Pre-Raphaelites: How Liverpool's merchants paid for an art movement

In the Grass, about 1864-5, Arthur Hughes (detail) Image copyright Museums Sheffield
Image caption The "generosity of spending" in Liverpool "really made Pre-Raphaelitism viable", curator Christopher Newall claims

Since its revival in the 1980s, Pre-Raphaelite art has found a cherished place in the hearts of the gallery-going public, one as strong as its original Victorian audience, but had it not been for Liverpool's wealthy merchants, the movement may never have thrived to begin with.

Quite why the port became such a solid patron of Pre-Raphaelitism in the 1850s and 60s forms the basis of a new exhibition at the city's Walker Art Gallery.

Christopher Newall, who has curated the Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion show, says a boom in trade and banking in the 1850s and 60s enabled the newly rich of the North of England to furnish their homes with art.

In cities like Manchester and Newcastle, that meant buying up the old masters, such as Velasquez and Titian. However, in Liverpool, "there emerges this picture of an incredibly fertile, exciting art world which didn't exist in the other Northern cities".

"There's a real interest in contemporary art that was quite challenging and desire to feel modern.

"They were not attempting to have the traditional kind of thing but throwing themselves into having collections of the most modern paintings that British art could offer."

Image copyright Manchester City Galleries
Image caption Ford Madox Brown often showed his work at Liverpool Academy

That desire for modernity led the city to the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - a cabal of painters, poets and critics founded by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti who were at the cutting edge of the art world in the 1850s and 60s.

The city's interest in the movement was driven the Liverpool Academy, which "was run by artists who were extraordinarily generous and well-disposed towards Pre-Raphaelitism", Mr Newall says.

"They really embraced this new art movement, even though it originated in London.

"The academy's exhibition took place in the autumn, so works that failed to sell at the Royal Academy's summer exhibition could be sent to Liverpool or artists who had been rejected for that could show in the city.

'Generation of patrons'

"There wasn't another institution in the country that offered that kind of welcome.

"The academy even instituted a system where if a work came up to Liverpool, they would pay the return carriage costs if it didn't sell.

"That was either very generous or very self-confident, as they assumed works would be sold and they had a good market, a beady eye for what was going to attract public interest.

"It meant there was this shop window for Pre-Raphaelitism in its most up-to-date form, which meant in turn there grew up in Liverpool and Birkenhead an extraordinary generation of patrons.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Image copyright National Museums Liverpool
  • The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in London in 1848 by seven young artists dissatisfied with the standards prevailing in British Art and what they felt was an artificial approach to painting being taught at London's Royal Academy of Arts
  • Its three chief members were William Holman Hunt (1829-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-96) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)
  • They called themselves Pre-Raphaelites because they admired the "primitive" artists of the Italian renaissance, working before the period of Raphael, who was born in 1483
  • They advocated an art of extreme "truth to nature" which they understood in different ways, and they painted in bright, hard colours with great attention to detail, frequently choosing moralistic subjects, loaded with symbolism

Source: National Museums Liverpool and The Tate

The patrons "had walls thick with pictures and were very proud of it". George Rae, a Scot who had cashed in on Liverpool's economic growth, and his wife Julia had more Rossettis in their collection than were anywhere else in the world, while tobacco merchant John Miller also became an avid collector, as did shipowner Frederick Richards Leyland and soap magnate Lord Lever.

"There were lots of people who made lots of money in their generation and didn't have a preconception of what kinds of art they should have on their walls.

"They came to it with a delightful open-mindedness. They were often people of independent frame of mind, perhaps because of the traditions of non-conformism and Unitarianism that existed in the city.

"There was a sense that you didn't need to be in awe of the past."

Image copyright Tate London
Image caption John Miller and Frederick Richards Leyland both had a friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Crucially, the curator says the "generosity of spending of those men and women really made Pre-Raphaelitism viable".

"Artists like Brown and Rossetti were hugely dependant on their Liverpool patrons."

However, the patrons "weren't just indulging their wealth", he says, but "were totally immersed in the lives and careers of the artists" - Miller and Leyland, for example, both had a friendship with Rossetti.

'Cultivated relationships'

The University of Liverpool's Dr Matthew Bradley, an expert in Victorian culture, says the reasons for their deep involvement may have been self-serving.

"If you're a self-made man, as people like Frederick Leyland and Lever absolutely were, then that's a natural bit of self-positioning - being a patron confers status if you haven't got a tradition to rely on.

"There's a class element too, particularly if you've made your money in soap, or even worse tobacco or beer, which is where the money for the Walker Art Gallery itself came from.

"You can show off your cultured patron of the arts-ness if you have personal relationships with the artists, and many of the patrons did, and it's interesting how far sometimes the power was with the artists

"Famously, it's Leyland that makes all the running with Rossetti - Rossetti keeps promising to visit Leyland at Speke but rarely does, and then says in a letter that he doesn't want to go because it's boring."

Image copyright Scottish National Gallery
Image caption William Dyce frequently exhibited at the Liverpool Academy and was awarded their non member prize

Dr Bradley says the city's new rich magnates were not alone in having such relationships, but Liverpool merchants "cultivated these relationships to a greater extent than other collectors, and were more public about them".

"They're also a bit quicker off the mark in supporting the Pre-Raphaelites than some of the wealthy patrons in other cities, who come to the party a bit later; Birmingham merchants only really start getting interested in the movement in the 1880s and 1890s, for example."

And so Pre-Raphaelitism flourished and became central to British art for the whole of the Victorian era, but as with all art movements, public taste eventually moved on.

Liverpool's Pre-Raphaelites

Image copyright National Museums Liverpool
  • Liverpool became the only provincial town to have its own school of Pre-Raphaelite artists, who were based at the Liverpool Academy from 1845 to 1860
  • During this period, several younger artists who exhibited and took part in the affairs of the Academy, fell under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism, including William Davis, Daniel Alexander Williams and Alfred William Hunt
  • Their vigorous advocacy of London-based members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for the non-member prize (which was awarded to John Everett Millais, Ford Madox Brown, William Holman Hunt and William Dyce) led to a split within the Academy and eventually to its temporary demise in 1867

Source: National Museums Liverpool

Mr Newall says that in a wonderful postscript, the movement's eventual revival was also driven by the city that had largely funded them in the first place.

"The person who really started the ball rolling on this Pre-Raphaelite rediscovery thing was a wonderful woman called Mary Bennett, who was the keeper of art at the Walker in the 1960s.

"She did a succession of pioneering exhibitions for Millais, Holman Hunt and Brown and really put those artists back on the map with her research and her exhibitions.

"She was more or less on her own and it was probably considered quite eccentric, but those exhibitions lead onto a huge exhibition at the Tate in London in 1984 and the Pre-Raphaelites became accessible again."

And with the Walker's exhibition bringing together over 120 works from the movement, it seems the city's love affair with the Pre-Raphaelites continues apace.

Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion is at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool until 5 June

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