Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion

Review by Sacha Waldron | 01 Mar 2016

Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion at the Walker Art Gallery brings together 120 works from the pre-Raphaelite movement, a significant number coming from from Liverpool Museum's own collection and others borrowed from institutions such as Manchester Art Gallery and Tate.

The exhibition reveals some of the key art politics from Victorian Liverpool and the role that patronage played in the collecting and exhibiting of artists such as Rossetti, Millais and William Holman Hunt. These may be the images of women with flowing hair that adorn birthday cards to your auntie, but they also tell the story of a new way of painting that was seen as problematic and subversive, and was publically attacked by art critics at the time.

Just to give a (very) potted history. The Royal Academy, in the early- to mid-19th century, were promoting the work of Renaissance artist Raphael – all ideal forms and an academic classical approach. Rossetti and pals were more interested in John Ruskin’s theories that artists needed to turn back to the natural world. They were committed to ideas of realism, not idealism, in their painting and often depicted the social issues of the day, sexual politics, gender equality, poverty, immigration. The group of artists that formed under the title The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood mounted their own shows, used fancy colours and generally drew attention to themselves.

The establishment weren’t happy. Public figures, such as Charles Dickens, spoke out in opposition to the new style. In Liverpool, however, there was an appetite for pre-Raphaelitism. The Liverpool Academy consistently exhibited work from the Brotherhood and wealthy industrial and shipping magnates, such as ship owner Frederick Leyland and Birkenhead stockbroker George Rae, became key patrons. The exhibition at the Walker looks at the work produced by the pre-Raphaelites, therefore, through the exploration of how and why Liverpool acted as one of the art capitals of the pre-Raphaelite movement in the 19th century.

It’s interesting to see the breadth of work brought together for the exhibition and see some key works in context alongside those artists who went on to influence art in Liverpool. Turn away from the exhibition’s overarching narrative for a moment, however, and spend some time concentrating on the individual works and their stories.

One of the most striking was Ford Madox Brown’s The English Boy (1860), a portrait of his son Oliver, aged five. The Holbeinesque painting depicts the boy as a little king with whip and top. The top actually looks a little like a chocolate cupcake which makes this portrait oddly contemporary. Oliver would go on to die of blood poisoning aged 19, and with that the painting becomes a kind of portent that the son will never reach manhood.

In another Madox Brown, a family (probably his own) dry themselves after a swim at Walton-on-the-Naze. Almost like a painted holiday postcard, it references the blossoming tourism industry but also daily life for the family. The sky and the rainbow glow; you feel you can smell the mossy grass and feel the chilly breeze from the sea.


Until 5 Jun