Tate Britain’s rather brilliant exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood opens this week. It cover much the same ground as the recent and slightly more brilliant Cult of Beauty at the V&A, but with – naturally – greater emphasis on the visual arts over the decorative.
One interesting thread running through the exhibition is the use of London as a landscape. The PRB were all connected to London and liked to paint outdoors so the city naturally appeared in a number of their paintings, often uncredited. This painting by William Holman Hunt – Rienzi, Vowing To Obtain Justice – was painted outdoors in Lambeth and Hampstead Heath, while famous images like Ophelia by John Everett Millais used the countryside of now suburban Ewell as the backdrop.
Another of the most famous PRB paintings is The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis, a tragic tableaux in which London’s skyline can be glimpsed through the open window. The vividness of Chatterton’s hair, incidentally, really has to be seen in person if possible.
More obvious London images were to follow. This is Charles Allston Collins’ bucolic take on May, In The Regent’s Park, from his home in Hanover Terrace. Collins was not an official member of the PRB, but his style was sympathetic and this was considered ‘absurd’ when first exhibited, though presumably not because of the sheep seen frolicking in the park in the background.
Also closely affiliated with the PRB was Ford Madox Brown, and his wonderful view of Hampstead from his bedroom window – An English Autumn Afternoon. Again, this was considered ugly by contemporary critics. Kenwood House can be seen top left, but London remains a distant – if rapidly advancing – presence.
Brown offered a very different and more recognisable take on Hampstead in perhaps his greatest painting, Work, which depicted navvies digging up a Hampstead road to lay water pipes. It’s a marvellous evocation of a London street and I’m pretty sure those navvies are still laying water pipes in London to this day. See them all at Tate Britain from Wednesday 12 Sept, 2012.