Exhibition review: ‘Beyond Ophelia’

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Curator Hannah Squire

Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton is hosting an exhibition devoted to the art and poetry of Elizabeth Siddall, and, shockingly, it’s only the second exhibition to focus exclusively on Siddall. I’ve been writing about Siddall for a while now (my book My Ladys Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall will be published in June) and while her face is familiar to many, her work less so, particularly her poetry, though her life exerts a great fascination. This exhibition makes a good attempt at redressing the balance, then: although information about Siddall’s life and Pre-Raphaelite connections is there, the focus is on her as an artist and poet. And Wightwick is the perfect place for it: they hold the second-largest collection of Siddall’s works (the first being the Ashmolean).

2018 is proving to be a year for celebrating women’s achievements, often against all odds, given that it is 100 years since women were able to vote (though this was not on equal terms until 1928). The Manders, who built Wightwick and collected Pre-Raphaelite 28276572_10154975470041315_6622862564304738970_nand Arts and Crafts works with which to furnish it, were also keen suffragists, and one room of the house is currently set up for a Suffragette meeting. Siddall’s achievements as an artist, limited by her early death and all too often viewed as dependent on her more famous husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are appropriately celebrated, then. Wightwick’s collection of 12 works by Siddall are on display in the beautiful Daisy Room, framed for the first time, along with other works no longer in the collection but loaned for the exhibition. This offers a genuinely unique opportunity to consider Siddall’s work as a body (though of course there are many other works), but there is plenty here to give you a feel for her skill as an artist, with her expressive and evocative pencil drawings, 28279682_10154975470241315_2380485743337476893_nand two small and beautiful oils, St Agnes’ Eve and The Haunted Wood (above).

I’m delighted to see that the exhibition also includes some of Siddall’s poetry. A few of her poems are beautifully printed and hung on the walls alongside her artworks, and I hope that this will encourage visitors to explore her under-appreciated poetry. It’s a particular pleasure that some lines appear on the walls above the wallpaper, drawing the eye. Her work as an artist and poet, in the complex gendered environment of the nineteenth-century cultural sphere, is outlined in exhibition boards, and visitors are encouraged to see Siddall as a creator of serious art in her own right – something which, despite three decades of serious critical work on her art, and less sustained but still significant work on her poetry, is still overlooked. Both the art and the poetry demonstrates Siddall’s engagement with her cultural milieu: her illustrations for poems and ballads, and the influence of these works and forms on her own writing, bear out her deep consideration – and transformation – of other works of art.

This is a small exhibition, but it is beautiful, and the room with its fireplace and gorgeous wallpaper feels intimate and cosy. It is open from March 1st until December 24th, 2018, so there is no excuse not to go and see it! Siddall is so often remembered as the model for Millais’s Ophelia, and it is encouraging to see this exhibition encouraging us to go ‘beyond Ophelia’.

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Pre-Raphaelite Women at Wightwick Manor

20160611_153955_resizedAt the weekend we visited one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite places: Wightwick Manor, a National Trust property on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. It’s a wonderful Arts & Crafts house begun in 1887 by local businessman Theodore Mander, founded on principals learned from the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, and particularly inspired by Oscar Wilde’s lecture ‘The House Beautiful’, which Mander attended and took notes on. Wilde’s ideas, drawn from Morris and Ruskin, centred around beauty and pleasure (and occasional utility); Wightwick embodies these in the most dramatic and appealing way possible. The Manders family went on to collect Pre-St Agnes EveRaphaelite works well into the twentieth century, now augmented and displayed by the National Trust, and the house is an absolute feast of Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts works of art, furnishings, fabrics and decoration. They also cultivated the acquaintance of several Pre-Raphaelite descendants, and had some very exciting tea parties there.

Many of the works they own aren’t on display (though I was thrilled to have a private view of 9 Elizabeth Siddall drawings), but the rich collections includes Rossettis, Millais’s, Burne-Jones and many more. What really strikes me, though, is what a fabulous collection of the work of women Pre-Raphaelites is here. All too many galleries and exhibitions have few women Pre-Raphaelites on show, but here, there are some corkers: Siddall’s St Agnes Eve (right) – one of my favourite paintings – and The Haunted Wood are here, as well as Emma Sandys’ Elaine (left), one of several works attributed to Emma Elaine_Sandysmore recently, having previously thought to be the work of her brother. Lucy Madox Brown’s The Tomb Scene from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Act V: sc.3) is on display – probably her best work; and Evelyn de Morgan’s other-worldly The Mourners – a 1917 response to war in a very Pre-Raphaelite style – is also here. There are also two wonderful images of Christina Rossetti, both by her brother Dante Gabriel, but my favourite is the cartoon ‘Christina Georgina Rossetti in a Tantrum and destroying the Contents of a Room’; it beautifully undermines everything we expect about the apparently demure poet.

There are some wonderful works by William and Evelyn de Morgan, including some beautiful tiles, and the Trust is fundraising to be able to provide an exhibition space for the De Morgan Foundation (find out more here). There are also Kelmscott Press books and a large number of other books and works on paper. I’m excited to see that the full collections of works at Wightwick Manor can be explored online – I shall be spending some time on this! Wightwick Manor © National Trust

The immersive Pre-Raphaelite experience is what makes Wightwick unique. The information and the helpful room stewards means that one can quickly being to understand the life that the Manders family, across generations, lived here as serious art collectors, but simply to look around is to begin to see how the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic plays out: the richness of colour, texture, detail, pattern, is overwhelming, but somehow quickly settles in one’s mind as the colours and organic, natural shapes are drawn together in the décor. Many will find it too much, perhaps, but for me it is a wonderful mixture of the medieval and the late-Victorian: harmony and beauty prevail.

For those who have children with them, the dressing-up box and the nursery with games which can be played were a huge bonus; I wouldn’t have had nearly so much time to explore without those to distract my son! The beautiful Edwardian gardens would have been more of a draw if it hadn’t been raining so hard, but a quick game of hide-and-seek still took place.

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