The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy

I love the new Ashmolean, that’s to say – the same familiar old Ashmolean, but with a multi-million pound new interior following last year’s 10-month redevelopment. It’s been money well spent, since visitor numbers have soared and even the most recalcitrant 12-year-old was wowed by the exhibits there this summer. And he has opinions he could fill a weekly newspaper column with and turn of phrase to melt off your eyebrows, to boot. Left to his own devices, he was particularly taken by the displays of artefacts from India and made a point of showing off his finds to us before we had lunch in the chic downstairs café. The prices there are not cheap, but as my son commented, entry is free and they have to make some money somewhere.

Oxford as a whole is a city of amazing culture and creativity, but the trouble with being surrounded by the many intellectuals living and working within its boundaries is their way, deliberate or inadvertent, of making you feel you’ve wasted your life if you’ve pursued the less than cerebral. As a journalist I tend to glean a little about a lot of things from those who have made their mark on the world. My job has been to specialise in nothing and to record other people’s stories.

Yesterday James and I attended the preview of  The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy the first major art exhibition at The Ashmolean’s temporary exhibition gallery, one of the nation’s newest and most important.

Monna Vanna, (Belcolore) 1866. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). Oil on canvas. ©Tate, Britain

Pondering what I knew about the Pre-Raphaelites as we travelled into Oxford, I came up with the following:

  • They had strong Oxford connections.
  • They painted florid pictures of women in pouty poses.
  • They had over-long and elaborate names.
  • A former volunteer at The Ashmolean left some important paintings (see below) to the museum on her death, though you’d be unwise to believe reports she was ignorant of the significance of her bequest.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Music, 1877. Oil on canvas © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Fearing my own ignorance would be glaring in the face of experts, I was relieved by my husband’s assurance at the door (later confirmed by the curator Colin Harrison), that the Pre-Raphaelites had chosen a misleading title for their movement and that perhaps the best-known of their number, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the son of an Italian exile, never visited his fatherland. He also swapped his names around to make himself appear more interesting.

What surprised and pleased me most, however, was the inclusion of so many simple pen and ink drawings in the exhibition.

View of the Palazzo Grimani to the Palazzo Bembo, Venice, 1870. John Ruskin (1819-1900) Pencil and watercolour on paper. ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

There are sketches of Italian architectural details, since some of the brotherhood did travel, studies in pencil and half-finished compositions.

Il Ponte Vecchio, Florence, 1867. William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Watercolour on paper, laid on panel. ©V&A Images
Florence from Bellosguardo, 1863. John Brett (1831-1902). Oil on canvas. © Tate, London.

There are landscapes in watercolour and portraits in coloured chalks, precise reproductions of mosaics and images to delight the eye and lift the heart. I found my pre-conceptions about The Pre-Raphaelites turned upside-down. There’s so much more on display than the popular portraits that had danced in my head on hearing the title of the exhibition, though for fans, these are on show too.

Viewing Jacob and Rachel, by William Dyce, made me appreciate the skill and dedication of the artists, each brush stroke is visible in minute detail, each hair carefully placed.

The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel, 1857. William Dyce (1806-1864). Oil on canvas. © Private collection

The painstaking accuracy of Frank Randal’s faithful reproductions of Byzantine mosaics is nothing less than extraordinary.

Some of the exhibition works have been lent to the museum by the likes of composer and collector Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, others, not seen by the public for more than 150 years, have been lent by anonymous private collectors, yet more are on loan from museums and galleries in the UK and around the world. The exhibition opened to critical acclaim at the Ravenna Museum of Art earlier in the year, so, as the Ashmolean’s Director, Dr Christopher Brown, pointed out, by being generous to the public, some people have been looking at a bare patch on their wall since February.

Tree of Life, 1888. Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Watercolour and bodycolour on paper. © V&A Images

If you have an hour or so to spare between now and December 5th, I can thoroughly recommend a visit. Entry to the museum itself is free, an exhibition gallery ticket costs £8 (£6 to concessions).

James and I were sorry not to be able to go on the tour of Oxford Colleges, but we had to do the school run. If you get a chance to visit them, there are other Pre-Raphaelite treasures in Oxford, notably the stained glass windows in St Edmund Hall, Christ Church Cathedral and Manchester College Chapel, the tapestries at various other locations and Keble College Chapel’s famous painting by Holman Hunt – The Light on the World. The murals and ceiling in Oxford Union’s Debating Hall are legendary. Watch out too for related events in Oxford, including lectures, talks and tours, music, drawing masterclasses and Italian films.

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, Beaumont Street, Oxford. OX1 2PH. www.ashmolean.org.

Please note: The use of images is strictly with prior permission from the Ashmolean Museum Press Office, University of Oxford.

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