The Pre-Raphaelites were Britain’s most important art school. They were aesthetes and zealots determined to bring honesty, drama and colourful vitality to staid Victorian painting. They were formed in 1848, the year of revolution across Europe. But this was no political coup. This was art terrorism, powered by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.
Reacting against the reactionary nature of Joshua Reynolds and the Royal Academy, they wished to create a body of work similar in brightness of colour, attention to detail, and honest simplicity to the period of Italian painting prior to Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520).
Rossetti wanted the group’s name to include the then fashionable term “Early Christian”, but when Hunt objected he proposed the name “Pre-Raphaelite”. Rossetti then added the word “Brotherhood”, as he wanted the society to be secret, in line with the Italian political group the Carbonaris in that year of Europe-wide revolution. When the artists staged their first exhibition, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin was signed “PRB” to maintain the society’s air of mystery.
Manchester has an unrivalled collection of the PRB’s works, dominated by William Holman Hunt’s spiritual Light of the World, his daring Shadow of Death and the eerie Scapegoat. This is art which benefits from intense scrutiny; from unravelling and demystifying the religious connotations and human dramas involved. At this stage we are unable to know whether we can get into the Great Hall of the Town Hall to have a quick look at the Ford Madox Brown Mural as well, but we’ll do all we can to gain access.