Nothing is more emblematic of the Pre-Raphaelites than the legend of King Arthur. Obsessed with medieval chivalry, damsels in distress, and dreams of the romantic past, Sir Thomas Malory’s literary compilation Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485, was the perfect catalyst for their radical revolution against the Royal Academy’s ideals.
The William Morris Gallery’s current The Legend of King Arthur exhibition is a stunning showcase of the quest for the Holy Grail. Funnily enough, the one-room touring exhibition begins and ends with the death of King Arthur, a nod to the source material that inspired them.
The high point of the show is evidently the two original Stanmore Hall tapestries from the collection of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, designed by Edward Burne-Jones and woven under William Morris’ direction using three recreated historic high-warp looms at Merton Abbey; they represent the second and last panel in the six-piece tapestry series. To me, they are the Sistine Chapel tapestries of the Victorian era, the culmination of everything that Pre-Raphaelite art sought to achieve, like Sir Galahad kneeling before the Holy Grail and its guardians.
But this exhibition also presents together for the first time William Morris’ only oil painting La Belle Iseult (Tate) with the dress he designed (William Morris Gallery) and had Jane Morris model in for said painting. The only piece missing is the private collection sketch of Jane wearing it, which is helpfully reproduced on the caption.
A further unique highlight is John William Waterhouse’s personal copy of Alfred Tennyson’s Poems. Recently discovered in a private collection, it contains the artist’s sketches and annotations. Set within a display dedicated to the Lady of Shalott, this is the only venue to display it during the exhibition’s national tour.
Admirably for a show of such brevity, it manages to highlight lesser-known characters from the Arthurian tale, display a good proportion of works by female artists (Evelyn De Morgan, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, Julia Margaret Cameron, Elizabeth Siddal) and differing media, and even highlight their sense of humour to the otherwise ‘serious’ subject matter.
The Legend of King Arthur: A Pre-Raphaelite Love Story runs until 22 January 2023 at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, London, https://www.wmgallery.org.uk/