Pre-Raphaelites on Paper. Victorian Drawings from the Lanigan Collection at Leighton House Museum
Leighton House Museum offers the unique experience of observing Pre-Raphaelite art on the property of one of the movement’s artists, Lord Fredric Leighton. The house (described as a “private palace of art”) feels more authentic and unchanged than many of the aristocratic manor houses on the National Trust trail. This is an interesting art-viewing experience, but it also adds to some of the issues with Pre-Raphaelites on Paper. At times it seems that the available sketches and studies are more like the sediment of these artists’ oeuvre than any great bedrock; these are the drawings that couldn’t make it outside the house and into a public gallery.
The 18th century Pre-Raphaelites saw themselves as returning art to the way it was before the Renaissance; they felt that this artistic rebirth was a diminishing return from the original life. Thus the subjects of these drawings are fairly traditional portraits, landscapes and scenes from religious and literary works. We see an interesting mix of heroic knights on horseback, devoted disciples replete with halos, romantic idylls of young lovers and many comely nude maidens from the classical myths.
The works on display have clearly been carefully selected, with passionate advocacy for their artistic merits. However, the exhibition seems dominated by unfinished drafts (or “studies”) for important later works, such as Edward Burne-Jones’s The Wheel of Fortune (1883), Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (1874), and Leighton’s Cymon and Iphigenia (c. 1883). This means there are plenty of disconnected arms, heads and body parts, lying like pieces of an artfully scattered jigsaw. There are certain drawings that stand alone, such as Frederick Sandy’s King Pelles’ Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sanc Graal (1861), where the play of the shadows on the subjects’ features offers a remarkable display of sketching skill, but these are in the minority.
All in all, Pre-Raphaelites on Paper will be passionately admired by those who are already intimately familiar with the movement’s major paintings and have a desire to dive deeper, yet the exhibition clearly lacks the urgency or importance of a major collection. Hobbyists and completists will find much to enjoy, rather like a record’s B-side or a DVD’s deleted scenes.
Pre-Raphaelites on Paper: Victorian Drawings from the Lanigan Collection is on at Leighton House Museum from 12th February until 29th May 2016, for further information visit here.