This autumn’s blockbuster exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain, is a sumptuous display of much-loved paintings by the core of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) - Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt - together with works by their disciples, as well as sculpture, textiles, furniture and glass. Five years in the making, this is the chance to see around 180 works brought together, and it is the largest survey of the group since 1984.

Founded in 1848, the year of revolutions across Europe, and political and social upheaval in England fuelled by protests against the despised Corn Laws, as well as a year of rapid industrialisation, the PRB sought to challenge the artistic establishment of their day by offering a new, truthful and relevant art based on direct observation. They rejected the traditional teaching of art in the academies, in particular the Royal Academy, which idealised classical poses and virtues, military heroism, and the imitation of Raphael, and instead embraced a radical style, inspired by the purity of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art before the time of Raphael (hence their name), grounded in technique as well as sensibility. Their work, considered dangerously controversial and even blasphemous when first exhibited, used innovative techniques such as applying bright pigments directly onto a white ground, and painting en plein air a decade before the Impressionists, to capture the real world in prismatic colours and minute, scientific detail. They drew inspiration from the world around them, real people (family, friends and lovers were often used as models), the Bible, Medieval and Renaissance literature (the works of Chaucer, Dante and Shakespeare), mythology, and the natural landscape. As more artists joined the movement, their work became a manifesto for the rejection of an increasingly mechanised society, by placing an emphasis on craft, rather than mass-production, and challenging prevailing attitudes and social mores, and their firmly-held belief that art had the potential to change society.

Organised thematically, this exhibition begins with an introduction to the PRB, its founders, origins and aims.  The paintings and engravings in the first room show examples of what were to become the distinctive hallmarks of the PRB style: clean outlines and colours, meticulous research into period costumes and ornamentation, close observation, realism, and a new conception of narrative in painting. In Biblical scenes, reimaginings of Medieval poetry, landscapes, and contemporary activities, the paintings are original, luminous and honest, intensely detailed, their subjects depicted with the sharp precision of a photograph. In later works, we see the PRB’s focus on the intimate relationships that represent the broader currents of human experience: love, including forbidden love (The Awakening Conscience), death, work, faith, and societal shifts (The Last of England, which depicts a family emigrating to Australia). In the paintings of Biblical subjects, the PRB attempted to make the moral teachings of the Bible relevant, with an emphasis on compassion and suffering in this world, rather than redemption in the next (Found, The Prodigal Son, The Man of Sorrows).

Later in the exhibition, other PRB preoccupations are highlighted: an emphasis on beauty in Rossetti’s sensuous portraits of women, which simmer with sexual longing and darker, unexpressed desires; and an interest in Medieval subjects and designs, the most well-known exponents of which were Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. A whole room is devoted to tapestries and carpets, furniture and textiles by Morris & Co, including an exquisite design for Morris’s ‘Tulip and Willow’ printed textile, the famous Kelmscott edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, and a delicately decorated clavichord, designed by Burne-Jones and made by Arnold Dolmetsch. At the end of the exhibition, works by Madox Brown, Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt, Millais and Rossetti prefigure the European Symbolist Movement, their subjects and narratives drawn from legend and literature (The Lady of Shallot, The Golden Stairs, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid) but hinting at a deeper interior life and psychological landscape.

Included here are well-loved paintings, such as Millais’ Ophelia and Christ in the House of His Parents, Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, Wallis’s April Love, and Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, their subjects and narratives all rendered in exquisite colour and detail - that distinctive PRB “hyper-realism” -  as well as works by lesser-known Pre-Raphaelite artists. The exhibition presents a visually dazzling and intellectually coherent survey of the PRB, defining them firmly as artistic revolutionaries, innovators, and visionaries, producers of works that were “faultless and wonderful” (John Ruskin), which overturned traditionalism in British art, and established a new touchstone for modern painting and design.

The Victorian Avant-Garde, at Tate BritainFrances Wilson reviews the Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain.5