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'Pre-Raphaelite Sisters' Review - National Portrait Gallery

17th October 2019 - 26th January 2020
Adult £18.00
Student Concession £17.00
Art Pass £9.00

In 1849, the first generation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood exhibited their work in London to immediate controversy and scandal. Their favoured medium was oil on canvas, but now—because Pre-Raphaelite Sisters: Models, Artists, Muses is above all else a historical exercise in unearthing the lost contributions of women—this is no longer the case. At the National Portrait Gallery’s retrospective, the exhibition space is filled with art in diverse media and artefacts: sketches, clothing (including an exquisitely embroidered pair of shoes by Maria Spartali Stillman), photography (courtesy of Julia Margaret Cameron, not one of the twelve artists featured, but whose contributions do not go unnoticed), poetry, embroidery, letters—as well as more traditional paintings. The category of ‘traditional’ rests uneasily with Pre-Raphaelite art, which has always been radical, refusing to adhere to the aristocratic standards of the Royal Academy. In this way, the exhibition continues a legacy of art that disrupts and revises - in this case, the figure of the pre-Raphaelite model. We are asked to engage with the personal histories of these women, and to focus on their voices as artists in their own right.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Unfortunately, this isn’t realised. Although the exhibition spaces are large, with a variety of rooms, it felt claustrophobic. It is rare to find much private space in large exhibitions, but here it is particularly difficult not to feel bustled from one room to the next. Much care is taken to acknowledge the individual contributions of each woman, but they do start to blur into each other after a while, through no fault of their own. The rooms follow on from each other disjointedly, from a small room housing Fannie Cornforth to the large room it is connected to, bathed in red and containing Lizzie Siddall (quite literally, as her hair is on display). From here we follow the rooms and encounter, in quick succession, each of the rest of the twelve. Instead of sisterhood, the effect is a dizzyingly brief introduction to a group of complex women who we really ought to take some more time thinking over.

The glamourous supermodel qualities that are emphasised in Jan Marsh’s rather dated ‘girl power’ take on the Pre-Raphaelite models, artists, and poets, sits uneasily with the facts of their lives. Fanny Cornforth, for example, was a working-class woman of large stature and coarse accent who spent the last year of her life in a workhouse and then an asylum, slowly dying of dementia. Fanny Eaton was a working-class Jamaican woman who came to England in the 1840s and found work with her mother as a domestic servant. Her face illuminates the canvas in Joanna Boyce Wells’ Head of Mrs Eaton (1861), but she too would fade into obscurity. Modelling for these women was a means to financial security, and despite their likeness still hanging on the walls of London’s art galleries, the majority lived ordinary working-class lives. These women are anything but glamourous, and some fare better than others.

Marie Spartali Stillman by Ford Madox Brown. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Jane Morris is clearly the star of this exhibition. She is described as the original ‘femme fatale’—featuring in Rossetti’s sensuous masterpiece The Day Dream (1880)—and she was a wonderful embroiderer in her own right. This isn’t bad going for a woman destined by birth for a life of domestic service. An intelligent and shrewd socialite in later life, it is appropriate to acknowledge the wealth of opportunity the Pre-Raphaelite movement afforded her, if not the other working-class models featured: her personal and artistic relationship with the De Morgans, for example. Yet, in this exhibition, death hangs in the air, and in the words of Morris, from a letter of 1908: ‘if one could just drop off quietly like Autumn leaves, it would be so pleasant for everybody’.

Decay, then, becomes a recurring theme. Marsh’s exhibition struggles with the boundary between subject/artist and object/model. It has some success refocusing our attention on these women as artists, not passive muses, through exhibiting art and poetry and personal artefacts. But the radiant hair and striking faces peering out of the canvasses, and even the singular lock of hair of Lizzie Siddall (dulled through time and oxidation), force us to note the macabre disembodiment and ambivalent relationship that Pre-Raphaelite Sisters has to bodies, beauty, and art.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor

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