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Victorian Vanguard

By: Sallie Brady

Not unless you’ve sought them out in Britain’s museums or have been a dinner guest at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s London home are you likely to have been face-to-face with many Pre-Raphaelite pictures. The Victorian school of painting began when the Young British Artists of their day rebelled against the Renaissance methods of the Royal Academy and ended up influencing three generation of artists. But the meticulous and often beautifully painted canvases—which tend to feature alluring, vaguely threatening and lissome women in scenes inspired by the Bible, the Middle Ages, Shakespeare and romantic verse—have largely remained in the United Kingdom. It’s only recently, as Britain has finally grown to stop using the word “Victorian” as a pejorative, that a new generation of curators and collectors has come to fully appreciate these distinctive painters and launch them on the traveling exhibitions they deserve.

If you weren’t lucky enough to view this past summer’s Sin and Salvation: William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; or Millais, an exhibition of John Everett Millais’ work that traveled from Tate Britain to the Van Gogh Museum and Japan last year, you can still catch J. W. Waterhouse: Garden of Enchantment, the blockbuster Royal Academy import at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Edward Burne-Jones: The Earthly Paradise at Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Both are on view through Feb. 7. Also look forward to The Victorian Avant Garde: Whistler, Godwin and the Aesthetic Movement, which will be at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in early 2012 following a spring 2011 showing at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and a major Pre-Raphaelite show that Tate Britain is said to be mounting, also in 2012.

Exposure to Pre-Raphaelite paintings naturally leads to a desire to learn more about these revolutionary artists’ lives, which constituted a veritable Victorian soap opera of lust, yearning and despair. The story line is so juicy that this year the BBC even launched a dramatic miniseries, Desperate Romantics, that of course heightened the more carnal aspects of the painters’ world—an approach that, London dealers admit, did result in phone calls from new collectors. While based on the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the series pushes the truth a bit. “If they smoked, drank and shagged as much as they do in the BBC series, they would never have finished those paintings,” says one dealer of Victorian pictures.

The Pre-Raphaelite tale needs little heightening. It is naturally rich, beginning one late summer night in 1848 when a “League of Sincerity” was formed by Millais, a boy-wonder natural draftsman who was admitted to the Royal Academy at age 11; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the charismatic Anglo-Italian poet who, in his early years, spent more time talking than painting; and the fiercely disciplined, obsessive William Holman Hunt. Inspired by some engraved copies of 14th-century Italian frescoes that they were inspecting that night, they vowed to reject the High Renaissance ideals and academic methods they were being taught at the Royal Academy and to instead create art that blazed with the freshness and realism of the early Renaissance. Calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or P.R.B., initials which, early on, they signed to their works, the idealistic young painters wanted the plucked-from-real-life faces and landscapes seen in works by Jan van Eyck and Giotto transformed into lofty, historical and poetic vignettes. To accomplish this they painted one another, as well as fellow artists like Ford Madox Brown and Arthur Hughes, whom they drew into their circle. They recruited everyday women to sit for them: hat-shop girls and prostitutes who progressed from modeling for the Virgin Mary and Ophelia to become girlfriends, wives and lovers to the artists.

The P.R.B.’s earliest public showings were panned. Even Charles Dickens made fun of Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents (1849) and Hunt’s A Converted British Family Rescuing a Missionary From the Persecution of the Druids (1850) didn’t fare much better. It would take the noted critic John Ruskin to turn the group’s fate around. Following a visit to the Royal Academy’s 1851 exhibition, which included Millais’ seminal painting Mariana (1851) depicting the jilted lover from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name, Ruskin defended the P.R.B. in letters to The Times. The son of a wealthy wine importer, who grew up surrounded by Turners, Ruskin had become a well-established authority with the publication of his book Modern Painters in 1843. Now he was not only defending the young rebels; he wanted to buy a Millais himself.

His meeting with Millais would change Ruskin’s life forever. Eventually commissioning a portrait to be painted against the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, Ruskin invited the artist to join him and his young wife, Effie, on holiday. The Ruskins’ loveless—and unconsummated—marriage was already nearing the breaking point when Effie fell for Millais, resulting in an annulment from her aloof husband and a future as wife and model to the painter and mother of their eight children. Millais went on to paint some of the P.R.B.’s masterpieces, such as Lorenzo & Isabella (1849) and Ophelia (1852), before becoming more mainstream in his style and eventually going establishment as president of the Royal Academy.

Ruskin also championed Hunt and Rossetti. Hunt’s Light of the World (1853), depicting Christ by lantern-light, would become the Victorian era’s best-known religious image, and The Awakening Conscience (1853) raised eyebrows for depicting a young prostitute in the lap of her suitor—with a moral message, of course. Hunt was the only member of the Brotherhood to follow the Orientalist painters to the Holy Land, where his quest for realism cost the lives of two goats who expired on the shores of the Dead Sea while modeling for The Scapegoat (1854).

Rossetti, impatient by nature and less disciplined than his colleagues in the P.R.B., had dropped out of the Royal Academy before getting to advanced drawing and oil painting. As a result he had to work hard at his art, producing a smaller body of work during his Pre-Raphaelite years than those of Hunt and Millais. Ironically, it was Rossetti’s lack of formal training that gave him the freedom to develop the highly original, iconic style that he lavished on his Venetian-style half-portraits of women, such as The Blue Bower (1865), Bocca Baciata (1859) and the haunting Beata Beatrix (1863–70), a portrayal of the unattainable beloved of Dante Alighieri. This painting, incidentally, features the same redheaded model, Lizzie Siddal, who had floated in a freezing tin bathtub to model for Millais’ Ophelia. Rossetti lived with her, married her, cheated on her and only finished Beata Beatrix after she died at the age of 33 of a drug overdose, her constitution permanently weakened from the pneumonia she contracted while posing for Millais.

In 1854 the P.R.B. officially disbanded, though its members continued to work with a vengeance, to influence the next generation of artists. Purists, usually British scholars, will limit the Pre-Raphaelite period to the years of the Brotherhood (1848–53), but the larger art world sees the movement as continuing to flourish during the Edwardian era and through the whole career of John William Waterhouse, which ended with the outbreak of World War I.

The second wave of Pre-Raphaelites included contemporaries and friends of the first. William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, chums from Oxford, met the former members of the P.R.B. in 1856 and quickly became part of their circle. That was the year in which Jane Burden, a stableman’s daughter who would later become Morris’ wife, began modeling for Rossetti, who developed an obsession with her melancholy beauty—alabaster skin, jet black hair and a perma-knitted brow—painting her as Mariana (1870), Proserpine (1871) and Astarte Syriaca (1877). The Morrises entertained the group frequently at Red House, the family’s home in Kent that was an homage to Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement, featuring murals and stained glass by Burne-Jones. Morris tolerated his wife’s affair with Rossetti, which ended when the painter suffered a nervous breakdown.

It was at Rossetti’s encouragement that Burne-Jones began drawing and painting. Intending to become a clergyman after Oxford, Burne-Jones was well versed in the Bible and enchanted by medieval tales. Rossetti taught him to transfer those images to paper. Morris used Burne-Jones’ artistry for stained glass made by his design firm, Morris & Co., and with Rossetti’s help progressed from ink drawings to watercolors to the dramatic Symbolist paintings for which he is best known. The Beguiling of Merlin (1874), his first major success, was shown at the premier exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery, a rival to the Royal Academy. As Rossetti became mired in personal problems, Burne-Jones assumed the mantle of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, until he, too, became reclusive. He was consumed in his final years with making one painting, The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (1881–98), which he believed foreshadowed his own death. The painting, like a handful of other Victorian masterpieces, left Britain in the mid-1960s when the movement was still considered unfashionable, and ended up in Puerto Rico’s Museo de Arte de Ponce.

But the influence of the Brotherhood did not nod off with Arthur. The same year the P.R.B. exhibited in London for the first time, the leader of the so-called third generation of Pre-Raphaelites, Waterhouse, was born. Often called the movement’s most popular artist, Waterhouse was also a Royal Academy man whose work benefited from the flurry of movements in painting at the end of the 19th century. He absorbed the freedom of the aesthetic movement, the beautiful classical nudes of Frederic Lord Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Poynter. Most importantly, according to critics, his brushwork reflects his exposure to the French Naturalists and Impressionists, and it is this quality that makes his works so appealing to those who grew up looking at French painting. He also became a Pre-Raphaelite. After seeing Millais’ Ophelia in 1886, Waterhouse, like his earlier brethren, turned to the poems of Tennyson for inspiration and painted The Lady of Shalott (1888), which today holds the honor of being Tate Britain’s most popular postcard. This was followed by his own version of Ophelia (1889). Waterhouse’s oeuvre is full of exquisitely painted, languid, slightly disturbing maidens set in lush naturalistic settings derived from ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, romantic poetry and his very wild imagination.

Despite his popularity with his contemporaries, after two World Wars Waterhouse fell out of favor. “In the 1940s and ’50s, two British museums deaccessioned Waterhouse works,” says Peter Trippi, who curated this year’s Waterhouse show at the Royal Academy. “It wasn’t until the late ’60s that these paintings started to move back into fashion.”

At several removes from the Victorian era, the ’60s generation could appreciate the opium-induced fantasies and bare-breasted beauties of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the paintings started showing up in unlikely places, such as on pop album covers and on posters on university dorm-room walls. And just as Hollywood types such as Cecil B. DeMille and even Candid Camera’s Allen Funt were drawn to the drama of Alma-Tadema, rock stars like Jimmy Page and Rod Stewart and musical theater bigwigs like Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice wanted Pre-Raphaelites.

“It was the early ’70s, and Tim Rice had some money at the time and he was walking on Bond Street and wandered into the Fine Art Society, where he fell in love with these things,” says Trippi, referring to the Emmy-award winning lyricist who loaned four Waterhouses to the present exhibition. The Fine Art Society, which specializes in 19th-century British paintings, also helped assemble the Victorian collection of Kip Forbes, who famously told his father, Malcolm, that he could put together a top-quality Pre-Raphaelite collection for the same price his father paid for a single Monet Water Lily. The Fine Art Society is now selling some of Forbes’ collection, which includes works by Millais, Alma-Tadema and Albert Moore. Moore’s Jasmine set an artist’s record of £1.77 million in 2008 at Christie’s.

The salesrooms have proven Waterhouse to be the star of three generations of Pre-Raphaelites. The artist, who died leaving no diaries or papers and therefore whose personal life is little known, made news in 2001 when London dealer Peter Nahum bought his St. Cecilia for a collector—reportedly Lloyd-Webber—for £6.6 million, still the record for a Victorian painting. “I always said that the artist who would end up the most expensive would be Waterhouse,” says Nahum, a 25-year-veteran who established Sotheby’s Victorian paintings department in the early 1970s. “Some of the other Pre-Raphaelites have hard edges; Burne-Jones is intellectual; Rossetti is right over the top; and self-made men don’t like to be challenged by their pictures.”

Nahum is referring to the Pre-Raphaelite collecting clique, whose most famous member is Lloyd-Webber. He owns hundreds of the most important Victorian paintings, which he began snapping up for a song in the early ’70s with the help of his curator, David Mason of MacConnal-Mason Gallery in London. In 2003 the Royal Academy mounted his collection, Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters, and in the catalogue, Lloyd-Webber claims that when he asked his grandmother for a £50 loan to buy Lord Leighton’s Flaming June, now dubbed the “Mona Lisa of Victorian art,” she responded, “I will not have Victorian junk in my flat.”

“I don’t believe that story,” says Rupert Maas of Maas Gallery in London, which was founded in 1960 by Rupert’s father, Jeremy, a noted academic, author and a pioneer of the Victorian picture trade. “When my father bought Flaming June for £1,000 in 1962, everyone said he was mad, and when he sold it for £2,000 everyone said he was bad.” Like Burne-Jones’ Arthur, the painting went to the Museo de Arte de Ponce, where, Maas says, it’s insured for $30 million.

Maas has had Waterhouse’s St. Cecilia three times, and most recently offered it in vain to the same client who later bought it for the record price at auction. “On behalf of the owner, I was asking £2.5 million, which I was made to feel was asking too much. The owner put it in to Christie’s, where it went for £6.6 million. These were competing collectors who liked to fight their battles publicly.”

Maas and Nahum both point to a triumvirate of collectors who, in the late 1980s and early ’90s pushed prices for Pre-Raphaelites sky-high: Lloyd-Webber, New Jersey-based stockbroker Jerry Davis and Australian entrepreneur John Schaeffer. The fact that so many Pre-Raphaelites are owned by British museums and by Lloyd-Webber means that few paintings get to market. “Many of our collectors have bought in the past 40 years,” says Martin Beisly, Christie’s international head of Victorian pictures, “unlike their predecessors who may have inherited and wanted to sell.”

“It’s so rare to find things from that period, particularly from the Brotherhood,” says Grant Ford, Sotheby’s senior director for Victorian paintings. “The really good Pre-Raphaelites are worth millions. If we had one it would have huge international interest.” At its Victorian sale in London this month, Sotheby’s will offer academic drawings by Burne-Jones, estimated from £2,000–5,000, and Short Change, by James Collinson, an early member of the Brotherhood.

Increasing international interest in Pre-Raphaelites, particularly from Russia, South America, China, Taiwan and the U.S., means that when good pictures do come to market, there’s a good chance they could leave Britain—something that Nahum believes is still possible, because of the country’s lingering, self-hating grudge against the Victorian era. “Even today,” he says, “the British government would not stop an important Pre-Raphaelite from leaving this country.”

Author: admin | Publish Date: December 2009

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