Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours at the Ashmolean

In the past, my understanding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers is mainly based on the big works in Tate Britain’s 1840 room. I have always enjoyed those brightly coloured oil paintings and find them so vibrant and passionate, but I have little knowledge about the wide variety of mediums and subject matters in this artistic movement. It is a privilege that on June 1, 2021, I visited the “Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours” exhibition in Ashmolean, with Gervase, Maria and a group of Ertegun scholars.

The visit offers us a precious chance to enjoy the group’s drawings and watercolours. They are usually kept in the museum’s print room, rarely shown to the public. As I entered the first room, I was fascinated to encounter those delicate portraits of members and patrons of the group, as if getting to know them as individuals. While appreciating their fine skill, some trivial but amusing facts could be found out along the way. For example, when the good-looking Millais was with his friends, he had to sit uncomfortably on the floor due to his notoriously long legs. And when his portrait was painted by his close friend Collins, the sign that this handsome young man would get prematurely bald did not get disguised.

What also interests me in this exhibition is women in this artistic movement, either as models or as talented female painters. Women are considered as submissive and modest creatures in Victorian England, and are often portraited gentle, humble and introspective. When the feminist campaigner, Josephine Butler appears in William Scott’s drawing, her downcast eyes indicates that even the most progressive woman must follow a socially acceptable behaviour. It is thus not hard to imagine how unconventional it is and how much controversy it must have caused when Rossetti portraits big and strong women, the “stunners”. His study of Jane Morris in Head of a Woman (attendant for ‘Astarte Syriaca’), particularly the way he paints her luxuriantly shiny and wavy hair, is incredibly sensual. I won’t be surprised if this image appears on a vintage shampoo advertisement. On the other hand, being one of Rossetti’s “stunner” herself, the talented female artist Siddal shows a rebellious act in her Two Men in a Boat and a Woman Punting, by drawing herself as the punting ‘siren’ who pushes Rossetti, her admirer, away with her pole.

It is also in this exhibition that I learned Ruskin’s position in the Pre-Raphaelite group, both as an early advocator and as a skilled nature painter with watercolour. In the last room of the exhibition, I closely observed his admirable drawings of floras and faunas for the first time. I am still trying to understand how his defence for art with an acute faithfulness to nature, using his own Dürer-like nature studies as examples when teaching in Ruskin, could join in harmony with his early appreciation of Turner, who paints not with precise lines but with dreamy, atmospherical colouring. I appreciate that the exhibition is not only enjoyable for my eyes but also stimulating to my mind, leaving questions to be figured out in the future. I am also triggered by this exhibition to see more works of the Pre-Raphaelites. Later this summer I will visit galleries Liverpool and Birmingham to see finished works of a few preparative pieces in this exhibition.

Linqing Zhu