Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Reverie. 1868

Gathered at the top of Oxford’s world renowned Ashmolean Museum is a staggering collection of rarely seen works, amassed for the much applauded spring exhibition The Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours.

A complement to the constant collection of paintings, furniture and artefacts on show there, this largely unseen paper trail of the artists, their techniques and development, features everything from sketches on the back of envelopes to full blown water-colours.

John Ruskin’s Study of a Velvet Crab. 1870-1

Its curator Christiana Payne has dedicated several years of her life, much of it during the pandemic, to seeing The Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours brought to fruition, and is looking forward to our reaction.

When that will be is however still unknown, because while the work is hung, the descriptions arranged, the accompanying catalogue and book printed and the gift shop shelves stocked, all we need now is an opening date.

“some people are more interested in the pre-raphaelites love lives than their art, but if that introduces their work to more people I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Art shouldn’t be snobby.”

Yet Christiana is remarkably unperturbed, Boris’ ‘roadmap’ providing light at the end of the tunnel, his news only exacerbating the impatience and anticipation gathering around this extraordinary, new exhibition.

George Price Boyce’s Old Barn at Whitchurch

“It’s all ready to go whether that be in April, May or June,” Christiana says “although May is looking most likely, if not earlier. My worry was that it wouldn’t happen at all which would have been frustrating. But we also have plans for a long-term touring exhibition that travels the world.”

And while an opening date is being arranged, we can get a taste of what’s in store during Christiana’s Zoom talk tomorrow (Thurs Feb 25 at 4pm), the first in a series of Pre-Raphaelite inspired events at the museum to accompany the exhibition. https://www.ashmolean.org/event/pre-raphaelites-curator-talk

Curator Christiana Payne, Professor Emerita of History of Art at Brookes

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (later known as the Pre-Raphaelites) was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens, Thomas Woolner and later Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and John William Waterhouse, as a reaction against the Royal Academy of Arts.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ The Knight’s Farewell

“They were so radical for their time and incorporated so many different genres in their work; from social satire to literature, history and politics, as well as their response to the natural world around them,” Christiana explains, “but they also had a wonderful sense of humour.”

“This first large-scale exhibition of works on paper offers a chance to look at the whole range of their output across different subjects, styles and media. It demonstrates their individual skills, collective creativity and revolutionary thinking about art and society which was to have a lasting impact on British art history.”

Head of a Woman 1875, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Pre-Raphaelite’s Oxford connections also come thick and fast, making them particularly relevant to the Ashmolean. Thomas Combe, the senior partner of the University Press, and his wife, Martha, mentored the young artists, buying many of their early works which they then left to the museum.

William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones became converts to the movement while studying at Exeter College. It was also in Oxford that Jane Burden, met Morris and Rossetti, the two men who became her husband and her lover. Oxford, too, played an important role in John Ruskin’s life, and he began donating many of his own exquisite drawings to the University in the 1870s, which are now at the Ashmolean.

Frederick Sandy’s Nepenthe. 1892

That the Ashmolean is a hotbed of Pre-Raphaelite art is therefore well known, but few of us knew how much more extensive its collection was – the entire spring exhibition being garnered from the museum’s own archives, neatly sidestepping any Covid-problematic international art loans, which made Christiana’s job a lot easier.

Working on the project since the autumn of 2019, pre coronavirus, while she saw and chose the drawings and water-colours first hand, Covid has since kept Christiana away, so she is as excited as we are to see the exhibition in person.

The Professor Emerita of History of Art at Oxford Brookes, Honorary Secretary of the Association of Art Historians, a Trustee of the Marc Fitch Fund was also a graduate of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, where her love of the British art movement stems from: “I started going to see the Pre-Raphaelites at the Ashmolean when I was a student at Oxford University and have been hooked ever since. I then took my own students there once I started teaching at Brookes,” she says.

Thus, organising the exhibition has been enjoyable, challenging and rewarding: “While assessing, cleaning and remounting the work we have discovered lots of new things along the way as a result,” Christiana says, “so it’s been a very worthwhile process, and an enormous pleasure and privilege to work on.

Albert Moore’s Study Of An Ash Trunk, 1857

Christiana will be discussing this and more, as well as looking in detail at key exhibits, including William Holman Hunt’s sketches for The Light of the World, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s drawings of Jane Morris, and landscape paintings by John Ruskin and George Price Boyce, with an understandably avid audience tomorrow afternoon, which you can book here: https://www.ashmolean.org/event/pre-raphaelites-curator-talk

So does Christiana think the Pre-Rapahelites get bad press? “I think some people are more interested in their love lives than their art yes, but if that introduces their work to more people I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Art shouldn’t be snobby.”

The Ashmolean’s Sarah Holland said: “We have yet to confirm our re-opening date – we will provide an update on the Ashmolean website as soon as possible.”

For more details on The Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours go to https://www.ashmolean.org/pre-raphaelites.

We will update this piece as soon as an opening date is announced.

Katherine MacAlister

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