I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in Liverpool, as the exhibition I curated was on display at the city’s Central Library last month. On my last trip I found some time to head next door to the Walker Art Gallery to see the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion. I was very glad I did! The exhibition contains 120 works, ranging from well-known pieces to works being displayed for the first time.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti | Veus Verticordia | Oil on canvas | 83.8 x 71.2cm | 1863-68 | Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth
The purpose of this exhibition is to demonstrate Liverpool’s central importance to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Outside of London, it argues, the city was the most significant hotspot of Pre-Raphaelitism. There were two main reasons for this: the support offered to the Brotherhood by the Liverpool Academy, and the number of wealthy industrialists in the city who amassed significant collections of their works. The exhibition makes a convincing case for the artistic importance of Liverpool. It points out, for instance, that the city had the largest population of artists outside of London in the late nineteenth century. Its rich cultural life led several contemporary commentators to dub it the ‘New York of Europe’.
The first part of the exhibition looks at the role of the Liverpool Academy, which frequently exhibited and rewarded Pre-Raphaelite artists, even when they were still struggling to make a name for themselves in London. While the capital’s Royal Academy did not hold the works of these radical young artists in high regard, the self-made men of Liverpool welcomed their bold new movement which challenged the status quo. The second part of the show puts these collectors at its heart, profiling a number of wealthy industrialists and their collections of Pre-Raphaelite art. We meet such figures as George Rae, a stockbroker from Birkenhead, who amassed one of the largest collections of Rossetti’s works and allowed visitors into his home to view it. Also featured, of course, is William Hesketh Lever, the soap powder magnate who built the model town of Port Sunlight. Here he established the Lady Lever Art Gallery in order to make his art collection available to his workers. This contained many Pre-Raphaelite pieces, and the Gallery remains one of the best places in Britain to see works by the Brotherhood. It is brilliant to see patronage put at the heart of an exhibition like this, as it really unlocks an understanding of how the movement operated and evolved.
The final part of the collection focuses on Liverpool’s native artists who were influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism. It’s fascinating to see how these local artists adopted aspects of the Brotherhood’s values and aesthetics; most notably the idea of truth to nature. The exhibition features two areas which are modelled as Victorian domestic spaces, complete with William Morris wallpaper. On the walls are hung a wide selection of these Pre-Raphaelite-influenced works, giving the viewer a chance to see them in the context for which they were produced.
William Holman Hunt | Little Nell and Her Grandfather | Oil on canvas | 111.1 x 99 cm | 1845 | Museums Sheffield
The scale of the exhibition is impressive. A visit on a quiet weekday afternoon gave me the luxury of viewing familiar works such as Millais’ Isabella and Hunt’s The Scapegoat up close and unhurried by crowds. It was also a treat to see Millais’ ghostly The Eve of St. Agnes, lent by the Queen. Rossetti has always been my favourite Pre-Raphaelite (I wrote my MA dissertation on him!) so it was no surprise that I was most taken by his Venus Verticordia, from the Russell-Cotes Gallery. Not having visited this gallery, I hadn’t seen this picture before – it’s certainly a stunner! Another piece that was unfamiliar to me was Hunt’s Little Nell and Her Grandfather, a scene from Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. Though a reviewer in The Spectator recently failed to see its charms, I was fascinated by the skyline of Victorian London, pictured vividly in the background.
This exhibition runs until the 5th of June and is well worth the entrance fee. It certainly gave me a new perspective on the cultural history of Liverpool, and has successfully challenged my assumption that Birmingham was the most important centre for Pre-Raphaelitism outside of London.