Pre-Raphaelites: An Introduction To Our Collection // Iona

  In 1848 the Royal Academy’s stuffy and restricting rules were snuffed out by three anarchic students, whose names you might recognise: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. These founding members decided to form a Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in rebellion against Victorian art, because they were sick of the dull, predictable and unrealistic reflections of their world. They encouraged ideas for art in a bold and realistic alternative to the stale Royal Academy dogma; overruling tradition and the tame conventions of Victorian culture.

  The founding year of the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) was a turbulent period in history; with widespread revolutions across Europe and uprisings for social reform which unsettled Britain. Karl Marx published his communist manifesto; mass industrialisation; political upheaval and social ills. With the changing politics and a growth in free thinking; changes in the art world were reflecting these shifts.

John Everett Millais  Winter Fuel  1873 © Manchester City Galleries

John Everett Millais Winter Fuel 1873
© Manchester City Galleries

Today, we might see Pre-Raphaelite art as “pretty” chocolate-box- styles and very typical of what we know as traditional Victorian art. However, the movement was aiming to radically reform British art with “new styles” influenced by the period of art before Raphael (although they were not rejecting the style of Raphael's art, but rather the art of his followers). Their main inspiration was taken from 15th century Flemish art; a style they wanted to bottle up and re- address to their own generation. The Victorian audiences were very familiar with seeing paintings of idealised classical subjects and deities in muted colours. Therefore, the PRB’s rival techniques of bold, garish colours, realistic human depictions of Christ (some considered as blasphemous) and truthful portrayals of contemporary life were met with shock and critics were damning. Without the support of John Ruskin (a leading art critic of the time) they may not have gained such recognition!

 The PRB’s unorthodox themes can be found in William Holman Hunt’s Hireling Shepherd (displayed in Gallery 7) with a coarse looking couple, reclining in a secluded field. The hireling shepherd is leaning across the girl’s recumbent position, each of their hands are precariously placed and their cheeks flushed. Draped in tantilising scarlet red, she looks roused and against the luminous blue of his coat, reflecting his thirst. With the lamb of God on her lap and forbidden fruit strewed around, the image is suggestive of what will happen next….

That’s probably not the typical description you’d expect of a Victorian painting, maybe too racy and erotic for such a prude audience? However, many of William Holman Hunt’s paintings played key roles in the PRB’s controversial ideas for composition, striking colours and earthy, true to life portrayals. These techniques were used to provoke their radical movement; the anti- establishment art of the Victorians. Like the punk rebellion of their time, the PRB wasn’t just a period in art history, but shows art as our history.

William Holman Hunt  The Hireling Shepherd  1851 © Manchester City Galleries

William Holman Hunt The Hireling Shepherd 1851
© Manchester City Galleries

 Our collections of PRB paintings here in Manchester make up our most famous collection of works on permanent display (found on the first floor in Galleries 3-11). This collection upholds our gallery’s status and role in the city as an important source for study and research. Our collection attracts visitors from all over the world and people of different ages, backgrounds and levels of study. Other famous collections of PRB paintings can also be found on display in Birmingham Art Gallery, Kelmscott Manor, Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery and The V&A, amongst others. Our collection, especially the display in Gallery 7, presents a wealth of examples from the founding members and their followers; an arena for learning, reflection and inspiration.

Look out for my next post on The Pre-Raphaelites: Our Collection, coming soon!