National Portrait Gallery Rewrites Pre-Raphaelite History With A Feminine Twist

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, National Portrait Gallery ★★★★☆

National Portrait Gallery Rewrites Pre-Raphaelite History With A Feminine Twist Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, National Portrait Gallery 4
Marie Spartali Stillman by Ford Madox Brown. One of 12 women in this show. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

Red haired beautiful women staring intently out of the painting, tick. Over the top mythological scenes, tick. So far this sounds like your typical Pre-Raphaelites exhibition. But there's a twist as it's out with the men and in with the women. National Portrait Gallery is celebrating the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters in a significant exhibition.

The Pre-Raphaelites 'brotherhood' — as it is known — does a disservice to the many women who supported them, posed for them, loved them and in many cases were accomplished artists themselves. It's time for these women to finally have their chance in the limelight.

Christina Rossetti as Mary in the annunciation painted by her brother. Image courtesy V&A.

If the names of the 12 women in this show aren’t familiar to Pre-Raphaelite fans, the faces will be. They appear in many of the paintings by the brotherhood — Lizzie Siddall is the model for John Everett Millais' most famous painting Ophelia, Fanny Cornforth is rather unflatteringly portrayed as both a 'fallen woman' and a prostitute in paintings by the brotherhood, and Fanny Eaton’s Jamaican heritage meant she was used as a model when a painting called for someone to portray an ‘exotic’ woman, such as an Indian nanny.

These women were more than mere models with Georgia Burne-Jones creating an impressive stitching of King Arthur and a paintings by Evelyn de Morgan of biblical scenes could easily pass for a work by one of her male counterparts — so much so that her initials on the signature of one painting were changed to that of a man's.

A particular highlight is the description of the fiery Christina Rossetti, sister to Dante, who was known for her angry outbursts. There’s a rather comical and sweet drawing by her brother of her throwing one of these tantrums with broken furniture around her; you can just imagine it being used by Dante to tease his sister.

Evelyn de Morgan was an impressive painter, creating this dream-like work. Image courtesy the De Morgan Foundation.

Now this wouldn't be the Pre-Raphelites without tales of their numerous affairs, often with their muses right under their spouses noses. There was famously Jane Morris' affair with Rossetti, which was so publicly known that Edward Burne-Jones sketched a caricature of Rossetti stumbling after Morris while carrying her pillows.

It was clear that these women were often left with no choice in life, such as Annie Miller who was 'discovered' by William Holman Hunt living in poverty in the backstreets of Chelsea. Hunt had her educated in 'manners suitable for a wife', but then ditched her for displaying 'frivolity and wilfulness' — clearly upset by a woman that was no longer his obedient servant.

It's important for exhibitions like this to ensure prominent women are not forgotten by art history. But a question lingers on at the end. Yes some of the work here is impressive, but how much more so could it have been if they were given the same creative freedoms as the men in their lives?

It seems poignant to end this revealing exhibition with some beautiful lines of poetry by Christina Rossetti that hinted at her fate:

Yet if you should forget me ... do not grieve ... Better by far you should forget and smile, Than that you should remember and be sad.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is on at National Portrait Gallery until 26 January. Tickets are £17-20.

Last Updated 17 October 2019