Ford Madox Brown, ‘Male Nude – Academic nude Study, half-length with Moustache and Arms folded’,
1846 – 1849, Birmingham Museums Trust 1906P708
I recently hosted an event in the Print Room at BMAG, taking a small group of visitors behind-the-scenes of the prints and drawings collection to explore a selection of works in storage during a special one-hour session.
I had the opportunity of devising, researching and organising the event around a theme of my own choosing and decided to draw on the museum’s fantastic collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings. My event ‘Husbands, Brothers, Lovers: The Other Pre-Raphaelite Stunners’ explored the ways in which the Pre-Raphaelites understood, imagined and depicted the male figure in their art.
Print room events give our visitors the opportunity of gaining a behind-the-scenes insight into the museum’s collection and the work we do, and allows us to engage with our audiences in more direct and informal way.
The print room is where we store the majority of BMAG’s works on paper collection, which ranges from early manuscripts of the 1500s, English Romantic watercolours of the 18th century, to British and European prints and drawings from the 19th century to the present day. The most famous part of our collection is undoubtedly the Pre-Raphaelite collection of drawings, which is the unique in the world for its size, breadth and quality of works. This majority of this collection came to the museum from two important Victorian collectors, Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919) and James Richardson Holliday (1840-1927).
Fairfax Murray began his career as a studio assistant for both Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also working as a workshop assistant for Morris and Company transferring working cartoons onto stained glass. Following a trip to Italy in 1871-22, he became a copyist for John Ruskin, creating copies of major Italian works. After marrying and settling in Florence in 1878, he increasingly worked as a collector and dealer and went on to become one of the most prominent art dealers, collectors and connoisseurs of his day. He amassed his collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings mainly from studio sales after the artists’ deaths and in 1903 agreed to sell them as a whole to Birmingham. Keeper of the museum Whitworth Wallis sought the funds via public subscription, gathering two groups of subscribers in 1904 and 1906, amongst whom were several notable Birmingham locals, including John Cadbury.
Holliday, a Birmingham solicitor, also acted as subscriber to help purchase the Fairfax Murray collection and sat on the Board of Trustees of the Public Picture Gallery Fund from 1893. His collection was bequeathed to the nation, with a considerable amount coming to Birmingham consisting of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and cartoons.
I structured my session broadly chronologically, beginning in the 1840s-1850s with some early academic studies from antique casts and life models by Ford Madox Brown, Frederick Sandys and Henry Wallis. Particularly for a young artist keen to enter the Royal Academy Schools, being able to copy from antique casts was seen as a marker of artistic merit and taste.
Frederick Sandys, ‘Male Nude – Copy from Antinoüs’, 1846, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1906P933
Life drawing classes were another essential aspect of artistic training. Ford Madox Brown attended several different life drawing schools in London and Henry Wallis continued to draw from the nude model throughout his career. Male professional paid models were often from a working-class background, as the physical demands of their everyday work was seen to give them the physique that most closely approximated the classical ideal that was held up as the epitome of the male body that from a traditional and academic viewpoint was seen to be what an artist should strive towards in his depiction of the male form.
Henry Wallis, ‘Study of a nude Man with Club’,
1850 – 1860
Birmingham Museums Trust, 1918P12
I then showed a selection of works from the 1850s period that explored the Pre-Raphaelites move away from using professional paid models to using each other and their colleagues instead. This was a significant aspect of the Pre-Raphaelite stylistic method, and not merely for convenience or economic reasons. The person chosen to sit for a particular figure or character was seen to embody certain qualities of that character in real-life. Furthermore, in their insistence on ‘truth-to-nature’, the Pre-Raphaelites avoided subsuming the individuality of the sitter into the character within the fantasy world of the picture. Traditionally, the noticeable presence of the model in the picture space was seen as a failure on the part of the artist to accurately convey their subject matter – the model was there to support the depiction of the character, but not impose on the overall impression whatsoever. However, the Pre-Raphaelites maintained their sitters’ individuality, meaning that in their paintings we can identify both the imaginary figure and the real-life person chosen to model for it – this is perhaps most famously seen in the figures of Lizzie Siddall/Beata Beatrix or Jane Morris/Proserpine.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Seed of David – Study for David’,
1859 – 1862
Birmingham Museums Trust, 1904P261
Moving into the 1860s, the next group of works focussed on male characters drawn from key literary sources which inspired the subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelites works. These male characters taken from narratives and mythologies can be understood as fictional role models for the artists. In particular, they were drawn to the legend of the Holy Grail and the figure of the holy knight on spiritual quest. Sir Galahad was esteemed as an ideal of masculinity, being celibate, pure, spiritual, and pious – emphasising spirituality and religious faith, opposite notion of male as sexual and passionate being embodied by Launcelot.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Sir Galahad at the ruined Chapel’, 1857 – 1859,
Birmingham Museums Trust, 1892P4
I then focused on two of the younger artists of the circle around Rossetti, sometimes known as the ‘second-generation’ and their unique, individual approach to the male figure. Simeon Solomon’s male figures are of a distinctive androgynous type, characterised by a fluid blending of both male and female characteristics and often depicted in ethereal, dream-like environments.
Simeon Solomon, ‘Perseus with the Head of Medusa’, 1840 – 1905
Birmingham Museums Trust, 1908P310
For Edward Burne-Jones, Michelangelo became a major influence on his work from the 1870s onwards, particularly after a trip to Italy in 1872 where he studied the figures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In his sketches from life models at the time, the Michelangelesque body has a pervasive presence and Burne-Jones brings out the dynamism and virility of the Renaissance male body to brilliant effect.
Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Male Nude – Study for St Matthew the Evangelist’,
1873, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1927P530
Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Draped Study for St Matthew the Evangelist’, 1873, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1927P531
The final selection of works focused on a lesser known and rarely seen area of the Pre-Raphaelites’ artistic output – humorous caricatures dating from the early years of the formation of the group. These really bring to life the Pre-Raphaelites’ collaborative and fraternal nature, as well as showing their great sense of humour and self-awareness as to how they were perceived by the contemporary London art scene.
Simeon Solomon, ‘Sir Galipot bearing the holy Gruel’,
1855 – 1859, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1922P20
From its creation to delivery, I really enjoyed putting on this event. I had a wonderful group who were keen to discuss the works and offer their thoughts and it is always wonderful to be able to show objects that are rarely displayed.