by Sue Hubbard
Collected by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the inspiration for a number of rumpy-pumpy TV costume dramas, it’s hard to think beyond the flowing hair, the luxurious silk dresses and the rich nostalgia of the Pre-Raphaelites to see them as anything other than the acceptable face of establishment art. Having missed the opening of the current show at Tate Britain, I paid a visit to the exhibition during the week and was hardly able to move for the throng. The Pre-Raphaelites, it seems, have lost none of their popular allure. But their works were not always a subject for tea towels and art shop merchandise but constituted an inventive avant-garde that not only tells us a good deal about the Victorian fear of modernity and industrialisation, but about the social order, attitudes to sexuality and the role of women in the mid-19thcentury.
Founded in 1848 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a reaction to a recognisably modern world of dramatic technological and social change. In many ways there are parallels with our own times: the newly globalised communications, the rapid industrialisation and turbulent financial markets and the hitherto unprecedented growth in the expansion of cities that threatened old agrarian ways of life and the natural world. London, like now, was the centre of a world economic system. Traditional patterns were changing; the social order was in flux, feudal belief systems were crumbling. There was the rise of a new middle class, who were making their money from trade, as well as a decline in old religious certainties. This was the era that spawned Darwin and Nietzsche.