The Pre-Raphaelites are artists forever associated with Victorian England. Rather than an art movement, these were a small group of artists who chose to break with painterly traditions and decided that art had lost its way and should revert to an age before Raphael — a bold decision.
In line with this philosophy, much of their early work bears similarities to that of the early Renaissance. Despite their dismissal of Raphael, Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Seeds and fruits of English poetry’ clearly takes inspiration in arrangement, if not in style, from the ‘School of Athens’.
Though these artists were united by their anti-establishment sentiment, they all experimented with different techniques — from Rossetti finding beauty in a masculine female form to Holman Hunt’s surreal and often nightmarish paintings.
Because of this variation in styles, the Tate’s decision to group the paintings by theme, such as history and nature, seems an odd one. By displaying all the Pre-Raphaelites together, the exhibition can be quite jarring to follow and it makes it difficult to chart each member’s individual artistic progress.
Yet there are many notable works present in this exhibition including Holman Hunt’s spectral ‘Triumph of the Innocents’ and a room dedicated to the textile output of William Morris’ company. The highlight, though, has to be John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, which beautifully captures the macabre scene of her drowning in a style that feels like an early Renoir yet predates it by several decades.
Sandwiched in time between the Romantics and Impressionists, the Pre-Raphaelites were, until recently, often overlooked, but their attitude of dismissing existing rules and openly experimenting produced some brilliant results.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is on at Tate Britain until 13 January. Admission is £14, concessions available.