William Cook

At home with the Pre-Raphaelites

At home with the Pre-Raphaelites
Text settings

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

Wightwick Manor and Gardens, Wolverhampton, Until 13 January 2013

Andrew Lloyd Webber cried when he first came to Wightwick Manor, and standing in the Great Parlour of this magnificent Victorian villa you can see what moved him to tears of joy. Lloyd Webber loves the Pre-Raphaelites (he’s always had the common touch) and Wightwick is a living monument to the one artistic movement that England can truly call its own. There’s William Morris wallpaper on the walls and Charles Kempe stained glass in the windows — and beneath the minstrels’ gallery is Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘Love Among The Ruins’ (which has this month travelled to London for the biggest Pre-Raphaelite exhibition since the 1980s).

Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (on until 13 January) promises to be that rare thing, a blockbuster of a show devoted to an entirely English school of artists. Still frequently dismissed by smart sophisticates as sentimental chocolate box, the Pre-Raphaelites have actually aged far better than the modernist painters who usurped them. Their art still feels fresh and vital, and like all the best artworks you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy them. The stories behind these pictures reward a lifetime’s study, but above all, unlike so much modern art, they’re primarily things of beauty. The Tate’s show will introduce these marvels to a new generation of enthusiasts, and remind the rest of us that the Victorian era was an age of grand passions, not just dowdy prudes.

But the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood didn’t really make art for museums. More than any other movement, they painted pictures for domestic settings, and at Wightwick Manor you can see their artworks in the round, in harmony with the splendid décor that surrounds them. The first time this art made complete sense to me was when I saw it here, in situ. Naturally, it’ll be a rare treat to see so many Pre-Raphaelites under one roof at the Tate, but the best place to see the Pre-Raphaelites as the Pre-Raphaelites themselves intended is here at Wightwick, just outside Wolverhampton, of all places.

Wightwick Manor was built in 1887 by Theodore Mander, a prosperous paint manufacturer. Inspired by a lecture on household aesthetics by Oscar Wilde, he furnished his new home from top to bottom from the showroom of Morris & Co. ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,’ was William Morris’s maxim. Wightwick was the best of both. Like the Pre-Raphaelite paintings on its walls, the building is both traditional and modern. The faux-medieval fixtures and fittings hide proper plumbing and central heating. The radiators are cunningly concealed behind hand-tooled wooden panelling. ‘Love Among The Ruins’ was illuminated by newfangled electric chandeliers (or electroilers, to give them their proper title). And though Burne-Jones’s melancholy masterpiece is the one thing missing from the house this autumn, there are hundreds of Pre-Raphaelite treasures here, hidden away on the green edge of the Black Country.

Theodore left Wightwick to his eldest son, the Liberal MP Geoffrey Mander, and Geoffrey’s second wife, Rosalie Glynn Grylls, transformed their home into an ad-hoc gallery. A prolific biographer of the Pre-Raphaelites, at a time when they’d fallen right out of fashion, she was also a shrewd collector of their work, snapping up a Millais self-portrait for £15, among (many) other things. Sir Geoffrey gave their house to the National Trust in 1937, but the family carried on

living here, and though Geoffrey died in 1962 and Rosalie in 1988, it still feels like a family home (rather than a stately home) today.

‘There was a real backlash against anything Victorian,’ says Wightwick’s jolly house steward, Helen Bratt-Wyton, as she shows me round. ‘Their values, their art, their design… It’s really only been during the last 20 years or so that Victorian design has started to be admired.’ Ironically, Wightwick Manor is arguably better known abroad than it is in Britain. It attracts lots of visitors from the Continent, and even America and Japan, but a lot of locals (including my cab driver) hardly seem to know it’s here. And yet to see the Pre-Raphaelites in context, Wightwick is the place to come. ‘They were meant to be on patterned wallpaper,’ says Helen. ‘They weren’t meant to be on a plain white wall. That’s not how they were designed to be viewed.’

One reason why Wightwick isn’t better known is surely geographical prejudice. A few years ago, Lonely Planet dubbed Wolverhampton the fifth worst city in the world (quite an accolade). But it was the industrial West Midlands which made the money that funded these romantic artworks. It’s no coincidence that the best public collection of Pre-Raphaelites is just a few miles from here, in grimy Birmingham. Without those dark satanic mills, there’d be no pretty pictures of medieval damsels on these walls.

Helen leads me through the house: past a Rossetti portrait of his muse and mistress, Jane Morris; past a portrait of Effie Gray, painted by Effie’s second husband, John Millais. ‘That’s the lovely thing about this collection,’ says Helen. ‘There’s a story about the artist, there’s a story about the sitter…’ Jane was William Morris’s wife; Effie’s first husband was John Ruskin… We pass by a portrait by Holman Hunt of his daughter Gladys, and then a portrait by Ford Madox Brown of his daughter Lucy, who married Rossetti’s brother William (sometime art critic of The Spectator). There’s even a cartoon by Rossetti, showing his sister Christina throwing a violent tantrum after reading a review of her poetry in the Times. It’s all so intimate and informal, the way great portraiture ought to be. And although Rosalie Glynn Grylls is long gone, her unique collection keeps on growing. ‘Lady Mander kept on collecting right up until she died in 1988, and contacts that she made during her lifetime are still giving us works of art,’ says Helen. In the Morning Room she shows me three sensual Rossetti portraits, bequeathed only five years ago. ‘It was like the best Christmas present ever.’

So why are the Pre-Raphaelites still not taken entirely seriously in this country? Why aren’t they revered, like the Impressionists? Why are they still regarded in highbrow circles as slightly second-rate? Well, partly it’s down to simple snobbery. Pre-Raphaelite art was collected by industrialists rather than landowners, new money instead of old. In classbound Britain, this genre became associated with the nouveau riche. However, I reckon it’s also got a lot to do with British cultural insecurity. If something’s attractive and entertaining, like the Pre-Raphaelites, we tend to distrust it. Like self-conscious sixth-formers, we still think great art should be difficult, pessimistic and, above all, foreign. As with a Lloyd Webber musical, if we can follow the plot and hum the tune we think it’s probably not much cop. But, happily, the long shadow of modernism is finally fading. Freed from the pretentions of the 20th century, the Pre-Raphaelites are finally fashionable again.