John Ruskin (1819 –1900) Study of a Velvet Crab, c. 1870 Graphite, watercolour & bodycolour on grey-blue paper

It seems like an eternity since we were allowed access to our art galleries, but from Monday (May 17) the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is opening its doors to the public, and on Tuesday (May 18) is finally opening its new exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours – a staggering collection of rarely seen works, says Simon Court.

Curated by Christiana Payne, the exhibition has been garnered from the museum’s largely unseen archives, and aims to complement the permanent collection of paintings, furniture and artefacts on show there, featuring everything from sketches on the back of envelopes to full blown water-colours.

Sir John Everett Millais (1829–96) Portrait of William Holman Hunt, 1854

For example you can see early sketches for William Holman Hunt’s iconic ‘The Light of the World’ at Keble College, literally on the back of an envelope!


What also becomes very clear on wandering through the exhibition is the strength of the strong Oxford connection with the Pre-Raphaelites, making them particularly relevant to the Ashmolean. After all, Thomas Combe, the senior partner of the University Press, and his wife, Martha, mentored the Pre-Raphaelites, bought many of their early works which they then left to the museum. 

William Holman Hunt (1827 – 1910) Thomas Combe, 1860 Red and black chalk on paper,

And John Ruskin began donating many of his own exquisite drawings to the University in the 1870s, which are now at the Ashmolean. (See Crab, main pic)

We are also reminded how radical the Pre-Raphaelites were for the 1850s and 1860s through their wide variety of mediums – pencil, pen and ink, chalk, watercolour – as well as subject matter – portraits, landscape, ancient, biblical and medieval tales, right through to contemporary British rural life.

This is certainly evident in the exhibition, with some unexpected delights to look forward to.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833–98) The Knight’s Farewell, 1858Pen and black ink over graphite on vellum,

I had not appreciated that one of their most famous models (or ‘stunners’, as they called them) Elizabeth Siddal, was also a talented artist in her own right, and a number of her works are on show.

A favourite of mine is her ‘Pippa Passes’ (based on a Robert Browning poem of the same name) where an innocent girl walks past a mocking group of street-wise prostitutes – a familiar scene in Victorian cities. Browning was apparently ‘delighted beyond measure’ with the depiction.

I was also fascinated to come across a lesser known artist, George Price Boyce, whose scenes of rural Oxfordshire and Berkshire provide us with a glimpse into a world which was even then being lost to mechanisation.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82) The Day Dream, 1872. Pastel and black chalk on tinted paper

No Pre-Raphaelite exhibition would be complete without their ‘poster girl’ Jane Morris, and you won’t be disappointed in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s beautifully evocative painting of Jane, his lover at the time, called ‘The Day Dream’. 

The balance is redressed with gay artist Simeon Solomon’s depiction of two beautiful young men in ‘Two Acolytes Censing: Pentecost’ made additionally poignant because Solomon was arrested and convicted for homosexual activities in 1873 and ceased to exhibit again.

Simeon Solomon (1840 – 1905) Two Acolytes Censing: Pentecost, 1863 Bodycolour on paper mounted on canvas,

Finally, as a lovely whimsical touch, Elizabeth Siddall (who visited Oxford in 1855) depicts a quintessentially Oxford scene in her ‘Two Men in a Boat and a Woman Punting’.

As these delicate works of art spend most of the time out of the public realm, it is a privilege that the Ashmolean has given us a chance to see them.

I strongly recommend that you go. And bring the kids because there is an imaginative ‘family trail’ to enjoy.

Booking is essential if you want to wander the Ashmolean for free, buy a ticket to the Pre-Raphs show, or reserve a table in the RoofTop Restaurant. There are quite a few time slot and ticket combinations on offer so go to for all the details.