REVIEW | Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours – Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Pre-Raphaelites: Drawing and Watercolours is a powerful showcase of the best of Victorian draughtsmanship and their inventive twists on culture and society. It opens with a pair of portraits by William Holman Hunt of Thomas Combe and his wife Martha, whose collection underpins the Ashmolean Museum’s major Pre-Raphaelite holdings.

Naturally, we are introduced to key members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their circle through their arresting portraits, offering a glimpse of the high level of social interaction between everyone. This included the flow of ideas, ie. Holman Hunt’s initial idea for Light of the World on the back of an envelope came from Charles Allston Collins Convent Thoughts.

Hunting down appropriate and willing participants to model for them (‘stunners’) was crucial to the creation of pictures that were realistic in a historical sense, while proclaiming their own version of beauty. The exhibition has a splendid grouping of portraits of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris, and Fanny Cornforth, etc.

Arthurian legends and medieval chivalry are a staple of Pre-Raphaelite art, but so are their musings on early Renaissance art – represented by an Edward Burne-Jones Nativity triptych – the original formative inspiration for the PRB. Similarly, John Everett Millais’ famous drawing of the Race Meeting is a great social satire, inspired by a trip to the Epsom Derby.

Unifying the exhibition’s broad scope to show diverse subject matter, genres, and project types (e.g. Oxford Union murals, book illustrations, stained glass) is the array of drawing materials and techniques. Tightly-hatched/contour-focused drawings in pencil and pen-and-ink transition to ethereal evocations in coloured chalks and bodycolour. Burne-Jones delights us with a drawing done in gold paint, and I’m pleased to see one of his silverpoint drawings exhibited as well, near a very strong John William Waterhouse study for Hylas and the Nymphs (Manchester Art Gallery).

This exhibition is a fantastically insightful extension to the Ashmolean’s paintings in the permanent collection, albeit temporary, full of visual delights that offer a semblance of the rich, colourful pictures that must have hung in wealthy Victorian homes.

Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours ran from 15 July to 27 November 2022 at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, https://www.ashmolean.org/

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