The Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham currently have an exhibition, Objects of Affection, of John Brett’s “Pre-Raphaelite” portraits. Brett, usually only really thought of as a landscape artist, produced a wide range of portraits, many of which seem to be of people he was emotionally engaged with – family and friends, or women with whom he was infatuated. In many ways he is an impressive portraitist: his clarity of conception combined minute attention to detail and texture (familiar from his landscapes) make him a sensitive painter of portraits.
The pencil sketches included in this exhibition are particularly fine – especially as he seems to use his drawing techniques to demonstrate his romantic attachments, concentrating on the eyes and facial expressions of his sitters as well as his Pre-Raphaelite attention to the fall and sheen of fabrics, to patterns and to symbolic backgrounds. For Brett, there’s no doubt that portraiture is an intimate mode, offering a side of him not seen in his landscapes – although, as Waldemar Januszczak suggests in today’s Sunday Times, he is certainly more consistent as a landscape painter.
Of course, for me the focus of the exhibition had to be his unfinished 1857 portrait of Christina Rossetti (right) (currently on posters all over Birmingham advertising the exhibition, which pleases me!) There is much speculation about Brett’s potential courtship of Rossetti, and Jan Marsh has suggested that the 1858 poem “No, Thank you, John”, is Rossetti’s rejection of his suit. This might explain why the portrait was never finished; but it remains one of the most beautiful portraits of Rossetti, I think; her deep seriousness and glossy hair may give her the face of a medieval angel, but there is a determination around the set mouth which demonstrates a strong character, and the eyes, appropriately, seem focussed on a heavenly horizon. The exhibition notes suggest that the feather which appears in the background may refer either to her recent poem “My heart is like a singing bird”, or represent a quill as a reference to her poetry. Whatever the relationship between Brett and Rossetti (and whatever his feelings, it is extremely unlikely that she seriously considered him as a potential husband), nonetheless the portrait speaks of affection and trust between the artist and the sitter.