I managed a brief rush through the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the Tate last week. Much of it was familiar to me thanks to the prevalence of the more labour-oriented and allegorical works among the municipal galleries of our provincial cities, though I’d also been to a wonderful Holman Hunt show in Manchester a year or two ago.
My opinion on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had, before I went to the Tate exhibition, been rather fixed for some time: that William Holman Hunt was the only true master among them, that Ford Madox Brown (not a PRB member but a close associate and prominent in the Tate show) had moments of genuine greatness, that John Everett Millais could paint but perhaps wasn’t so hot on composition/subject selection, and that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the biggest hacks going, the Damien Hirst of his era.
This show, while enjoyable and rewarding, did nothing to alter my opinions (except perhaps raise Millais somewhat in my estimation). Holman Hunt towers above the rest, a real artistic giant, oozing pain and piety but melding his palette beautifully and imbuing the whole enterprise with a real heft. Of course everyone loves The Hireling Shepherd, The Light of the World and The Scapegoat, but I’m was most taken with The Shadow of Death and Isabella and the Pot of Basil.
Madox Brown has a few absolute gems. The Last of England has long been a favourite (those who know me won’t be surprised), but Work and The Pretty Baa-Lambs are both wonderful; Work and An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead draw me in particularly for their London-explorer interest.
Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (or Christ in the House of Bobby Charlton as it was always known in our house) was another highlight, though it dawned on me that as a child I always thought the dark-haired youth on the left was Jesus and that the stigmatised boy in the foreground was an interloper who had wandered into the workplace.
I can take or leave Burne-Jones and the rest of the mythological guff, but Rossetti really takes the biscuit; I think he’s a really terrible painter. The hype machine around him reminds of me of Damien Hirst and the Emperor’s New Clothes of crap Brit-Art. I almost said Rossetti reminds me of Peter Doherty, but that strikes me as rather unfair on the latter, for while he similarly is claimed as a sort of fin-de-siecle polymath, he at least is pretty good at one of his trades.
Anyhow, all told, I didn’t learn a great deal (which saddens me in a big exhibition) but then the boy was shouting his head off all day and we couldn’t linger, so perhaps I missed some subtleties. I’d never pass up the chance to see the wonderful Holman Hunts and Madox Browns though, so it was very much a worthwhile visit.