Britain’s oldest university museum – the Ashmolean, in Oxford – is hosting its first major art exhibition, The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy, this autumn. Held in partnership with the Ravenna Museum of Art, where it opened in February this year, the exhibition highlights the influence of Italy on one of Britain’s most important art movements.
Leila Siddiqi talks to curator Colin Harrison about the challenges of staging this fascinating show.
This is undoubtedly the most exciting exhibition that the Ashmolean has undertaken since it reopened in November 2009, and it should have broad, popular appeal.
The ambitious project was proposed and put together by curators Colin Harrison and Christopher Newall. Colin, curator of British art at the Ashmolean since 1995, explains that the idea was kick-started when they discovered that the Ravenna Museum of Art needed an English partner… just as the Ashmolean was considering how to launch the new exhibition galleries. “We thought that this was perfect for us because the Pre-Raphaelites are so closely associated with Oxford.” From proposal to completion took three years.
How did the curators choose the objects to display? “Once we had identified the themes, we knew which artists we wanted to represent, and then it was a case of finding the best or most interesting works,” reveals Colin. That started an international search, that has culminated in a show with over 140 paintings from the Ashmolean’s own collection, alongside works from London galleries such as the Tate and the V&A, plus loans from individuals, both here and abroad.
This is an expensive exhibition to host and the Ashmolean readily admits it could not have contemplated it without the support from Ravenna. “The private collectors have also been extremely generous. Some of the art is extremely large and heavy and the installations have been very challenging.”
It contains some real gems. Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ sketches for the mosaics of the American Church in Rome are on display for the first time in Britain, as are some rarely seen works by William Holman Hunt and John Brett. In typical Ashmolean style, the message is to show how different cultures have influenced one another in terms of movements in art and archaeology.
The dreaminess, the allure, of Italy is a running theme throughout the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, a seven member ‘brotherhood’ of English painters, poets and critics, begun in 1848. The three founding members – William Holman Hunt, Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti – wanted to exalt the type of art that came before Raphael, rejecting his elegant and classical, almost mechanistic approach and other conventional methods of composition. Their art focused on the brilliance of colours, abundant detail, the imitation of nature and a fascination with all things medieval.
Italy assumed huge importance for them, but, interestingly, most of these artists had spent little time there – and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the most influential of the group, never visited the country at all, despite his rich Italian heritage. Perhaps this was a conscious decision, to preserve his own ideal of the place? The answer is debatable, but it’s one of the questions raised in the exhibition.
There was a particular need, Colin tells me, to keep the approach fresh. “With any Pre-Raphaelite exhibition the challenge is not to do the same old thing again. People think they know the Pre-Raphaelites quite well and that Rossetti of the 1860s is what the Pre-Raphaelites is all about. In a sense this exhibition questions what the Pre-Raphaelites meant by Pre-Raphaelite and what we understand by it. We trace the evolution of the brotherhood from 1848 all the way up to the end of the century and how the meaning evolved quite radically. Rossetti in 1870 looks nothing like in 1850.”
Initially, Colin goes on to explain, the movement had drawn greatly on medieval, Pre-Renaissance styles, but towards the end of the 1850s the new focal point became 15th century paintings.
The Ashmolean Museum houses one of the greatest permanent collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world, largely due to Thomas Combe, Superintendent of the Clarendon Press in Oxford, acquaintance of Millais, and an avid supporter and collector. His wife bequeathed his collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings to the Ashmolean.
The movement’s link with Oxford is strong; this is the city where Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris met, and pursued their passion for creating beautiful art. From tapestries in Exeter College to stained glass windows in Exeter Hall their partnership can be marveled at throughout the city. Additionally, John Ruskin, the mentor of the Pre-Raphaelites, set up a drawing school here, now known as Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. The murals in the world famous Oxford Union were the work of Rossetti and the ceiling design by William Morris.
The Pre-Raphaelite connection radiates out from the city too. Not far away is Kelmscott Manor, once William Morris’s summer home, now a delightful visitor attraction containing a wealth of Morris’s possessions and collections. The Faringdon Collection at Buscot Park also boasts significant Pre-Raphaelite art, especially work by Burne Jones and Rossetti, including the painting Pandora featuring Jane Morris, who was considered the ideal Pre-Raphaelite beauty. Young Jane was discovered by Rossetti and Burne Jones when attending a performance of the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford; she became the wife of William Morris, and sat on many occasions for Rossetti. “Her hair, lips and eyes are easily recognisable in all her paintings,” Colin says, adding, “and much has been said about Rossetti’s obsession with her and their affair…”
Curating such a prestigious exhibition has been exhilarating, but also rather daunting, for Colin and Christopher. “I hope that visitors will find the exhibition both instructive and uplifting,” Colin explains, “and that they will see works that they know very well, and others that they are coming upon for the first time. And that, above all, they will enjoy it…”.
The exhibition is accompanied by an Italian season, with a variety of cultural events and activities taking place throughout the museum and the city : from an Italian Film Festival hosted in partnership with Phoenix Picture house to a Cushion Concert with the Orchestra of St Johns, from lunch-time lectures and curator tours to wine-tasting and three course Italian dinners at the Ashmolean Dining Room. The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy is just the gateway to the rich cultural pleasures of 19th century Italy…
The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy continues until 5 December, at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford.
Admission £8/£6. Open 10am-6pm (not Monday).
See www.ashmolean.org or call 01865 278000 for more details.