The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours

Those of you living in the UK (or visiting) are in for a real treat this month. From January 29, 2011 to May 15, 2011, The Birmingham Museum is hosting what promises to be “the largest survey of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and watercoulours ever staged.” The museum has assembled works Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s world-class collections, together with important pieces from public and private lenders, including some works by D.G. Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones that have never previously been exhibited. The exhibit, entitled The Poetry of Drawing, will place special emphasis on the important role that drawing played in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

The Poetry of Drawing will include pieces from the most prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, including all the original members of the PRB, Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Sandys and Simeon Solomon. Later artists, such as Aubrey Beardsley, who were influenced by the Brotherhood are also included, as are the Arts and Crafts contributions of William Morris, William de Morgan and Florence Camm.

For those of you who are unable to attend, the exhibition’s curator has created an illustrated volume entitled Pre-Raphaelite Drawing. The book will be published by Thames and Hudson. I would love to see this exhibit in person, but if I don’t get the chance, I will definitely be looking into the catalogue!

For more information and ticket prices, please visit the Birmingham Museum’s exhibition website.

Image above is William Morris’ sketch for his Trellis wallpaper design.

William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer on Display in Buffalo, NY

If you are in Buffalo, New York, this month, be sure to check out the Central Library at Lafayette Square, which will be presenting an exhibit of entitled “The Ideal Book–William Morris and the Kelmscott Press.” Included in the exhibit is an original copy of William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer, along with books produced by the Roycroft Press.

My University library has a facsimile copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer, but I’ve never seen an original up close. The facsimile itself is nothing to sneeze at – it’s a gorgeous book. It never hurts to add it to your Christmas list, though $650 for the gorgeous Folio Society edition might be a bit steep (though it pales in comparison to the real deal – the genuine article recently sold in New York for $160,000 USD). There are some nice editions available on Amazon.com for considerably less, though. I got my sister this very pretty edition (which only includes the Canterbury Tales, but it’s a lovely hardbound edition) for under $20 a couple of years ago. I’m afraid I would dissolve into tears if my daughter tore up a folio edition, but at less than $20, this copy is probably just the ticket for a family with small children.

The Kelmscott Chaucer gives readers a sensual experience. I still remember the first time I picked it up and thought “this is what a book should be like.” Sir Edward Burne-Jones illustrations are stunning, and the borders have exquisite details that the eye can follow for hours. In general, I’m a bit of a minimalist when it comes to my books. I know that there have been many tomes written on decorating with books, etc., but I personally believe most books really aren’t that attractive. They take up too much space! As a result, I tend to either borrow from the library or read eBooks. There are not that many books I consider worth having physical copies of, but this is one of them. As Morris said, “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This is certainly an item that any fan of William Morris and Pre-Raphaelites would be thrilled to find under the tree.

For more information on the Kelmscott Chaucer, visit the Buffalo Library’s exhibition website. The Kelmscott Chaucer will be on display until January 30, 2011

Did the Pre-Raphaelites Suffer from “Blurred Vision?”

This morning I came across a less-than-enthused review of “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens” in the Washington Post. In the article, Andy Grundberg criticized what he termed the “blurred vision” of the Pre-Raphaelites. And while Grundberg retained some admiration for the work done by Pre-Raphaelite landscape artists, he condemned the Brotherhood with broad strokes, arguing that “its members claimed to be interested in realism and truth” but were “far more taken with notions of fiction and theatricality.”

Grundberg was a photography critic for the New York Times for many years, so it’s not surprising that he prefers the Pre-Raphaelites landscapes and photography to their paintings. But his criticism of the PRB is pretty standard. Many modern viewers can appreciate the work of artists like John William Inchbold (whose photograph-quality painting of Anstey’s Cove is pictured here), and even Ford Maddox Brown, but remain perplexed by the romanticism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.

I was particularly struck by Grundberg’s backhanded compliment that Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson had “managed against odds to transcend their subjects’ goofy origins in Arthurian legend.” So now it’s “goofy” to be inspired by myths and legend? Greek myth has inspired countless artists and is (quite rightly) not regarded as a “goofy” source of inspiration. Why should ancient British myths be seen differently?

Mythology is such a rich source of inspiration for artists, and it saddens me to see it dismissed off-hand. Many members of the PRB were actually very interested in a “modern” approach to art and design. They recognized that British art had become mired in convention and instead attempted to use the classics as a foundation to build from that would allow them break free from traditions that had become oppressive to artists. Even William Morris, whose passion for the middle ages is well-known, was not attempting to imitate medieval design, but to use it as a source of inspiration to create a better future.

Apparently, people today are confused that a a group that claimed to be visionary would lean so heavily on mythology and the classics for inspiration. Contemporary artists and (and their adoring critics) have the hubris to claim that they have re-invented the wheel, or are totally unencumbered by the influence of others from the past (the Young British Artists come to mind). And while this unfettered arrogance is intriguing, and can sometimes produce fascinating work, it also runs the risk of alienating the public with its hollow promise of unbridled innovation. A connection to the past and an understanding of our collective unconscious is not “goofy” – it’s a fundamental part of the creative process.

Camelot – New TV Series Starring Eva Green and Joseph Fiennes

I’ve been an undying fan of Arthurian legend for as long as I can remember. I wish I could say that my first encounter with the Knights of the Round Table was Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, or even Howard Pyle (though both came very soon after!). No, it was actually Bing Crosby’s 1949 version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I was about 7, and was completely captivated by the film. Looking back, I realize the the story was pretty silly, and a commercial failure of epic proportions. But as a kid, none of that mattered. I was hooked from the moment Bing woke up in Camelot – I loved the clothes, romance, adventure and the corny, stilted, olde-ish English (and, truth be told, I still like the movie!).

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Even today, it seems I can’t get enough of Arthurian legend on film. Good, bad or indifferent, I’m always willing to check out the latest Hollywood offering. So, imagine my delight at the announcement that Eva Green (Casino Royale) and Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) will be starring as Morgana and Merlin in a new television series entitled Camelot. The series is set to premier in early 2011 and will be broadcast internationally by GK-TV, through the CBC in Canada and by Starz in the US.

The 10 part mini-series will be based on Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, and is being shot at Ardmore Studios, where The Tudors was also filmed.

Will you be watching?

Image: Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin, 1872-1877

Pre-Raphaelite Christmas Stamps Released by Royal Mail

The Royal Mail has released a lovely set of Pre-Raphaelite stamps in time for the holiday season. The collection was chosen by designer Andrew Ross, who examined stained glass from churches throughout England in order to compile the artwork for the set of stamps. The final designs were taken from churches in Cumbria, Norfolk, Somerset, East Sussex and Wiltshire.The angel with the mandolin (middle) was designed by William Morris, while the Wise Man stamp (bottom middle) is from some stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones. The art for the 1st, 56p and £1.35 stamps are from stained glass created by Henry Holiday, who worked with Edward Burne-Jones in his studios.

“We are extremely privileged to have access to such a rich history of beautiful stained glass designs in churches and other buildings around the UK,” said Julietta Edgar, Head of Special Stamps, Royal Mail.

“These precious images of the nativity have a timeless appeal and are a wonderful way of telling the story of Christmas here and around the world.”

It appears that the stamps already have a following – Wales online reports that a number of the Pre Raphaelite stamps were stolen before they were made available to the general public. As a result, “ANYONE offered Royal Mail’s newest commemorative Christmas stamps on the cheap is being asked to contact police after a new delivery was stolen in a burglary.” The thieves weren’t just desperate romantics, though – they also stole cash, phone cards and cigarettes.