Pre-Raphaelites: Everything's Completely Fine
Updated: May 17
Exhibition: Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours
Ashmolean Museum, 18 May – 20 June.
Tickets from £6 - £12.25. Free for under 12s, Oxford Students, Carers and Pass holders. Book tickets here.
[Disclosure: I attended this exhibition for free and was provided with an exhibition catalogue for free for the purposes of this review.]
The UK’s oldest museum, the Ashmolean, will reopen on 17 May after a turbulent year of on/off closures. Organising large feature exhibitions usually requires a sprawling apparatus of smoothly revolving cogs. Those cogs have ground to a halt – so the Ashmolean has mined its own extensive collection to curate this new exhibition, which opens on 18 May.
It’s fair to say that there’s been an ongoing, passionate debate about what museums are really for. Even museum professionals cannot agree. In 2019, a vote at the International Council of Museums to decide an updated definition of the term “museum” was postponed amid vehement differences of opinion.
I know exactly what I want my museums to be. I want my museums to tell me stories – of the past, present and future. I want my museums to unearth hidden stories to shine a light on the world. I want to go to my museums, look around me and see the world – not only on the walls but in the people around me – at the exhibitions, in the cafes and in the shop. I want to go to museums to understand what’s happened and what’s happening.
That’s too much to ask from one institution...or is it?
The Ashmolean’s own mission statement speaks of inclusivity, diversity, and engagement. It talks of making the collections, “…relevant to people’s lives…”
That’s why, when I saw that the museum’s big-bang re-opening exhibition was the Pre-Raphaelites, I was more than a bit surprised. Oxford and Oxford Universiy (which owns the Ashmolean) has played a pivotal role in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and can be proud of this. Museums should be of their place, so it’s right that the Pre-Raphaelites should feature in the Ashmolean’s collections and on its walls. Nobody can deny the impact of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose ideas and aesthetic have influenced poetry, literature, and design.
I asked myself - does displaying the rarely seen drawings and watercolours of a very exclusive group of 7 privileged young men who, in 1848, started a rebellion against Royal Academy art diktats and the social rules that applied to them - fulfil what I want from a big bang, beloved museum re-opening in May 2021?
For me, the answer is no. When measured against the Ashmolean’s own Values and Mission Statement, the answer might also be no.
When I asked the exhibition curator, Christiana Payne, why “they” chose to feature the Pre-Raphaelites as the re-opening exhibition, she told me she’d been asked by the museum’s director to curate a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. I was too intimidated to seek an answer from the museum’s director as to why he chose this particular time-period and group of artists to feature in May 2021. It’s scary to question eminence.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Pre-Raphaelites’ work. I do. I love their work and the work of those that they’ve influenced. But my criticism lies in the fact that when I visited the exhibition, I experienced a profound dissonance. Walking through this exquisitely curated exhibition of breath-taking drawing and paintings, it was like none of the last 14 months had happened. In fact, it was like none of the last 50 years had happened.
Context here is everything. Had this exhibition been shown in 2019, then perhaps I would have been able to really loose myself in this beautifully curated, scholarly illumination of an important and influential time in English art.
In the last 14 months, however, our collective understanding of various issues around social justice has been starkly advanced in the most extreme and distressing ways possible. If we didn’t before, we now understand that social justice for marginalised communities is a matter of life and death. We understand that, if you’re Black in America, you’re more likely to die at the hands of the state than if you’re white. We understand that public spaces in this country are less safe for women than they are for men. We understand that our right to protest to protect our democratic principles is sacred.
Nothing about our recent lived experience, in possibly the most turbulent time in living memory, is reflected in the choice of opening exhibition. The tribe that will enjoy this detachment as escapism is a very exclusive one indeed.
The Exhibition Itself
The Pre-Raphaelites, or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as they called themselves, was a group of 7 privileged young men who, in 1848, began to rebel against the strictures of the Royal Academy’s diktats on art and the social rules that applied to them.
While the movement started in London, Oxford played a huge role with many of the members living, meeting, studying, and teaching in Oxford. The group idolised poetry, nature, and female beauty and, through their art, created an artistic revolution, whose influence on art and design can be felt today.
While the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is most famous for its members’ oil paintings, the exhibition is made up of the group’s beautiful drawings and watercolours – which are usually not on display to the general public. These have been carefully divided into themes including portraits, “stunners” (their name for beautiful women), sketches and studies, nature, and landscapes.
Christiana Payne, the curator, has lovingly and conscientiously chosen exquisite works to illustrate these themes and her accompanying explanatory text on the walls and next to each work illuminates the work and its context within the movement clearly. This gives us a new perspective on the group, its influences and those that it inspired.
Occasionally, I felt a 21st century hand reaching down to render palatable some of the many uncomfortable aspects of the group’s lived philosophies. For example, the passive context and vacant expressions of the women is explained as, “implying a rich inner life”.
To me, there is also a disproportionate emphasis on the fact that there were some women, involved as artists, in the group. The door to the periphery was only opened to a very small group of white women – models, sexual partners, or givers of money/support – the door was closed to talent alone. There are not many women who would consider the Pre-Raphaelites’ contribution a feminist one.
This is a scholarly exhibition – the love of the curator for the Pre-Raphaelites shines through in every detail. If you already love the Pre-Raphaelites, this exhibition will be an absolute treat. Similarly, if you are a student of drawing; you will experience understanding and wonder from this exhibition. Fans of Tolkien will also love this exhibition – the influences are there for you to see.
If you still can’t decide whether to spend the ticket money – you can watch the Ashmolean’s film of the exhibition and then decide whether you want to see the pieces in real life.
Housekeeping: The lighting in the galleries is very low to avoid damaging the fragile works. To some, the low levels of lighting may hamper visibility. If seeing the tiny details is important to you, then I would take a magnifying glass to this exhibition.