The Pick - A Ballad of Love and Death: Pre-Raphaelite Photography in Great Britain, 1848-1875

March 31, 2011

A Ballad of Love and Death: Pre-Raphaelite Photography in Great Britain, 1848-1875

Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The Pre-Raphaelites are so parochially English - and often so second-rate - that their photography makes an unexpected focus for an exhibition at Washington's National Gallery of Art and the Musée d'Orsay, Paris (until 29 May).

The qualities that spoil many of the paintings - the melodrama, the cheap pathos, the inability to deal with sexuality or the harsher realities of "modern life" - are certainly in evidence. Pioneers of what was then an expensive hobby persuaded their daughters to strike poses in their country houses, or got their family and friends to dress up as characters from Tennyson, the Middle Ages or the Bible. But although one sometimes feels as if one has stumbled into a pantomime, many images are surprisingly moving.

Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) created elaborately staged scenes, usually of young women dying. Fading Away shows a family round a death bed, the father gazing out of the window, the mother in a bonnet at her daughter's feet, the sister pensive behind the pillow. Far more poignant is She Never Told Her Love, a solitary girl stretched out in an S-shape on a bed, her shift and pillow picked out against a black background.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) used her husband and three sisters from a family they knew in a portrayal of King Lear dividing his kingdom between his daughters. One of the greatest Victorian photographers, she had quite a line in portraying the leading artists of her day - Tennyson, the painters Holman Hunt and George Frederic Watts - with Lear-like grandeur. More startling is her image of the teenage Alice Liddell in a cocktail dress held up by brooches at the shoulders, a flower in her cleavage and a butterfly in her hair. Sir John Tenniel's illustrations immortalising her as a girl in Lewis Carroll's Alice books are so familiar that it is momentarily disconcerting to realise that she did actually grow up.

The Pre-Raphaelite painters and photographers were greatly influenced by the critic John Ruskin's ideal of scrutinising the tiniest details of nature. This exhibition includes a wide range of wonderful landscape photography: a windmill pond, a cart collapsed into a stream, a still river at sunset, snowy trees in the Earl of Caithness' park, the view between the ruined columns of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is the photoshoot by John Parsons (1825-1909) of Jane Morris in a blue silk dress, looking soulful, flouncing around the painter Rossetti's house, wandering in and out of a marquee. Rossetti was obsessed with her and drew inspiration from the photographs in his many pictures of her. None of those on display come close to capturing the strange ethereal beauty revealed by Parsons.

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