Some of you may recall the post last year written by our Fine Arts Curator, Jill Iredale on curating a show about the Pre-Raphaelite Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. After the exhibition finished at Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, it then went on tour, so Jill’s written us a follow-up post to celebrate the return of the pieces from our Collections.
Earlier this month three pictures by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1845, came back to Bradford.
After being on display at Cartwright Hall as part of the exhibition Rossetti’s Obsession: Images of Jane Morris they went on a journey – first, to Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight and then on to the William Morris Gallery in London.
During their travels they have been seen by over 70,000 people.
When I first saw the three pictures from Bradford’s art collection I didn’t know who the woman looking out at me was or have any idea what her life had been like. One of the great things about this exhibition is the fact that it turns out many other people didn’t know either, but now 70,000 people are familiar with her story.
Through looking into these pictures and eventually developing a whole exhibition I have grown to really like Jane Morris. If you are familiar with the play Pygmallion by George Bernard Shaw then you already know a little about her as it is thought that the play was at least in part based on her life. She came from a poor working class background and was spotted by Rossetti while watching a street theatre production in 1857. Rossetti drew Jane a couple of days later and he was still painting images of her until his death in 1882 (which is a not inconsiderable period to be drawing the same person).
The meeting with Rossetti completely changed Jane’s life. Through him she met and married William Morris, a man who would become a famous poet, designer and socialist activist. With her husband Jane played an active role in the firm Morris & Co (now best known for their wallpapers), and contributed to a revival in needlework as part of the influential arts and crafts movement. Her image became immortalized by Rossetti’s pictures that depicted her as various goddesses and figures from literature. She was so famous at the time that people like the American writer Henry James made a point of going to see her when he visited the UK and wrote about their meeting as if visiting a film star – ‘she looked just like in the pictures’ he commented’.
Yet these were just pictures. Even in the drawings of Jane as herself, posed informally, she isn’t smiling and people even now have concluded that she must have been a bit dour, but in actual fact it is known that within her group of friends and family she had a good sense of humour. It seems more likely that she isn’t smiling in the pictures simply because you don’t sit there smiling for extended periods when you are being drawn – especially if you are meant to be a serious character from Greek mythology. Likewise, it was assumed that Jane was quiet based on the fact that she didn’t say a lot in public. With the recent publication of her letters though we now know that she had quite strong liberalist views which she and William (a socialist) used to debate at home. It could be that she didn’t think it was polite to be contradicting her husband in public – or with a fairly vocal husband perhaps there wasn’t even much opportunity! I would love to be able to ask her myself.
I could go on about Jane, William and Rossetti – they are interesting people from an interesting period and I am glad that through the Rossetti’s Obsession exhibition more people have been able to enjoy the pictures and enjoy their story. It has struck me with this exhibition what a genuine (sometimes overwhelming) pleasure people have gotten out of it – tours and events at each venue have been oversubscribed and many visitors have said or written how much they have enjoyed it, some have said how proud they felt to see it in Bradford and this makes organizing it worthwhile. I can’t help wondering what Jane and Rossetti would have made of it all – would they have been surprised that people are enthusiastic about these pictures 150 years after they were created? Would they have been pleased?