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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Pre-Raphaelites at Norwich Castle Museum

Pre-Raphaelites in summertime

Throughout Norwich, our senses are enthralled by the dazzling colours and mellifluous fragrances of a Nature in bloom. However, each lush flower is more than a source of pleasure: it is an invitation to celebrate the artistic movement that perceived true beauty not in the flawless idealization of a flower, but in the flaws that bestowed uniqueness upon it.

Thus, let us explore one of the many wonders awaiting us at Norwich Castle Museum: the paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites.  But who were these men that sought not only the truth in Nature, but likewise the nature of truth? The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in the autumn and winter of 1848 by three young men: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Hunt and John Everett Millais. The name Pre-Raphaelite reveals much more than these artists' enthusiastic admiration for the early Italian painters of the period before Raphael. It also reveals these three men's intrinsic desire to create an artistic revolution, with John Ruskin's beliefs as its core. As John Ruskin wrote of the "clear and tasteless poison of Raphael", the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood aimed to defy the art subsequent to Raphael's, rebelling against the contemporary fashionable painting, in which Truth, they believed, was absent. Insurgent and fervent, these exceptionally young men (indeed, they were aged between nineteen and twenty one years old) aspired to create electrifying paintings, in which a spectator could perceive more profound and inspiring subjects than those depicted by the artists of that time. On a quest for truth, they analysed thoroughly all elements of nature, whilst endeavouring to portray them exactly as they discerned they. To do so, they conceived a new technique, where pure colours would be painted upon a white wet background. Thus, when one gazes at any painting by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it is simply not feasible to ignore its amazing brightness, which appears to surpass that of other contemporary pictures. Painting not idealized landscapes or idealized models with idealized proportions, but the unique perfection of an imperfect world, these energetic young men devoted themselves to the ideal of always being truthful to nature. Religious (Millais' Christ in the house of his parents) or romantic (Frank Dicksee's La Belle Dame sans merci) subjects were recurrent sources of inspirations for this artistic movement, which, between 1850 and 1860, influenced artists such as Ford Madox Brown and Arthur Hughes. By then, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had already reached its end, whereas the Pre-Raphaelism was only beginning.

The next generation of artists was also enthralled by the Pre-Raphaelite's ideals and aims and thus artists such as Edward Coley Burne-Jones joined the movement.

Indeed, Burne-Jones (1833-1898) is one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters to tantalize any art lover that visits Norwich Castle Museum. He does so through his painting Annunciation, a theme to which Burne-Jones had given life before, when creating the triptych oil painting "The Adoration of the Kings and Shepherds". It is blatant that Burne-Jones found a source of inspiration in the works of Renaissance masters, which he had studied whilst travelling in Italy.

Between 1860 and 1890 ardent followers of Rossetti gave continuity to his vision. One of the most devoted was Frederick Sandys (1829-1904).  When one visits Norwich Castle Museum, one may revel in the painting Autumn, which is perceived as Sandys' "most ambitious and successful works" (quote from With its dazzling colours and thorough respect for details, this picture glaringly shows the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood over Sandys. Its meaning, however, is far from being glaring, inasmuch as many scholars wonder what is the symbolic meaning of the group of objects which is depicted at the front of the painting. If one looks closely, one shall discern a Chinese ginger jar, for instance. Luckily, the male figure is not in any way a mystery: indeed, the outstanding details of this painting enable us to recognize the uniform and medals of the soldier. According to Norwich Castle Museum "he was a member of the West Norfolk Militia Battalion of the 9th Infantry Regiment". As we contemplate the soldier's wife and child, we must consider that we might be before the immortalization of a real family, which Sandys used as a model.

Another one of his paintings is Mary Madgalen or Tears, Idle Tears (1862). Mary Magdalen was the sole character from the bible immortalized by Sandys' art. Perhaps dwelling on such theme due to his admiration for redheaded beauties, he found a model in his lover Mary Emma.

Emma Sandys (1843-1877), sister of Frederick Sandys, was also a Pre-Raphaelite. Norwich Castle Museum invites us to contemplate her Portrait study of a lady in a yellow dress, which is likely to be a self-portrait.

Hence, celebrate the joy of Summer not only amidst the flowers of your garden, but likewise amidst the artworks of those that yearned to recreate the true essence of every flower.

Latest news on the Pre-Raphaelites:

On the 13th of July 2010, Sotheby's sold a drawing by Burne-Jones entitled PORTRAIT OF BESSIE KEENE, STUDY FOR VESPERTINA QUIES for 37,250 pounds.

Further reading:

  • Pre-Raphaelite Vision, Truth to Nature by Allen Staley (Tate, 2004)
  • Burne-Jones: The Life and works of Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) by Christopher Wood (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998)
  • Pre-Raphaelites by Christopher Wood (Weidenfeld, 1981)

Veronica Freitas

August 2010