Pre-Raphaelite Sisters Exhibition

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood celebrated their foundation on the 31st of December from 1848 onwards. To honour that date, here is my review and thoughts on the current Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

‘For too long the male protagonists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement have dominated accounts of this revolution in British art. This [exhibition] aims to redress the balance by showing just how engaged and central women were to the endeavour – as models, sitters, makers, partners and poets. Who were these women and what is known of their lives and their roles in a movement that, in successive phases, spanned over half a century?’[1]

In 1984 the Tate Gallery, London, held what would be ‘(and remain) one of the most popular exhibitions ever mounted by the Gallery’[2]. Titled The Pre-Raphaelites, the exhibition focused on the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from its inception in 1848 through to 1860. Whilst Jan Marsh asserts that ‘from both an artistic and biographical perspective, women [were] important in the Pre-Raphaelite movement’[3], the exhibition catalogue seems to place less emphasis on their importance, instead relegating the women behind the movement to the role of mere artists’ models, and labelling them as trouble-causers because, as ‘girls had now entered the Pre-Raphaelite circle, […] the close group of young men was breaking up.’[4]

Since 1984, historians and art critics have made considerable progress with establishing the significance of the Pre-Raphaelite women, or, as Jan Marsh referred to them in her seminal 1985 book, the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood. No longer seen as mere muses and models, the women are increasingly being viewed as a viable counterpoint to the Brotherhood, and their artistic output is now being examined in its own right. 

Whilst the 1984 Tate exhibition displayed works by Elizabeth Siddall alongside those of the Pre-Raphaelite men, she was the only woman to be featured in this hugely significant and landmark presentation of Pre-Raphaelite works. The 2012 Tate Britain exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, widely acknowledged as the successor to the earlier Tate exhibition, featured a total of thirteen works by six female artists.

In the years since the original Tate exhibition there has been huge progress made with research into the lives and artistic creations of the women associated with the Pre-Raphaelite group, particularly where Elizabeth Siddall is concerned. Notable or significant studies include those by Jan Marsh in 1990 and 2010, Lucinda Hawksley’s 2006 biography of Siddall, and the recent volume of Siddall’s poetry (with minimal editing) by Serena Trowbridge (2019). 

The result of renewed interest in the Pre-Raphaelite women is the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition (at the National Portrait Gallery from 17th October 2019 until 26th January 2020), which is not only the gallery’s first dedicated Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, but also the most significant display of works by female exponents of Pre-Raphaelitism to date.

The exhibition incorporates items relating to, featuring (as models and sitters), and created by twelve women: Elizabeth Siddall, Christina Rossetti, Effie Gray Millais, Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth, Joanna Boyce Wells, Fanny Eaton, Jane Morris, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali Stillman, and Evelyn De Morgan. 

'Proserpine' - oil on canvas, c.1868.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 
Modelled by Jane Morris.
‘Proserpine’ – oil on canvas, c.1868.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Modelled by Jane Morris.

As well as the exhibition, there has been a series of accompanying events held at the National Portrait Gallery, ranging from a discussion on the enduring influence of the Pre-Raphaelites with singer/songwriter Florence Welch, to sketching sessions inspired by the artwork, and academic talks by Pre-Raphaelite experts. 

I was able to visit the exhibition in early December. Before my arrival I was particularly interested to see how the exhibition would be laid out. The use of the Wolfson and Lerner galleries meant that the exhibition felt like it had two distinct sections. The items displayed are grouped under headings, one for each of the women featured. The first is one of the most recognisable Pre-Raphaelite women, Effie Gray Millais, followed by Christina Rossetti, and then a side room containing works by and depicting Elizabeth Siddall, Fanny Cornforth and Annie Miller. 

‘The Blue Bower’ – oil on canvas, 1865.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Modelled by Fanny Cornforth.

After this introduction with some of the most familiar Pre-Raphaelite women, there is a gallery displaying the portraits of the male Pre-Raphaelite artists. This leads to the second part of the exhibition, which moves seamlessly through the remaining women, ending with Jane Morris and Evelyn De Morgan. 

As my current research is predominantly centred on Elizabeth Siddall, I was most excited to see the display pertaining to her. I was also very much looking forward to seeing items by female artists I had not previously known about.

‘Lovers Listening to Music’ – pencil, pen and ink on paper, 1854.
Elizabeth Siddall

The Siddall collection included works she had modelled for, namely a pen and ink portrait of by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a graphite and watercolour portrait by Rossetti, a copy of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, and Walter Howell Deverell’s Twelfth Night Act II, Scene IV, which was the first Pre-Raphaelite painting that Siddall sat for. 

‘Twelfth Night Act II, Scene IV’ – oil on canvas, 1850.
Walter Howell Deverell
Modelled by Elizabeth Siddall, Walter Howell Deverell, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The two Rossetti portraits were from noticeably early in their relationship (both dating to 1854), at a time when Siddall was in reasonably good health. Deverell’s Twelfth Night (on loan from a private collection) is a painting I have longed to see in person. It was far more impressive than I had imagined. The colours are particularly eye-catching, and Siddall’s upward gaze is very different to the heavily-lidded expression she modelled in most of her Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sittings. 

Aside from the items reflecting her career as a model, there are four works by Siddall herself. Lovers Listening to Music (pencil, pen and ink on paper, 1854) and Lady affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear (watercolour on paper, c.1856) show the development of Siddall’s artistic ability, whilst displaying the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. 

There was also a manuscript of the poem ‘At Last’, and it was wonderful to see such a touching elegy written in Siddall’s own handwriting. The item that interested me most was one on loan from the University of Delaware Library; labelled as ‘Strands of Elizabeth Siddall’s Hair’. The lock of hair is framed with a note by Rossetti, asserting the provenance. 

The hair is displayed in a glass case that seems to stand out and draw your attention as soon as you enter the side room in which the items relating to Siddall are held. It is certainly darker in colour than I would’ve expected, but was truly fascinating to see, especially given the mythology and interest around Siddall and her hair. 

Other highlights of the exhibition for me were the unfinished oil on canvas Found (modelled by Fanny Cornforth, 1859) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Night and Sleep (oil on canvas, 1878) by Evelyn De Morgan, Proserpine (oil on canvas, modelled by Jane Morris, c.1868) by Rossetti, and The Violet’s Message (oil on panel, modelled by Annie Miller, 1854) by John Everett Millais.

I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the works of the Pre-Raphaelite women I was less familiar with. The exhibition did a fantastic job of presenting these marginalised figures and showing their importance to the wider Pre-Raphaelite movement. I also appreciated the breadth of items on display, including not only works of art but everyday objects and even clothing. 

The exhibition has something to offer both hardcore Pre-Raphaelite fans, and those with a mere passing appreciation of Victorian art. I would definitely recommend it. 

Whilst the shadow of the male exponents of Pre-Raphaelitism still looms large in this exhibition, it is secondary to the emphasis on the role of the women presented. The inclusion of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood portraits feels like somewhat of a rogues gallery between the two sections of the exhibition, but it is necessary and provides important clarification. It is refreshing to see the women of the movement finally take centre stage in such a ground-breaking exhibition.  

At the end of January, I am looking forward to returning to the exhibition for one of the final accompanying events which will explore the legacy of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood. Hopefully I will get a chance to nip around the exhibition again, as well as attending the event. 


[1] Marsh, Jan. 2019 [1985] Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. Quartet Books Limited: London. (Back cover)

[2] Parris, Leslie. (ed.) 1996 [1984] The Pre-Raphaelites. Tate Gallery Publications: London. (p7)

[3] Marsh, Jan. 2019 [1985] Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. Quartet Books Limited: London. (p1)

[4] Parris, Leslie. (ed.) 1996 [1984] The Pre-Raphaelites. Tate Gallery Publications: London. (p18)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s