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Pre-Raphaelites on Paper at Leighton House Museum

20 February 2016 | Lydia Cooper

This February a new exhibition of Victorian draughtsmanship will open in the exquisite setting of Leighton House Museum, the ‘private palace of art’ built by Frederic Leighton. Senior curator Daniel Robbins explains the significance of displaying this vast collection of drawings in a setting contemporaneous with the work.

The conception of the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites on Paper at Leighton House Museum, which showcases over one hundred drawings and sketches by more than sixty Victorian artists, came about through a series of fascinating coincidences. The exhibition is made possible by the generous loan of the drawings from the National Gallery of Canada; these drawings were in turn donated by Dr Dennis T Lanigan, a collector and philanthropist. Sonia Del Ra, a curator from the National Gallery of Canada, reveals that its history is intertwined with that of Victorian England. When the National Gallery of Canada was established in 1880, Queen Victoria called for submissions from prominent English artists of the time: the first to donate a painting was Frederic Leighton. One hundred years later, the first Victorian piece that Dr Lanigan acquired for his collection was also by Frederic Leighton, and he describes his visit to Leighton House in 1976 as a seminal influence on his decision to collect Pre-Raphaelite art.  It is fitting, then, that Leighton House provides the backdrop for Lanigan’s collection of rare drawings.

The new show links in neatly with Leighton House’s previous exhibition A Victorian Obsession: whilst the earlier show displayed over fifty paintings, this one focuses on the working process behind well-known Pre-Raphaelite painters and other Victorian artists. Daniel Robbins, the senior curator at Leighton House, outlines why the setting suits the collection so well:

‘The scale of these little drawings in a domestic setting makes it appropriate. These aren’t massive, large-scale paintings that could hold their own in a gallery setting. They need to be seen in a more intimate context, and that is what Leighton House can do so well.’

Why the title Pre-Raphaelites on Paper, if the exhibition includes many other artists loosely associated with the Aesthetic movement, the Arts and Crafts movement, the ‘poetry without grammar’ school, the Idyllist movement? Robbins explains that the Canadian exhibition title was ‘Beauty’s Awakening’, but a London audience needed a more explicit title outlining what to expect.

‘There are many exhibitions that claim to be ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ that are no such thing, but we are lucky enough to have, in Dennis’ collection, work by the first group of Pre-Raphaelites and representative work from the later second generation, Burne-Jones et al. We even have a drawing of Holman Hunt by William Michael Rossetti, who was part of the original group, but almost no drawings by him are in circulation. Whilst the exhibition includes many other artists disassociated from the movement - Leighton himself would pointedly distance himself from the Pre-Raphaelites - we think that the Pre-Raphaelites are what draw people in.’

The exhibition is an ode to nineteenth century British draughtsmanship. Leighton himself is an instrumental part of this: he kept every scrap of paper that he drew on, from his childhood sketches to his later works. Although his vast collection was largely sold, seven hundred sheets of his drawings were acquired when his house became a museum almost immediately after his death in 1896.  Pre-Raphaelites on Paper reveals a diverse body of drawings, in pen and ink and watercolour and pencil.

The show divides Lanigan’s prolific collection into a series of subjects, exploring how artists engaged with ancient, biblical, medieval, Renaissance and contemporary themes in their work. These translate very naturally to the different rooms in Leighton’s house: Robbins comments that, ‘each room has a different character, which gives a sort of coherence to the pictures shown in that particular room. The more modern gallery was built long after Leighton died in the 1920s, so it felt appropriate to show the ‘contemporary’ Victorian pictures there.’

 

An interior installation shot of Pre-Raphaelites on Paper at Leighton House Museum. © Kevin Moran Photography

 

The elaborate decoration in the house itself complements the pictures on display. Michael Frederick Halliday’s Pomegranate Sellers (1864), which embodies the uncomfortable fetishisation of the East during the Victorian period, is displayed in the Upper Perrin Gallery, a floor above the notorious Arab Hall, which housed Leighton’s collection of tiles from his visits to the Middle East, a testament to his Orientalism.

Another highlight that Robbins points out is a group of sketches of the partners, lovers and wives of the artists.

‘There’s something very intimate about that idea. The pencil drawing by Ford Madox Brown of his wife on their wedding day is particularly striking.’

One picture that instantly draws in the viewer is Frederic George Stephens’ Portrait of Clare Stephens [?]. Robbins explains that Stephens gave up being an artist and was determined to destroy all his work. The drawing has survived because it was presumably of his wife, and has been passed down through the family.

‘From a Leighton House point of view, it’s also interesting to see a rare painting by William de Morgan, who was responsible for the wonderful blue tiles in the house. Like all these people, at one point or another, he tried to be a painter. Not all of them succeeded, but it’s interesting to see their attempts.’

Dr Lanigan, the collector of these drawings, has said that even if he had the money to buy Pre-Raphaelite paintings, he would still prefer to have the drawings, the works in progress. The attraction of seeing a work in progress is obvious: it provides an unseen thread linking you and the artist, an intimate insight into their mind and composition process. Whilst the finished paintings are gloriously colourful, large-scale works with a glossy sheen, the drawings show the initial thoughts behind these works.

Robbins adds that ‘The drawings reveal something about the artist. The immediacy of the idea of a line being made on a piece of paper is somehow more transparent, and perhaps honest, than a fully worked out and considered painting. Particularly, maybe, in the case of someone like Leighton. The criticism of his work, even in his day, was that the pictures were too perfect, too considered, too realised, the surface of them was sort of immaculate. Although his drawings are immaculate in some ways too, there is a sense of the thought behind the work and the development of a picture that went on beforehand. Maybe that’s where the real creativity was.’

 

An interior installation shot of Pre-Raphaelites on Paper at Leighton House Museum. © Kevin Moran Photography

 

The appeal of the drawings’ arrangement in the house also lies in the lack of name labels. The exhibition asks you to look at the drawings themselves first in an isolated context, rather than whether you recognise the name Rossetti or Millais. When viewing a well-known Pre-Raphaelite painting - Ophelia or Chatterton at the Tate, for example - you understand that you’re supposed to appreciate it. In contrast, the drawings at Leighton House, which are accompanied by a gallery guide but have no labels adjacent to them, encourage us to consider whether we like the art rather than to focus on a name. 

‘It’s true that making the drawings anonymous means that people engage with them a lot more,’ admits Daniel, ‘but the motivation for having the gallery guides was also because installing labels in the house is difficult: we didn’t want to damage the original decoration.’

The gallery guides also provide some insight into the provenance of the paintings and their origin.  The reception of Pre-Raphaelite art has oscillated between cool dismissal and frenzied obsession: Leighton’s own work Flaming June was snapped up in 1963 for just £660, when the movement was unfashionable, but last year the painting’s popularity amongst the public rapidly increased when it was displayed at the Frick in New York. Dr Lanigan himself tells the story of finding a drawing on eBay for £60. He had to trawl through a lot of material before finding anything significant. This particular drawing was anonymous, but when Lanigan happened to be in Dublin he visited the National Library, intending to examine their collection of William Burton’s work. He noticed that one of the drawings was similar to his eBay purchase, and stumbled across the identity of the genuine work by accident.

Nowadays, Pre-Raphaelite art is much more in fashion, following a blockbuster exhibition at the Tate Britain in 2012. Burne-Jones’ painting Love Among the Ruins subsequently sold for nearly £15 million, and 35,000 people came to see A Victorian Obsession at Leighton House last year. Why is Pre-Raphaelite art in particular such an enduring source of fascination for people? Daniel pauses for consideration.

‘I think that it happens on different levels. People are intrigued by the personalities involved, and the personal lives of people like Rossetti, there’s that sort of side to it. People do respond to their style and technical ability, and the memorable images that the key works display. What A Victorian Obsession proved, it sounds like a cliché, is that people are genuinely looking for aesthetic experiences, experiences which are about enjoyment. The ability to combine the house’s setting with these images gives people a chance to be immersed in a world that the Pre-Raphaelites themselves were arguably trying to create. A world that was an antidote to the increasingly industrialised society in which they lived; a place for people to escape; a world where expression of and appreciation for beautiful things is important. It’s that sort of kind of escapism that continues to fascinate people and attract them to those pictures.’

The discovery of an early working drawing for Leighton’s famous Flaming June in an English mansion last year seems to confirm the importance of draughtsmanship. The head study was found behind a door, and demonstrates how he conceived the plan for the oil painting in pencil and chalk.

At a time when, like the Victorians, we are obsessed with society’s aesthetic ideals of beauty, it is nice to see half-formed sketches, rapid scrawls and light pencil calculations in a museum rather than an oil painting with a glossy sheen.

 

The Leighton House exhibition runs from 12 February - 29 May 2016.

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