This exhibition was first mooted by curator Christopher Newall nearly a decade ago. It seems incredible that it has taken this long for the Walker to celebrate the City of Liverpool’s longstanding association with one of the most significant British art movements. Particularly given the enduring popularity of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the wealth of its treasures held by the galleries of Merseyside.
Liverpool has always had a mischievous, rebellious side, one which has both attracted and nurtured creatives and the leftfield. Thus it was only natural that a small group of rebellious, hot-headed young men found a ready audience for their work in this city.
Several nouveau-riche industrialists sought to use their new found fortunes to build art collections which would cement their social status. They wanted to purchase works that both demonstrated their modern taste and were more affordable than the Old Masters. Enter the Pre-Raphaelites, whose works were regular contributors to the annual Liverpool exhibition. Less prestigious than the Royal Academy exhibitions perhaps, but one which offered a new lucrative income stream to ambitious artists.
A noteworthy inclusion is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Salutation of Beatrice (1881/2), a work which combines his twin obsessions of Jane Morris and the poetry of Dante Alighieri and up until now had never been publicly exhibited. Fearing criticism, Rossetti hated exhibiting his work, preferring instead to rely on patrons to support his endeavours. One of whom was the shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland whose descendants still own this painting.
Holman-hunt and Millais are both well represented in the collection of Lord Lever, whose gallery he built in his wife’s honour stands across the Mersey in Port Sunlight and is conveniently undergoing substantial renovation. Holman’s Hunt’s Scapegoat is magnificent and bizarre in equal measure. The vivacity of the colours can be better appreciated hung lower and closer to the viewer than in its usual home.
Another man who made his fortune from shipping, George Holt filled his Liverpool mansion, Sudley House, with pre-Raphaelite works. Holt had a fondness for John Melhuish Strudwick. A criminally under-rated artist whose Love’s Palace shows the stylistic and thematic influence of the pre-Raphaelites to be evident nearly half a decade after Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman-Hunt and John Everett Millais first concocted an artistic manifesto.
The beauty about this exhibition is it gives the curator freedom to move away from these big hitters and introduce the viewer to lesser known names, a number of which lived and worked in Liverpool. The landscapes of Daniel Alexander Williamson are especially noteworthy and one wonders how different the artist’s career would had been, had he persevered with London life rather than seek the solace of Cumbria.
That said there are several unusual inclusions. Millais’ Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru is all the more striking knowing the artist painted it aged sixteen, but it shows none of the antipathy towards Academy art that initiated pre-Raphaelitism. William Dyce’s pair of biblical themed landscapes are well executed works, but rather oddly place Jesus in the middle of what is very clearly the Scottish Highlands. An artistic liberty which would never have been taken by Holman-Hunt, who was so keen to capture authentic biblical landscapes he travelled to the holy land, paints in hand.
A series of small work on paper by James MacNeill Whistler, whilst interesting enough, seem an unconventional and ill-fitting inclusion. As do the landscapes of William Davis which seem to conflict with Ruskin’s ‘truth to nature’ ethos adopted as gospel by the brotherhood. Instead Davis’s loose brush strokes and unremarkable themes seem to draw their influence more from Impressionism.
These small criticisms apart, this exhibition by combining the familiar with the new manages to broaden our understanding of the legacy of pre-Raphaelitism. Perhaps more importantly it locates an important art history beacon outside of London and plants it firmly in the heart of rebellious and unique Liverpool.
Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion is at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool until 5 June 2016