A new website gives Terry Grimley an insight into Birmingham’s hidden Pre-Raphaelite treasures.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has been given tabloid television treatment over the last three weeks in BBCTV’s kiss-and-tell costume drama The Love School, but now there is another new way of getting up-close and personal to the Victorian artists.
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery has long been famous for having the world’s largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. This has more to do with the taste of Birmingham’s late Victorian industrialists than direct links to the movement, although Edward Burne-Jones, the second-generation Pre-Raphaelite, was born in the city.
But how many Pre-Raphaelite works do you think the museum has? Not many people, I suspect, would guess anything like the real figure. A staggering 2,257 items have so far been digitalised on the The Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource website and with more being added, the eventual number which can be studied online will be over 3,000.
As well as paintings, they include prints, photographs and decorative art including books and furniture. But the overwhelming majority are drawings – ranging from detailed studies for paintings to casual domestic sketches and caricatures. It is a spectacular demonstration of the depth of the Birmingham collections and the importance of drawing to Pre-Raphaelite art.
For conservation reasons, drawings are mostly kept in store, and while some are brought out from time to time for temporary exhibitions, a relatively small number have been given exposure over the years. Millais’ pencil study of Elizabeth Siddall for his painting of Ophelia is one particularly well-known example of a famous Pre-Raphaelite drawing from the Birmingham collection.
Now the cyber-visitor can effectively wander through the print room at will, exploring the many rarities hidden there. If your computer supports Microsoft’s cutting-edge Silverlight technology (by no means a foregone conclusion, to judge from my experience) you can zoom right in on the images to study small details without loss of picture quality.
The new website has been delivered with financial support from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) as an educational resource aimed at schools and colleges and features a section on learning resources (including no fewer than seven separate sub-headings under “Gender and Sexuality”).
But this is a museum which is open to all for 24 hours a day. To spell out quite what a revolution the website represents in increasing accessibility to the collection, I would say that, as someone who has been visiting the Museum & Art Gallery regularly since the 1960s, I have probably discovered more previously unseen Pre-Raphaelite images online in the last 24 hours than I have seen on the walls in the last 40 years.
While the meticulous nature of Pre-Raphaelite painting means that the output of its artists was relatively restricted – at least in its classic early phase – the drawings give an overwhelming impression of an energetic outpouring.
The sheer quantity of Burne-Jones’s graphic work, in particular, can be daunting. For example, there are 90 studies just for his illustrations to the poem Cupid and Psyche in William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise.
While the high-mindedness of Pre-Raphaelitism can also sometimes seem overbearing, the artists are also caught in more relaxed and humorous moods, as in Rossetti’s caricatures of his colleagues Millais and Holman Hunt, or Millais’s cartoon-like sketch recording the perils of staying in the country, where a cockerel outside his window kept him awake.
Frederick Sandys, an artist on the fringe of the Pre-Raphaelite group who is only marginally represented in the painting collection, emerges far more strongly through his largely unseen drawings.
He is a draughtsman of exceptional skill with a relentlessly inquiring eye, the drawings ranging across anatomical studies, animals and plants, copies of a wide variety of mediaeval applied art and even cloud studies.
Other artists more tenuously linked to the Brotherhood include the marvellous watercolourist George Price Boyce (he forms a link with the Birmingham artist David Cox, who encouraged him at the outset of his career) and the critic John Ruskin, who championed the Pre-Raphaelites and famously lost his wife to Millais, but whose own achievements as an artist in watercolour have been largely taken for granted.
Each image comes with detailed notes and other facilities on the site enable you to create your own collection and to debate individual works with other users.
Two years of cataloguing and a year’s worth of photography have gone into this handsomely-designed and pacesetting website which is, of course, accessible from all over the world. It will certainly raise the Museum & Art Gallery’s profile but in making one of its chief glories accessible at the click of a mouse, it will be interesting to see whether it actually adds to visitor numbers.
* The Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource website is at www.preraphaelites.org All images are copyright Birmingham City Council.