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Rarely seen Pre-Raphaelites drawings and watercolours in Ashmolean Museum exhibition

by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

Above: Thomas Combe, 1860 by William Holman Hunt (1827–1910).

Who were the Pre-Raphaelites? This might seem an odd question to ask, as this group of artists, best known for their brightly coloured oil paintings depicting Biblical or Mediaeval tales of love, loss, longing…, and with John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti as principal members, remain as popular today as ever.

So familiar are the names of the major players that it’s easy to think that we know the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) well, but how much do we really know them as individuals, as artists and of their variety of styles? This is the strength of the Ashmolean’s spring exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours. The three galleries of artworks offer a rare, if brief opportunity – the show is open for a month only, its run shortened by Covid restrictions - to get to know the group and associates better through works from the museum’s permanent collection.

Originally formed of seven young artists, including Millais, Hunt and Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood came together in mid-19th century England in order to rebel against the academic teaching of the Royal Academy of Arts. They proposed a new mode of working which would depart from, in their view the ‘mannered’ style of artists who came after Raphael. They were a disparate group but held to certain key principles such as to paint with originality and authenticity by studying nature closely (Ruskin urged artists to 'go to Nature, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing'); to honour their friends and heroes; and to take inspiration from art and poetry, a passion they shared. As the group developed other artists became associated with it, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones – and women artists also flourished within the group, despite its origin as a Brotherhood. From the outset it was a loosely formed group and it didn’t last that many years, but their innovative approach and distinctive styles went on to influence younger generations of British artists well into the 20th century.

Above: Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Cloister Lillies, 1891, Watercolour and bodycolour on paper.

This exhibition is truly a rare opportunity. Works on paper normally reside in protective boxes in the Print Room to prevent light damage, and while accessible to view by appointment, the PRB’s drawings and watercolours are seldom seen in such numbers as in this show.

Part of the appeal of drawings and watercolours is that they are more intimate works of art, and as such allow us to feel closer to an artist; plausibly too, closer to a portrait sitter’s personality.

Take the portraits in the first gallery, which introduces The Pre-Raphaelite Circle. Here for example, are the paired portraits of close friends, Charles Allston Collins and John Everett Millais who drew one another in pencil in 1850. We see two fresh-faced rather earnest looking 22-year-old men who made the sketches as gifts for their hosts in Oxford, the Combes. Thomas Combe was the senior partner of the University Press and he and his wife Martha were friends and important patrons of the PRB. When she died, Martha left the couple’s considerable collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and paintings to the Ashmolean Museum.

Sir John Everett Millais (1829–96,) Portrait of William Holman Hunt, 1854 Black chalk with brown wash on

cream paper.

Two more sketches by Millais follow, of the moustachioed William Holman Hunt, another favourite of the Combes (1854), and Ford Maddox Brown reading.

Next we meet Elizabeth Siddal in Rossetti’s profile watercolour of the red haired beauty (1854). It is an early example of the now iconic Pre-Raphaelite woman. It also is revealing of an artist captivated by his model; they went on to marry in 1860. Siddal had joined the group in 1849/50 as a model but soon developed as an artist and poet in her own right. Further along, we see Siddal’s own take on the group, Two Men in a Boat and a Woman Punting (c. 1853-5), a witty variation on Rossetti’s Boatmen and Siren. In her scene the man pleads with the ‘siren’ who uses her pole furiously to push him away.

Gradually we meet them all, artists, poets, models, devotees and members of the wider circle such as social reformer Josephine Butler depicted sensitively by William Bell Scott, and artist and critic John Ruskin, the group’s most important advocate.

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), Thomas Combe, 1860, Red and black chalk on paper.

In this section the Combes’ large portraits stand out. William Holman Hunt has gifted us real personalities in these chalk sketches: Thomas, nicknamed the ‘Patriarch’ for his magnificent beard, captured here with mischievous look in his eye, and the more sombre portrait of Martha. At first glance she looks forbidding but nonetheless when you get up close to her, as you can in this exhibition, I think it’s simply a picture of repose, a woman quietly reflecting, a hint of humour playing around her lips as she patiently waits for the artist to do his job.

The Pre-Raphaelites are probably best known for their depictions of women. Rossetti popularised the term ‘stunner’ – which was meant to denote excellence in art and poetry as well as physical beauty - but which now rings uncomfortably in modern ears. Perhaps dodging that bullet, they title the room “Rossetti called them ‘Stunners’”.

The characteristic Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’ was an unconventional beauty, combining strikingly strong, even androgynous features, “with an ethereal quality implying a rich inner life” says the exhibition’s curator, Christiana Payne, Professor Emerita of History of Art, Oxford Brookes University.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82) The Day Dream, 1872, Pastel and black chalk on tinted paper.

Further along, the show examines their methods and passion for storytelling, there’s a fascinating selection of works made as preparatory sketches for oil paintings and decorative arts, such as stained glass panels and tapestry, landscapes, and a few of Ruskin’s fine watercolours of foliage and rocks.

Curator Christiana Payne says: ‘The Ashmolean is home to one of the greatest collections of Pre-Raphaelite works to be found anywhere in the world. This first large-scale exhibition of works on paper offers a chance to look at the whole range of their output across different subjects, styles and media. It demonstrates their individual skills, collective creativity and revolutionary thinking about art and society which was to have a lasting impact on British art history.’

If you can’t see it in person, there is a link to a film about the show on the Ashmolean’s website:


Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Showing until: 20th June 2021


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