A new focus on the pre-Raphaelites

Engrossed in copying a cast at the British Museum, the Victorian painter Holman Hunt was interrupted one day when “the door opened and a curly-headed lad came in and began skipping about the room. He danced round until he was behind me, looked at my drawing for a minute, then skipped off again. A week later I found the same boy drawing from a cast in another room, and returned the compliment by staring at the drawing. Millais, who of course it was, turned round suddenly and said, ‘Oh, I say, you’re the chap that was working in No 12 the other day. You ought to be in the Academy.’ ”

Hunt was then 16 years old and John Everett Millais 14. The prodigies “fell into a discussion on the conventionality and pedantry of art ... in the paintings of the day” and soon, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, they formed a sketching club – the precursor to the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

That this movement had its roots in drawing is not widely known: pre-Raphaelite works on paper are infrequently displayed. So the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to the subject, Birmingham’s The Poetry of Drawing, which launches on Saturday, is groundbreaking. It pulls attention away from the romantic narratives with which the pre-Raphaelites are associated and focuses instead on their formal qualities.

Showcasing Birmingham’s extensive pre-Raphaelite holdings, the world’s largest, along with private loans never before exhibited, it traces the shared rejection of academicism that first spurred these artists, and the nuances of difference that make each individual and arresting.

Three opening sketches from 1849 – Rossetti’s “Dante Drawing an Angel”, Millais’ “Garden Scene”, a cloistered idyll showing women sketching, and Hunt’s “Daniel Praying” – announce at once the group’s belief in the primacy of drawing and its spiritual home in a reimagined Middle Ages. Determinedly non-classical, Rossetti’s figures are stiff, spiky, awkward, as if reprised from medieval manuscripts; his Dante inhabits a study stuffed with medieval curios – lute, crucifix, Madonna – where each object is depicted in outline, with minimal perspective and only short parallel lines representing recession or shadow.

“Dante” offers literary elegance; “Daniel”, by contrast, portrays an elongated Old Testament character in trance-like prayer, imbuing Hunt’s picture with fervent religiosity. For Rossetti, noted artist and critic John Ruskin, the Bible was “only the greatest poem he knew”; for Hunt it was “not merely the greatest of Realities, but the only Reality”. Hunt never quite lost the gauche sincerity of “Daniel”, though as shown here he refined it to tenderness, as in “Heads of Mary and Jesus”, a study for Birmingham’s monumental “The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple”, exhibited alongside it here.

Already in place in the early drawings is the uneasy mix of extreme angular stylisation and obsessive care for detail that makes pre-Raphaelite compositions so bizarre. Even Millais, better trained than Hunt or Rossetti, exhibits this disjunction from the start: “The Garden” has the strained linearity, arches and ornamental borders of medieval illumination but also painstakingly observed plants and flowers. Millais’ drawings steadily unravel his struggle to undo his Academy schooling for more poetic expression.

In “Study for Mariana” (1850), he condenses and arches the body of Tennyson’s jilted heroine into a single, highly charged serpentine gesture of sensuality mingled with frustration. Devising a pose for the head of his drowning “Ophelia” (1852), he returns to Correggio’s “Ecce Homo”, repeating the swooning Mary with closed eyes, though adding individual traits – pale eyelashes, irregular features – of his model Elizabeth Siddal.

“Every pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person,” enthused Ruskin. In the show’s scholarly catalogue (Pre-Raphaelite Drawing, Thames & Hudson), curator Colin Cruise sites this impetus to realism as “part of a pan-European revolt against academic conventions”, and certainly the fresh, lesser-known pieces here – John Brett’s glowing watercolour “Gentian”, Simeon Solomon’s sexy priest “A Saint of the Eastern Church” – demonstrate vividly pre-Raphaelitism’s earnest truth-telling. Yet still these works are odder, more incongruous and unresolved, than those by their contemporaries, the French impressionists or Russian realists.

The reason, as this show dramatises, is that all the pre-Raphaelites wanted to have it both ways: fidelity to nature but also imaginative reverie in flight from the horrors of industrial Britain. Rossetti’s desperately observed portraits of his lover Jane Morris as an allegorical figure – Birmingham has the auburn-haired “Proserpine” – meld these contradictory drives most effectively, and a highlight here is a newly discovered portrait of Morris as brooding “Mnemosyne”, personification of memory in Greek myth.

Rossetti fixes Morris’s heavy dark hair, strong impassive features and pouting lips in the gentle medium of pastel, and although she looks unreal as a goddess, photographs reveal how close a likeness such a work was. “It’s hard to say whether she’s a grand synthesis of all the pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made – whether she’s an original or a copy. In either case, she’s a wonder,” wrote Henry James.

Such images mesmerised Rossetti’s followers, especially Edward Burne-Jones, who reckoned art “an enchanted world ... to which Rossetti had given him the key”. He does “rather pride himself on living apart ... refusing to consider himself as belonging to England and the 19th century,” noted the Victorian critic Harry Quilter, adding that “this very beautiful art is not of a kind which will do the world much good, or upon which any true school can be founded”.

Quilter was only half-right: pre-Raphaelitism would not fuel modernism but its exquisite artifice and sinuous lines did feed late 19th-century decoration, art nouveau and the arts and crafts movement, encouraging the collapse in hierarchy between fine and applied arts. William Morris was pivotal here but so was his friend Burne-Jones, born and raised in Birmingham and sensitised since childhood to art’s role as a weapon against industrial grime and Victorian utilitarianism.

Significant Burne-Jones paintings and watercolours include a trophy piece, the androgynous, willowy “Phyllis and Demophoon”, in which both lovers’ faces were modelled by his flamboyant Greek mistress Maria Zambuco just after she, like Phyllis, had tried to commit suicide. They are here dovetailed with the artist’s stained glass, furniture, ceramics, embroidery designs and book illustrations. Mostly on themes from Chaucer and the Bible, and fanciful in their medieval revivalism, these are escapist but they also constitute a Gesamtkunstwerk that has its own reality.

By thus bringing beauty into everyday life, the pre-Raphaelites surely did the world a great deal of good.

‘The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours’, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until May 15. www.bmag.org.uk

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, June 17-September 4 www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.