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.
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!