Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

'Pre-Raphaelite Sisters'

By Chris Rogers, Dec 7 2019 07:03PM

Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites have been rediscovered and reappraised in recent decades. This group of like-minded artists, who enjoyed a fifty-year flowering in the last half of the nineteenth century, have each been the subject of a major exhibition as well as a number of thematic shows. As compelling as their works are the intertwined lives they lived – as friends, lodgers, lovers and spouses. Crucial to both strands have been the women who posed for the pictures and in many cases entered relationships with the men who painted them – women such as Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal and Fanny Cornforth. Now, though, a brilliant new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery reveals for the first time just how widely and intimately involved in the making of this movement’s art a dozen women were.

Joanna Boyce Wells, 'Elgiva', 1855

The story of Effie Gray, art critic John Ruskin and painter John Everett Millais is well known – she was matched with and wed the former, who championed the latter but failed to consummate his marriage; Gray and Millais were eventually married – and thus a useful choice for the introductory section. But within this infamous love triangle Effie’s much fuller role in the work of Millais, for whom she had modelled, is now seen. As well as managing his studio she undertook research, scouted locations, sourced costumes and managed clients. She kept the books too. When Millais was awarded a baronetcy, Gray became Lady Millais; her husband still painted her into her sixties, as seen in a handsome portrait in the exhibition.

John Everett Millais, 'The Violet's Message', 1854 - The

model was Annie Miller, lover of artist William Holman

Hunt, who lived to be 90 and died in 1925, having

married an officer and left behind her humble origins

Jane Burden, too, sat for the man who was to become her husband, artist and entrepreneur William Morris. She also modelled for several other Pre-Raphaelites including Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Edward Burne-Jones – a wonderful double family photograph of the Morrises and the Burne-Joneses serves to illustrate their close ties. Burden was made a partner in her husband’s business and managed the firm’s embroidery commissions, as well practising that skill in her own right.

The exhibition also reminds visitors that some significant Pre-Raphaelite artists were themselves women, perhaps most notably Evelyn de Morgan, for whom Burden posed at the age of 65 – indeed one of the highlights of the exhibition are two photographs of Burden taken more than forty years apart, showing her aged around 26 and 66 respectively. Rather less known and thus something of a discovery was Joanna Boyce, who married Royal Academician Henry Wells yet produced several fine paintings of her own. That the Pre-Raphaelite women had many talents apart from modelling is displayed throughout the exhibition, confirming this richer reading of their lives.

Such lives were of course occasionally truncated; Boyce died in childbirth, a tragedy that was later echoed in the destruction of many of her works in World War 2, and Lizzie Siddal may have committed suicide after years of illness. Both were barely 30. The most affecting fate is that of Fanny Cornforth (born Sarah Cox), model and mistress of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Another famous face of the movement, she ended her days in Graylingwell Asylum, suffering from dementia. Alongside her admission photograph, showing a serious, “stout and well-nourished” woman over 70 in black dress and white collar are the careful, entirely legible case notes. She is, we read, “confused and excited […] incoherent, and talks incessantly.”

This is a hugely illuminating exhibition that neatly reverses the usual presumptions. The men, here, are the “artists, husbands, business partners and brothers” to Pre-Raphaelite women, whose own lives are complex and hard, loving and sad, inspiring and long. The message is conveyed succinctly and convincingly, yet never preachily. Do see it.

Ford Madox Brown, 'Maria Spartali', 1869 - Spartali

both sat to and was trained by Brown, becoming an

artist herself

‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’, curated by Dr Jan Marsh, continues at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2 until 26 January.

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