They might look like they’re fated forever to be walk-ons in some celestial Bonnie Tyler video; flinging themselves listlessly over balustrades, surviving on nothing but Angel Delight and miazma on a lifelong struggle to get bikini ready for summer. Too fragile for this world, too much hair product to ascend to the next.

But tread carefully with these curvaceous sirens and downy farm boys, because as Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion at the Walker shows – it’s always the quiet ones.

burne66There was a time when being radical, in Liverpool, meant more than retweeting a hilarious piece about how to speak Scouse. And these diaphanous beauties led the charge.

Because, when other cities’ art institutions and buyers scoffed at the Pre-Raphaelites’ unflinching, fleshy realism, dubious morals and outrageous hair-dos, Liverpool was smitten. Some things never change, huh? The city even went on a bit of a buying splurge – which is why our collection is up their with the best, and why this exhibition is set to stun.

“They were idealistic and passionate, eschewing the established, traditional set of values laid out by the Royal Academy,” Head of Fine Art at NML, Ann Bukantas tells SevenStreets.

tumblr_l97e588zPe1qb8vzto1_1280“Instead they created their own code, painting in hard bright colours, with scenes of intense realistic detail, loaded with symbolism.”

So think exotic, juicy fruits, phallic symbols and wayward vines twisting their way up pellucid limbs. Smut, basically. Ideas they’d breathlessly discuss in their own magazine – called The Germ. Hardly Cheshire Life, is it?

“It may be hard for us today to appreciate how these beautiful paintings, which were often religious in theme or inspired by nature, literature and poetry, could be so rebellious and almost punk in their attitude. But to the Victorian public they were morally shocking and visually disturbing,” Ann says.

And Liverpool? We lapped it up. It was, as Ann says, ‘exciting’ and ‘fresh’ – and for the city, the Pre-Raphs represented exactly the same dynamic attributes it wanted to project itself.

“This exhibition reveals for the first time how the support of the city was invaluable in establishing Pre-Raphaelitism within Victorian society,” Ann says. “The forward thinking Liverpool Academy and the city’s Autumn Exhibitions welcomed these young mavericks and enabled the movement to flourish.”

That was Liverpool, then. Confident enough to know what it liked. Refusing to look over its shoulder to see what other cities were doing. Not put off its stride when the art establishment turned the other cheek.

And what happened next? The culture that Liverpool nurtured eventually found its way into the world’s leading galleries. The city backed a winner.

Now who’s looking listlessly into the middle distance?


Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion
12 February – 5 June
Walker Art Gallery


Main pic:A Music Party, 1864, Arthur Hughes © Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool

Second pic: Venus Discordia, 1873, Edward Burne Jones (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Third pic: In The Grass, 1864, Arthur Hughes, Exhibited at the Liverpool Academy in 1865, lent by George Rae

© Museums Sheffield

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