Burne-Jones caused a storm when he exhibited The Merciful Knight at the Old Water Colour Society. The greybeards hated the archaism of Burne-Jones's dense application of scumbled and rubbed watercolour, designed to mimic the tempera techniques of early renaissance painters. In an echo of the Royal Academy's early high-handedness, the OWCS hung The Merciful Knight high up behind the door, in the hope that no one would see.

This radical reimagining of watercolour by Burne-Jones and others meant that by the beginning of the 20th century the medium had lost any sapping associations with sentimentality. Around 1927 the architect Charles Rennie Macintosh, then living in the Pyrenees, made a wonderful watercolour of the village of Fetges which draws on his art nouveau heritage to produce a picture of piercing clarity and strong structural rhythm. Ten years later Edward Burra was using watercolour to very different effect, rendering the interior of a Mexican church in bloody, muddy tones complete with an agonised Christ. It was a world away from Victorian ladies and their flower drawings.

Even when watercolour artists of the 20th century did consciously look back to the golden age, it wasn't simply an exercise in comforting nostalgia. What fascinated John Piper and Eric Ravilious in the interwar period was the way that painters such as Cotman and Girtin appeared so radically modern in their exploration of their chosen medium. Looked at this way, Cotman's landscapes of the early 1800s become more than simply exquisite renderings of natural forms. By massing colours into abstract blocks rather than striving after mere mimesis, the artist offers a self-conscious commentary on the possibilities and limits of watercolour. You can see some of that complexity recouped in Ravilious's 1939 painting The Vale of the White Horse, in which the chalk downlands of southern England have been simplified into rolls of colour, atop which sits the abstraction of the ancient cut-out horse. Piper, the closest thing the neo-romantics had to a spokesman, does something similar in his 1944 study of rocks in Snowdonia, where elements of the sublime so evident in the work of Girtin have been reworked into a sinister commentary on the breakdown of all natural forms, including the human body.

Many of their contemporaries followed Piper and Ravilious in using watercolour to capture the trauma of the 1940s. The qualities that had made the medium so useful to the landscapists of the golden age 150 years earlier – portability, cheapness, a certain tactful reticence – made it equally serviceable in a war zone. Nor was it only professional artists who noticed. Burra, exempted from service on account of his chronic ill-health, was concerned to learn in 1940 of a severe shortage of paintbrushes: apparently they had been bought up by servicemen keen to fill their long evenings under canvas. Indeed, it was one of these ordinary soldiers who produced perhaps the most startling image in the whole Tate exhibition. Following the liberation of Belsen in April 1945, Eric Taylor compiled a large graphic watercolour showing piles of ravaged corpses, their skeletal outlines made jagged by the artist's angry accents of colour.

These days watercolour seems to be making a virtue of its old reputation for quiet discretion. The later work in the exhibition shows contemporary artists using the medium to explore inner visions rather than outer spectacle. Tracey Emin's Berlin the Last Week in April 1998 is a delicate smudge of watery monochrome which wistfully recalls an intimate bath taken with a lover in a hotel room. In Eighty Three, Nicola Durvasula uses layers of watercolour to build up a stylised figure which seems to come from deep within the vocabulary of ancient Indian art. The twist, though, comes in the fact that the figure squats not on paper designed for watercolour but on a sheet torn out from a pre-ruled account book. The lines show through in a way that recalls the "wove" paper used by early watercolourists such as Samuel Scott in the mid 18th century. Finally there is the late Patrick Heron, who used gouache to paint his bold colour abstracts because, he insisted, water-based paint gave him a fluidity (and hence a subject: the materiality of his own art) that oils could simply never manage.

Watercolour is at Tate Britain from 16 February until 21 August. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 14 2010

Art exhibition for art's sake

First major exhibition to gather work of 19th-century artists including pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde and William Morris

At a time of anxious austerity it could be just what is needed: an examination of one of the most flamboyant and joyously bohemian art movements there has ever been.

The V&A announced today that it is to mount the first ever major exhibition devoted to the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century, looking at a group of artists who placed the importance of beauty above everything else and followed a mantra that said let us value art for art's sake.

The show will bring together 300 objects, including 60 paintings, to celebrate a British movement that flourished between 1860 and 1900 and whose members included pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Frederic Leighton as well as Oscar Wilde and William Morris.

Co-curator Stephen Calloway said now was a particularly good time to shine a spotlight on the aesthetes. "In times of austerity fantasy always seems to be the thing, but I think it's particularly interesting at the moment because people, I suspect, are becoming rather tired of ugliness and things which are not well made and art that isn't well drawn."

Calloway said there was much contemporary art and design that was not aiming to be beautiful or comfortable to live with. "So the idea of looking at an art movement where, consciously, beauty and quality are central ideas seems to me extraordinarily timely.

"A lot of people would like a return to a kind of art and a kind of decoration that is all about pleasure of the eye and the beauty of being within a complete environment."

The aesthetes were passionate and serious-minded, reacting against Victorian values which said that all art had to have a purpose and also against a kind of pervading ugliness seen, for example, at the 1851 Great Exhibition, with its rather hideous and huge furniture.

It started out as a group of people amusing themselves in their own houses, becoming a wider movement that people were eager to buy in to. It was the first art movement to inspire an entire lifestyle. Suddenly the middle classes were aspiring to create their own beautiful interiors and Liberty became purveyors of all that was gorgeous.

The show will include numerous loans from private collections – including Andrew Lloyd Webber's – and will also feature paintings which use models who were not conventionally beautiful by the standards of the day. Women such as Elizabeth Siddal, a model for many of the pre-Raphaelites, whose pale skin and copper red hair was held to be ugly by most Victorians.

Of course not everyone was won over and enchanted by the aesthetes, and the show will include Punch magazine cartoons satirising the movement and a novelty teapot by James Hadley which poked fun at Wilde and his belief that by surrounding yourself with beautiful things you become beautiful. The spout is a man's effete arm in the air and the inscription reads: "Fearful consequences, through the laws of natural selection and evolution, of living up to one's teapot."

The exhibition, which will travel to Paris and San Francisco, also marks the first sponsorship of a V&A show by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 11 2010

Pre-Raphaelite paintings

Stephen Wildman, director of the Ruskin Library, chooses his favourites from the Brotherhood

1 John Everett Millais: Isabella (1848-49)

There were seven members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) founded in 1848, all young artists or writers of a romantic and rebellious nature, dissatisfied with what was taught and exhibited at the Royal Academy. They took their inspiration and what the critic John Ruskin called their "unfortunate and somewhat ludicrous" name, from the idea that art before the time of Raphael – early Renaissance painting – was more direct and honest than what was later promoted in academies and textbooks. Isabella was one of the group's first major paintings. It was shown at the RA in 1849 and carries the initials PRB, carved on the chair leg. Millais combined extreme profiles and flattened perspective with sharp detail and vibrant colour. The subject the doomed lovers Lorenzo and Isabella, from Keats's 1818 poem Isabella, or The Pot of Basil.

2 Arthur Hughes: The Long Engagement (1859)

Inspired by the pre-Raphaelites while a student at the Royal Academy, Hughes maintained their style and themes long after the PRB had disbanded. He specialised in literary and romantic subjects with figures often in landscape settings, using a distinctive palette including purple from newly available pigments. This memorable two-figure composition – not forgetting the faithful dog – is a poignant commentary on a contemporary social issue: the clergyman is too poorly paid to marry, and during their long engagement ivy has grown over the name of his beloved, cut into the tree.

3 Henry Wallis: Chatterton (1855-56)

Striking images of single or double figures, frozen at a moment of tension or crisis, or even death, were a mainstay of pre-Raphaelite art. Wallis's re-creation of the suicide by poison of Thomas Chatterton, the gifted young 18th-century poet, has become an icon of the neglected genius starving in his attic. By 1856, when this was shown at the Royal Academy, pre-Raphaelitism had all but won its battle, and the young Wallis "found himself famous". There are typical pre-Raphaelite personal complications behind the painting: the model for Chatterton was the poet and novelist George Meredith, whose wife Mary Ellen ran off with the painter two years later.

4 Millais: Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop) (1849-50)

This created a furore when first shown at the Royal Academy. Many were outraged by its realistic treatment of the life of Christ. So strong was the pre-Raphaelite principle of truth to nature that Millais did part of his work in an actual carpenter's shop: for the figure of Joseph the head of the artist's father was used in conjunction with the carefully observed artisan's body. Charles Dickens, a poor judge of art, was among many caustic critics, but Queen Victoria had it brought from the Academy for a private viewing.

5 Millais: Ophelia (1851-52)

Shakespeare provided a rich source for pre-Raphaelite paintings, but rarely for simple theatrical effect. Millais uses the drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet for a bravura demonstration of close nature study, many of the plants also carrying symbolic significance, including forget-me-nots and the poppy for death. The setting is the Hogsmill River at Ewell in Surrey, and the model, the red-headed Elizabeth Siddal, famously posed in a bath of water heated by lamps, catching a terrible cold when they went out.

6 Edward Burne-Jones: Laus Veneris (1873-75)

Burne-Jones is the best known among the second generation of painters who were connected with the PRB but who could be better called late romantic or symbolist (post-pre-Raphaelite would be accurate, but sounds ridiculous). A fellow student at Oxford University with William Morris, he owed much to early encouragement from Rossetti and Ruskin, but gradually developed his own style, absorbing Old Master and classical motifs. A sensuous languor and a synaesthesia of art, sex and music pervade Laus Veneris (The Song of Venus), which loosely evokes the German legend of Tannhäuser, filtered through the poetry of Algernon Swinburne (a close friend) as well as the Wagner opera of 1861.

7 William Holman Hunt: The Light of the World (1851-53)

The most earnestly religious member of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood PRB, Holman Hunt spent two years in the Holy Land from 1854, working on The Scapegoat and The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple. Before he left, he completed this picture and its secular counterpart, The Awakening Conscience. Each combines moral truth with painterly realism, in a way that delighted Ruskin, who wrote letters of praise to the Times. Hunt told a friend that he had painted it "with what I thought to be divine command, and not simply as a good subject". A larger and later version (painted in 1900) hangs in St Paul's Cathedral

8 Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Blue Bower (1865)

Of Italian parentage but born in London, Rossetti was the flamboyant driving force behind the PRB, and also a celebrated poet. His early work was mostly in watercolour, concentrating on medieval romantic themes such as the Arthurian legend, and he began painting in oils seriously only in the 1860s. Elizabeth Siddal had been his model, mistress and wife, but after her suicide in 1862 Rossetti turned to the earthier Sarah Cox, better known as Fanny Cornforth. Lacking any specific subject, The Blue Bower is a typical celebration of controlled female sensuality, often matched in his poetry. Passion flowers add to the atmosphere and the symbolism, together with exotic details such as the Indian jewel and Japanese musical instrument.

9 Ford Madox Brown: The Last of England (1852-55)

This famous emigration scene was inspired by the departure for Australia in 1852 of the PRB sculptor Thomas Woolner. A little older than the others, Brown was not a member of the PRB but was intimately associated with them. By eliminating the corners and emphasising the enclosing contours, he provides an almost telescopic focus on the apprehensive couple, whose baby is wrapped in the mother's shawl. The figures were based on Brown and his wife, Emma, along with their children Katty and Oliver. A long-suffering perfectionist, it took Brown three years to complete the picture.

10 Ford Madox Brown: An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead (1852-55)

Even with the foreground figures, this is essentially a piece of pure landscape, representing a view over Hampstead Heath towards Highgate. Other PRB painters also succeeded in making an apparently uninspiring view compelling by a devotion to the most precise detail, rather than following the tradition of Constable by re-arranging the subject for pictorial effect. This baffled Ruskin, who liked some meaning in a picture and asked Brown why he had painted "such a very ugly subject". The artist replied, "Because it lay out of a back window." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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