Illustration by Author
Leighton House Museum’s latest exhibition is a commemoration of a promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, from one of the most significant private collections in North America. The group of eighty drawings was collected by Dr Dennis T. Lanigan, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon whose fascination with Victorian art stemmed from a chance visit to the major Edward Burne-Jones retrospective in 1976 at the Hayward Gallery. Supplemented by a selection of forty-two other drawings from the collections of the National Gallery of Canada and Leighton House Museum itself, the exhibition is a celebration of Victorian draughtsmanship and design.
Five broad sections attempt to group the drawings into loose, poetic themes scattered in various rooms around Lord Frederic Leighton’s former residence. Although the title emphasises the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – founded in September 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais – the drawings, in fact, encompass a much wider circle which included the Arts & Crafts and the Aesthetic movements.
Perhaps the most important work in the Lanigan Collection, William Holman Hunt’s study for The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro (1848) marks the very beginnings of the Brotherhood’s genesis. The painting, now in the Guildhall Art Gallery, was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1848. It illustrated the penultimate stanza of Keats’ poem The Eve of St Agnes. Rossetti, being an admirer of Keats, noticed Hunt’s painting at the exhibition and introduced himself to the artist on 10th May. Hunt and Millais were already friends, having both prepared their Royal Academy exhibition paintings in the latter’s studio in 1847-48 – Millais’ painting Cymon and Iphigenia (1848) was rejected, whereas Hunt’s painting was accepted. The drawing exhibits the medievalist ‘outline style’ which characterised the movement’s first phase. Using strong outlines and minimal modelling, it was committed to narrative clarity and emotional connection between protagonists, reacting to the tradition of perfectly rendered forms expected by the Royal Academy.
The collection encompasses a very wide range of visual material, from studies for paintings to decorative border designs and Philip Speakman Webb’s stained-glass designs of birds and fishes. The exhibition attempts to unite the diversity of these drawings by reference to their literary content, to chivalric Arthurian legends and Biblical stories concerning morality. Although these were fundamental ideas for the art of the time, the show’s true strength lies in its remarkable corpus of drawings of models. The hunt for beautiful models formed an essential part of the Brotherhood’s approach to art, especially for the obsessive Rossetti. A small group in the museum’s Upper Perrin Gallery unites some of the principal models of the period, some of whom were shared between artists: Elizabeth Siddall, Fanny Cornforth, Christina Rossetti, Effie Ruskin, and Emma Madox Brown. Even Marie Spartali Stillman is represented by her watercolour of a Young Girl Harvesting Apples (Autumn) (c. late 1860s, early 1870s) whilst Georgiana Burne-Jones makes an appearance in the Silk Room between the work of Valentine Cameron Prinsep and Albert Moore. Unfortunately, there’s no Jane Morris here.
A large selection of the drawings show models draped in idyllic clothing, personifying allegorical figures, such as George Frederic Watts’ radiant red and white chalk study for the figure of Death (c. 1878-86), or Leighton’s studies for Iphigenia lying on a bed. Others posed nude, as can be seen in the drawings by Edward John Poynter and Henry Holiday. Rossetti’s male models often played lovers and his depictions inspired Simeon Solomon’s characteristically effeminate male representations. On the other hand, Edward Burne-Jones influence from Renaissance art gave his men a Michelangelesque appearance – his study of a slave in The Wheel of Fortune (1877-83) is particularly sensitive in his subtle transitions of tone across the musculature of the figure, evidently inspired by Michelangelo’s marble Slaves (1513-16) now in the Louvre.
Some of the most beautiful and sympathetic renderings of the subjects in the collection were drawn in chalk or charcoal, media which allowed for soft transitions of tone. John William Waterhouse’s head study for Lamia (c. 1905) is delicate and sensitive, whereas Moore’s drawing of a female head in profile is filled with a rawness that is both material and lively. On the other hand, atmospheric effects were best achieved using watercolours, gouache, and also crayons, as can be seen in Charles Fairfax Murray’s Saint Cecilia and Her Companions (c. 1875) and Arthur Hughes’ Adoration of the Kings and Shepherds (c. 1902). A rare sight in the exhibition is a head study for the nun in Charles Allston Collins’ Covent Thoughts (c. 1851), another major early work shortly after the Brotherhood’s foundation.
And yet, despite this selection of exquisite – some culturally-significant – works on paper, one cannot help but remain astounded by Frederick Sandys’ intricate pen and ink study for King Pelles’ Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sanc Graal (1861). Reminiscent of Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata (1859), Sandys’ drawing is spectacular in his attention to detail and superb precision. The careful mark-making lifts the subject out of the shadows, her curling locks of hair shimmering in the light. The graphic style is evocative of Rossetti’s own pen and ink drawings which also feature closely-hatched backgrounds to highlight the protagonists. It is an intensely powerful work in its sense of immediacy and its profound draughtsmanship.
The exhibition is brilliant, not in its curation and selection of themes, but by its display of Victorian England’s infinite variety. The drawings are fine examples of the importance of models and drawing from life. They show that Victorian art was more than just a stylistic revolution; it was a world of social interactions between models and artists, family and friends. Under the disguise of allegories and religious messages was the artist’s embracement of everything that was human. Intellect became inspiration, people became protagonists. For the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, art was, and will always be, the appreciation and enjoyment of life itself.
Pre-Raphaelites on Paper: Victorian Drawings from the Lanigan Collection ran until 29th May 2016 at Leighton House Museum, London.