Pre-Raphaelite exhibits at Oxford and Cambridge: Pre-Raphaelites and Italy and Pre-Raphaelite Portraits by John Brett

My family and I enjoyed a wonderful–if slightly frenetic–weekend visiting family in Washington state. It was quite the whirlwind weekend – shopping, a wedding and visiting a couple of friends. We had a great time though. Seattle is a beautiful city, and Washington is so pretty in general…but it did go by so quickly that the whole thing was a bit of a blur. Fortunately, Edmonton was so cloudy when I got back that I feel like I’m still in Washington! The strangest part is that, even though I was only gone for a weekend, when I returned, Edmonton was already in the middle of Autumn. Trees are changing colors and losing their leaves already! I’m excited though – Fall really is one of my favourite times of year. 

Autumn will always call to mind the beginning of Fall classes, and now that I’m no longer in school, I tend to look for stand-ins. And usually that means new museum exhibitions! I received an email from a reader (thank you, Phillip), about two upcoming Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions in England. One is being held at Cambridge, the other at Oxford. Where better to soak up a bit of the excitement of the back-to-school atmosphere than at two Pre-Raphaelite art exhibits at England’s top universities? 

The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy will be held at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and is scheduled to run from September 16 – December 5, 2010. The exhibit will feature works by John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a host of other Pre-Raphaelite luminaries, and will examine the relationship these artists had with Italy. (For example, I find it fascinating that, while Rossetti grew up speaking Italian in an Italian-English home, he never actually visited Italy himself. Ruskin, on the other hand, was a frequent visitor and champion of Italian art and culture). This promises to be an excellent opportunity to see a number of Pre-Raphaelite works held by museums around the globe. 

The second exhibit I would like to share with readers is entitled Objects of Affection: Pre-Raphaelite Portraits by John Brett. John Brett is best known for his landscape paintings, but his portraits are the main focus of this exhibit. Interestingly, Brett was also a pioneer in the field of photography, and his photographic portraits will also be on display. This show is being held at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum and runs from now until November 28, 2010. 

These exhibits look so interesting, and I must say I’m excited to see Pre-Raphaelites being the focus of simultaneous showcases at Oxford and Cambridge. Now, if only they would focus a bit on improving the online version of these exhibits for those of us who are a bit too busy with our families to cross the ocean to see them in person…

John Brett, Val d’Aosta, 1858 – image courtesy Wikimedia

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Arts

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” – Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species

I ran across the website for Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Arts while doing a search to see what connections there might have been between Charles Darwin and the Pre-Raphaelites. I saw Creation, a very interesting film about Darwin a few weeks ago. The film starred Paul Bettany and I really enjoyed it. Very nicely done, in my opinion, though I know that many may have been disappointed by it. The film focused more on Darwin’s relationship with his daughter than it did on science, but the movie captured the Victorian era so well, and I loved the Gothic way the story was told, so I would recommend it. At any rate, after seeing the film it occurred to me that Darwin was a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites, and I wondered what they had thought of them.

I always knew there was some disagreement between the Pre-Raphaelites and Darwin. Ruskin (who else?), was the most vocal critic I could find. He disliked Darwin because he felt his science robbed the world of wonder, mystery and beauty. He wrote frequently on the topic of natural selection (or rather, Ruskin’s own highly amusing version of it). In response to Darwin’s suggestion that “the final end of the whole flower….is the production of the seed” Ruskin argued that “the flower exists for its own sake…not for the fruit’s sake.” Oh well. There was no pleasing Ruskin – just ask Effie…

But what of the other Pre-Raphaelites?

One of the more direct artistic Pre-Raphaelite responses to Darwin’s work that I could find was this painting by William Dyce, which was originally part of the “Endless Forms” exhibition. The picture features the artist’s family gathering fossils in Pegwell Bay, near Kent. The painting, which is held today by the Tate Gallery, uses the tail of Donati’s comet to cast an ominous and uncertain mood over the scene (the comet’s tail is supposed to be “barely visible” in the center of the painting – I think it’s one of the white spots near the top-middle area of the picture, but I can’t be sure). Dyce was a devout Anglican, so the inclusion of the comet – which, conveniently, was not due to reappear for 2,000 years – is rich with symbolism.

Be sure to check out the virtual exhibition of “Endless Forms” online. It gives an interesting overview of artistic responses to Darwin, from early natural history drawings through to the Impressionists.
image courtesy Wikimedia

Desperate Romantics – First Impressions

I finally had a chance to watch the first two episodes of BBC’s Desperate Romantics with Javier last week. We both really enjoyed it. Overall, I found it highly entertaining (and yes, it was quite accurately described by its producer as “Entourage with easels”). The production was a bit weak on the historical front, but I suppose this was done by the writers to broaden the appeal of the series.

The series focuses on the early years of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and follows their rise to fame.

I was pleasantly surprised with the casting, particularly that of Lizzie Siddal. The actress who plays Lizzie not only resembles Siddal a great deal, but she also does an excellent job of bringing life and pathos to the character. John and Effie Ruskin are also well-cast, and are more developed than I had anticipated, although the endless speculation about what was wrong with their marriage always gets to me–honestly, nobody has any idea what the problem was (biographers seem to constantly return to the idea that Ruskin was disgusted by Effie’s body hair, but how could they know?). Nevertheless, much like the rumours about Michael Jackson, I suppose this gossip is just too juicy for scriptwriters to pass up.

Unfortunately, the characterization of most of the other major players is rather simplistic, though it is in keeping with the rest of the shows’ approach. Aidan Turner is handsome and energetic as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, if a bit one-dimensional. William Holman Hunt’s character certainly seems to have drawn the short straw in terms of personality. Most biographers of the Pre-Raphaelites tend to consider Hunt a bit of a blowhard, but he’s painted with such a broad brush in this production that it borders on the ridiculous. I hope that the writers will add some nuance to his character in the remaining episodes. Perhaps the most promising character so far is that of John Everett Millais, who is played by Samuel Barnett. Millais’ character is quite endearing, and it looks like we will be seeing more of him in tonight’s episode.

The character I could sort of do without is Fred Walters–a fictional hanger-on that is meant to function as a bit of a window into the lives of the PRB. He’s sort of an amalgamation of a number of real-life members of the brotherhood, but I really wish that they had included William Michael Rossetti in the story instead. William Michael has always seemed quite interesting to me, and he certainly did a great deal to contribute to the visibility of the Brotherhood. I suppose the writers felt that adding in another member of the Rossetti family would rob Dante Gabriel of some of his mystique, but I digress.

Overall, I’m definitely enjoying the series. It’s so nice to finally see the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites dramatized! Desperate Romantics may fall a bit short on historical accuracy, but the story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is so inherently exciting that the show can’t help but be enormously entertaining.

I’d be extremely interested to hear from others who’ve had a chance to see the first few episodes. What were your first impressions? Were you pleased or disappointed? Do you think the show will revive interest in the Pre-Raphaelites?

Desperate Romantics

At long last, some additional news has broken about the BBC television adaptation of Franny Moyle’s Pre-Raphaelite potboiler, Desperate Romantics. After months with no news, cyberspace finally has a fresh injection of stories about the much-anticipated series.

One of the more interesting articles I came across was Rapid Talent’s interview with Samuel Barnett, who will be playing John Everett Millais. Barnett describes getting acquainted with his character through field trips to the National Gallery:

“I like all sorts of art, that’s why I love wandering around The National Gallery. I really admire paintings that look like an actual snapshot – I think that’s just extraordinary. That’s what’s so special about Millais: flesh – people’s actual skin – looks real, for example in The Order Of Release and Christ In The House Of His Parents; it’s photographic, it doesn’t matter how close you get to the painting, you don’t see the brushwork. With Millais’s paintings it’s microscopic; when he does hair it’s extraordinary, you can see every strand. His paintings are my favourites – not just because I’m playing him – I think he’s the best artist of the group, technically and also emotionally.”

I would have to agree, though, as you all know, I have a great appreciation for Burne-Jones and Rossetti as well.

Although I’m a little disappointed that the BBC feels it’s necessary to portray the Pre-Raphaelites as prototypes for modern models and rock stars, I suppose it makes it makes sense from a marketing perspective. And, in all honesty, I must admit that I was always drawn to that aspect of their story. As Barnett points out, the Pre-Raphaelites came on the scene just as the public was gaining greater access print publications than ever before:

“You don’t have to know anything about the period or the artists; it’s a human story and a ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ story as well: this was the period when supermodels and celebrity was born. The use of the printing press meant everyone, nationally and internationally, could see these guys’ paintings and the models they used, that was a first – art had never had exposure like that before.”

You can read the full story at Rapid Talent UK.

Also, special thanks to Grace at The Beautiful Necessity for bringing to my attention the fact that news stories about Desperate Romantics are finally starting to get out!

Cast of “Desperate Romantics” announced by the BBC

The BBC Press Office has finally released the casting information for their upcoming series, Desperate Romantics. Most of the actors historically inspired TV dramas are much better looking than their historical counterparts and I’m not complaining. However, the BBC definitely took some rather extreme artistic liberties with this one.

First up: Dante Gabriel Rossetti will be played by Aiden Turner. We all know that Rossetti was a bit of a lady killer, but he wasn’t exactly top model material. The producers have chosen to gloss over this a bit and have chosen an impossibly attractive young man to play Rossetti. While I fail to see much of a resemblance between him and Rossetti (other than the fact that both of them have brown hair!), I’m pretty sure Rossetti would approve. After looking at his photograph, take a look at his self-portrait. Rossetti doesn’t seem to have had a problem with portraying himself as more attractive than he actually was (though, in his defence I’m sure years of drug abuse had taken a toll on his boyish good looks in this photo).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in the flesh

Rossetti’s self portrait:

And finally, his cinematic alter ego :

Correction: it’s not that Aidan Turner, it’s this one:

(And thank you to whoever pointed out which Aidan Turner will actually be starring in Desperate Romantics! A little less soap-opera-ish and a lot more believable.)

And now for the rest of the cast.

Tom Hollander (who bears little resemblance to John Ruskin–for one thing, he’s a bit chubby and Ruskin was practically anorexic) will be playing Ruskin, the famous art critic and patron of the Pre Raphaelites. This casting decision still makes sense to me,though, as Hollander often plays snobby, self-absorbed types. At the same time, I hope he doesn’t overdo it. Ruskin was certainly interesting, even if he was obsessed with his work and had a rather odd way of relating to women.

In more casting news, Samuel Barnett will be playing John Millais, and Zoe Tapper will be playing Effie Ruskin (who later leaves Ruskin to be Mrs. Millais).

Amy Manson has been cast as Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” Lizzie Siddal, Sam Crane as Fred Walters and Jennie Jacques will play Annie Miller. Rafe Spall will also take a turn as PRB founding member William Hunt.

All in all, I predict that the script will be frothy melodrama and the cast will be easy on the eyes. Not a problem, as far as I’m concerned. There’s no denying that the Pre-Raphaelites are ripe for soap opera-esque treatment. I just hope that the series will revive public interest in the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements.