While some of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings enjoy a holiday at Tate Britain’s Pre-Raph blockbuster, eleven Victorian paintings have visited from the Tate collection, which, combined with some of BMAG’s drawings, form ‘Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate’. Two rooms of exhibits make up the show, and include paintings, drawings, sculptures and bronzes from a range of Victorian paintings from Alma-Tadema to Burne-Jones, Leighton to Albert Moore. The show covers a surprising range, but the centrepiece is undoubtedly Waterhouse’s ‘Lady of Shalott’ (which came third in the #PRBDay vote). As always, this painting demands that everyone look at it: I always think Waterhouse’s Lady is a bit of an attention-seeker. She might look miserable, but she wants us all to see how hard-done-by she is. Still, it is impossible not to feel as though we are there with her (presumably the viewer is standing waist-deep in the river) watching her despair as the light of day dies away on the horizon. There are also other Shalotts here (has there ever been a Shalott exhibition? It could fill an exhibition hall easily): Gaskin’s lovely sketch in which the lovely lines of the Burne-Jonesian figure express a deep mournfulness; Rossetti’s drawing (left) as an illustration for the Moxon Tennyson; and, most famous of the illustrative Shalotts, Thompson’s version of William Holman Hunt’s Shalott (right). ‘The Lady of Shalott’ embodies the ‘love and death’ theme of the exhibition, and many visitors will attend just for this. It seemed to me, though, that another, more important theme emerges: that of the use of classical myth and the influence of the ancient world which fascinated the Victorian painters.
The love and death of the exhibition is most vividly seen in the lives of classical mythology. From major high-Victorian paintings such as Alma-Tadema’s painting of ‘A Favourite Custom’ and ‘Autumn’, Moore’s classically-draped ‘Dreamers’, Sandys’ ‘The Boy Martyr’ and ‘Medea’, to minor (but interesting) drawings such as Poynter’s sketch for ‘Nausicaa’ and Crane’s ‘Greek Maidens’, this is a very classical exhibition indeed. Waterhouse’s ‘St Eulalia’, a painting I cannot like, is one of many paintings which imagines classical and/or mythologised women, who feature heavily here, from Circe to Psyche, Morgan le Fay to Waterhouse’s sorceress of ‘The Magic Circle’. I was particualrly taken with Alma-Tadema’s ‘Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon’, a painting which imagines the very first viewers of what we have come to know as the Elgin Marbles. These would have been displayed in the British Museum and provided a classical influence for many painters of the period; this painting of the paintings in situ, as new, fresh, being seen at a private view, perhaps in the same way as this painting itself, is pleasingly self-referential and theoretical as well as being, to my mind, an aesthetically interesting painting. Mostly, however, the classical paintings demonstrate how a realist style was often combined with an imagined subject, and show us a lot about how the Victorians glamourised the ancient world, and altered it to suit themselves. This last is particularly apparent in the way in which the paintings tend to feature many gratuitous nudes – acceptable because they represent imaginary, long-ago women.
The exhibition includes, therefore, a range of paintings and drawings which tell a story, or capture a moment in (the Victorian perception of) classical life. However, as realist-style High Victorian art gave way to aestheticism, art for art’s sake, and paintings which are simply beautiful, full of tonalities and flowing draperies, particularly in the work of Albert Moore; his ‘Dreamers’ is here accompanied by ‘Sapphires’, and, in the same vein, is Leighton’s ‘Lieder ohne Worte’. These paintings are subjectless (though Moore’s are also classical in tone and appearance), an exercise in beauty which departs from earlier Victorian painting. Prhaps my favourite painting here, however, is Watts’s ‘The All-Pervading’: ambiguous, beautiful in its deep, rich colours, and swooping lines, as well as its symbolist meanings. This is the kind of painting to lose oneself in. You can read more about Watts’s vision of the cosmos in this and other paintings here.