A review of our February talk - by Mike Chitty

Beryl Plent's copiously-illustrated talk on 14th February was about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, many of whose works are to be seen in our local art galleries. Her title was a reference to a disparaging remark by R A Stevenson - one-time Professor of Fine Art at Liverpool University - who described the Pre-Raphaelites' paintings as 'poetry for the middle class'. Beryl told us of the artists' struggle to gain acceptance within the 'establishment' of the day, but her pictures and commentary reminded us of the reasons why their style became so fashionable in the late nineteenth century and has enjoyed a revival of popularity in recent years.

Unlike earlier painters such as Turner - whose expertise was in capturing 'atmosphere' - the Pre-Raphaelites painted in photographic detail. They followed John Ruskin's advice to 'paint what you see, not what you imagine' but they often inserted the resultant portraits and figures into elaborate re-creations of historical or mythical scenes. Beryl told us some of the stories which were depicted, explained some of the symbolism used, and pointed out hidden details such as the initials PRB carved into a chair leg! The subjects were often 'moral tales' which appealed to Victorian sentiment: for example The Hireling Shepherd depicting a man too easily distracted by young women.

The realism and everyday nature of some of the scenes brought criticism. Charles Dickens, for one, disliked the depiction of Mary ('looking like a woman from the lowest gin shop') in Millais' painting Christ in the House of his Parents. However they were popular with collectors, including wealthy Merseyside businessmen such as the soap manufacturer William Hesketh Lever and the shipowner George Holt. Some of them also became the subject of mass-produced prints and even (e.g. in the case of Bubbles) advertising material.

Beryl took us through the members of the Brotherhood - Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt and the rest - and their models/wives/mistresses including Elizabeth Siddal, Effie Gray and Jane Morris. Her anecdotes revealed that the 'realism' of the paintings was sometimes deceptive; for instance the two figures in The Black Brunswicker - a painting in the Lady Lever Art Gallery depicting a soldier saying farewell to a young woman before leaving for Waterloo  - had been required to pose separately. And Rossetti tended to give his female subjects red hair, irrespective of their natural colouring.

Beryl explained how fortunate we are to have such ready access to Pre-Raphaelite works. In thanking her on behalf of the appreciative audience, our Chairman said that Beryl's talk would undoubtedly inspire people to visit (or re-visit) the Walker Art Gallery, the Lady Lever and Sudley House. In response, Beryl offered to lead a tour of the Walker on 7th March, and this offer was promptly taken up by several of those present.

Click on the images for more information about the three Merseyside galleries

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