The Rossettis at Tate Britain exhibition review

The Rossettis were a “weird” bunch, said Melanie McDonagh in the Evening Standard. Born in London to Italian political exiles and raised to be “precocious artists and poets”, they were a major fixture of Victorian Britain’s cultural landscape. Dante Gabriel (1828-82), a painter, would become the co-founder and de facto leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, renowned for his “manic”, pseudo-medieval depictions of long-haired “stunners”; Christina (1830-94) was a celebrated poet; and William and Maria, the youngest siblings, were writers too. This new exhibition focuses on Dante Gabriel’s paintings and Christina’s poetry, but it also includes some of the art of Dante Gabriel’s wife, Elizabeth Siddal. Featuring “splendid” loans alongside much-loved paintings from our national collections, the show argues that this trio of creative spirits truly pushed the boundaries of 19th century British art, and dared to subvert the era’s sexual and political mores. Fans of pre-Raphaelite art will be thrilled. “If bee-stung lips, voluminous hair and languor are your thing, look no further.” 

The show “opens with a coup”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer: Christina’s delicate verse is printed across the walls and whispered through speakers. But it is “inevitably swept aside by the lurid images that follow”. This “overstuffed” exhibition is largely devoted to Dante Gabriel’s work, supplemented with copious pre-Raphaelite memorabilia: fading manuscripts and letters, and “for hardcore fans” there are even locks of Dante Gabriel and Siddal’s hair. He founded the Brotherhood when he was only 20, and on the evidence of his show, he never grew up. “His drawings remain stiff and infantile; his paintings oleaginous and gross.” His three main muses – Siddal, his model Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris, wife of William Morris – seem almost interchangeable: “whitefaced women with heavy jaws, tumescent throats and torrential preFreudian tresses”, tricked out in medieval or biblical garb. 

There’s a lot of dross here, said Mark Hudson in The Independent. Any prejudice you might have against the pre-Raphaelites will doubtless be confirmed by Gabriel’s Found, a “shockingly bad” depiction of a farmer rescuing a young woman prostituted on the mean streets of London. Nevertheless, there’s much to admire. Siddal, though a minor talent compared with her in-laws, provides some highlights: an ink sketch entitled Last Farewell Before Crucifixion, for instance, has real “expressive energy”. Better still is her husband’s Beata Beatrix, a depiction of Elizabeth created following her death from a laudanum overdose aged 32, “eyes closed, lips parted, wreathed in golden light, in a state of near orgasmic transfiguration”. Uneven as it is, this is an “evocative” and occasionally “poignant” show.

Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888, Until 24 September