Exciting news! What will surely be one of the blockbuster art exhibitions of next year was announced in last week’s Evening Standard after a press release from the National Portrait Gallery. 160 years after the first pictures were exhibited by the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1849, an exhibition – ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ – will open at the NPG on 17 October 2019 and run until 26 January 2020.
The exhibition explores the overlooked contribution of twelve women who were connected to the artistic movement in different ways. Featuring new discoveries and unseen works from public and private collections across the world, the exhibition reveals the women behind the pictures and their creative roles in the Pre-Raphaelite’s successive phases between 1850 and 1900.
Women, such as Joanna Wells (nee Boyce), a Pre-Raphaelite artist in her own right whose work has been largely omitted from the history of the movement, together with Marie Spartali Stillman and Evelyn de Morgan, whose art also shaped the development of Pre-Raphaelitism alongside their male counterparts will be on public display for the first time alongside works such as Thou Bird of God by Wells, which hasn’t been exhibited for over 25 years.
Through paintings, photographs, manuscripts and personal items, ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ also explores the significant roles women played as models, muses and helpmates who supported and sustained the artistic output of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The exhibition tells the story of Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth, who inspired and modelled for some of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood paintings, and introduces Jamaican born model, Fanny Eaton, whose life story is presented in public for the first time.
Also featured is Christina Rossetti, the poet of Pre-Raphaelitism and a model for early paintings, and Effie Millais (nee Gray) and Georgiana Burne-Jones, whose domestic support underpinned their husbands’ artistic and social successes, while relinquishing their own ambitions in the process.
For the first time Elizabeth Siddal, who famously modelled for John Everett Milliais’ Ophelia, is presented as an artist as well as a sitter, alongside Jane Morris and Maria Zambaco who also entered the art world as models, and later became individual muses and icons of the movement. Both Morris and Zambaco also created work of their own in pictures, embroidery and sculpture much of which will be on public display for the first time.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were young men aiming to overturn the conventions of Victorian Art. As the self-styled ‘Young Painters of England’ they challenged the previous generation with startling hues and compositions inspired by early renaissance painting. The names of John Millais, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris are now well-known, and have become synonymous with the Romantic notion of the male genius. ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ shows them in new light, both supportive of and dependent on the women in their lives and art.
Dr Jan Marsh, Curator of ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ said: “When people think of Pre-Raphaelitism they think of beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours. Far from passive mannequins, as members of an immensely creative social circle, these women actively helped form the Pre-Raphaelite movement as we know it. It is time to acknowledge their agency and explore their contributions.”
Quartet will reprint their edition of Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood in good time for the exhibition with a new Introduction written by Dr Marsh. Until then, copies of her other title, The Legend of Elizabeth Siddall, remain on sale and can be bought from the Quartet website.
Why not treat yourself for a copy during the festive season and even if you have a copy, buy another one to give to a friend.