In a basement below Manchester there is a hidden room of treasure.
Racks of paintings and boxes of drawings by some of the worlds greatest artists lie in darkness waiting to be viewed. Unseen and unknown by public eyes.
I followed the curator down the stairs not knowing what to expect but with excitment bubbling in my veins.
The heavy doors were pulled open and the lights switched on.
A room with unassuming grey metal racks lining the walls met my eyes.
The curator pulled a rack out towards me and I came face to face with a beautiful woman; Her eyes looked out at me with depths of emotion, her lips were a perfect rosebud. In one exquisite hand she toyed with a red flame, her other hand rested in the masses of her raven hair.
I gazed with fascination at the Rossetti chalk drawing I never even knew exisited. La Donna Della Fiamma (The Lady of the Flame). This was just one of the many wonders I saw on my visit to Manchster Art Gallery to meet collections curator Rebecca Milner.
I'd emailed the art gallery some weeks before hand to ask if someone could give me some insight into the creative process the Pre Raphaelites used to work a narrative into their painitngs. This was to be research towards my Pre Raphaelite inspired portrait I will be doing of Grace Oni Smith to investigage transgender femininity. (See past posts to learn more about this challenging project)
My expectations were supassed when the art gallery replied with the offer to view some rarely seen Rossetti drawings and the chance to chat about my project with the curator.
Rebecca Milner Collections Curator at Manchester Art Gallery
So, there I was standing before this image of a mysterious beauty. I was in awe of the softness of the chalk which made up her skin, lips, hair and diaphanous gown. So velvety yet so strongly defined.
Next was a glimpse of a study for 'Pandora'. The same evocative face looked down at me. This was again modeled by one of Rossetti's favourites, his lover, Jane Morris.
As I studied the layers of colour which made up her towering neck and strong features, the details I'd read about the artist and his muse filled my mind; Their illegitimate affair and enduring passions. To think that both these people were present as this picture was created was a true link to the past and a nod to the power of the image. Something about this woman fuelled Rossetti's creativity.
I asked Rebecca the collections curator why she thought the Pre Raphaelites were so inspired by women.
'They were total romantics. They were inspired by medieval poetry and art and they used women as muses to draw this notion out. As young men they were highly interested in women anyway. They helped to create a new kind of beauty by using women with a truthful contemporary look that was inspired by the past'
My ears pricked up. Wasn't this why I was drawn to working with Grace?
Grace has a very specific look, and as a transgender woman, she is certainly a product of modern times. There were no trans gender people back in the Victorian era, but I am still drawn to using a style from the past in order to convey her story. Grace's likeness to a Pre Raphaelite painting is uncanny.
'The Pre Raphaelites were drawn to their models because they looked like 16th Century paintings. In painting them they were not using a general version of beauty but something specific'
In using Grace as the starting point to a Pre Raphaelite inspired portrait I hope to highlight her individual beauty and personal story.
I then asked about the use of symbolism to tell stories within Pre Raphaelites paintings. We discussed the use of repeating motifs from the paintings into the frames, as seen in 'Astarte Syriaca' where stylised fruits and flowers can been seen in the the frame and the girdle of the godess within it, helping to underpin the message of fecundity. A repeating motif could be something to think about for my own work...
But what about the audience, I asked, would the ordinary joe be able to decipher these symbols?
'Victorian's loved narrative. They made paintings to be read. So certainly a good number of them would be able to understand what was going on in the [Pre raphaelite] work. The language of flowers was prevalent in their culture with things such as greetings cards and they would have understood the religious symbolism.'
This made me wonder... would a modern audience still be able to read an art work using this form of narrative?
'Audiences today don't use the same language. We don't use signs or symbols from the classical myths. I think a modern audience would find it interesting but not know what it signifies. That's one reason why Pre Raphaelite work fell out of fashion during the early half of last century. It was considered too fussy and too much like hard work to read. It wasn't until the 60's that they began to become popular again.'
It seems obvious when you think about it. As soon as Rebecca said this I realised that I would need to invest time into finding a modern equivelant to the Victorian use of symbols. It was always my intention to use a mix of the classic and comtemporary within this work but now I will only use the Pre Raphaelites as a starting point. The finished piece will have the Victorian aesthetics that a modern audience will recognise but the content will be full of modern signifiers.
I immediatly thought of Grayson Perry whose work I love! He is an artist who takes massive inspiration from the past to make sense of the present. For instance his work The Vanity of Small Differences took the work of William Hogarth's, 'The Rakes Progress', as the template for his huge tapestries which tell the story of modern class mobility and the influence social class has on our aesthetic taste.
Each tapestry is full of details helping to push the narrative.
Incidentally this work is now on show at Manchester Art Gallery and will definatley be a field trip for this project. Get down to see it if you can!
Back in the picture store beneath the galleries, Rebecca showed me more treasures from the past. We flipped past gorgeous watercolours and drawings by countless artists including tiny intricate drawings by Rembrandt no less! We settled on a pencil study of Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti's first muse and wife. I tried to get my eyes as close to the page as I could without my nose smudging the line work and Rebecca thinking I was a bit odd. It was so beautiful up close.
Then on to another box of tissue wrapped gems. She folded back the rustling paper to reveal another Rossetti piece, this time a study for a painting called 'Silence'. Jane Morris again, this time she sat on a chair her hand resting on the heavy folds of a curtain behind her. No other information was within the drawing. This was a good example of a subject matter being symbolised by a woman. The sitter personifiying the topic, becoming and idea.
We discussed Rossetti who as you have read is a big influence in this project; In his later work especaiily he would work with a single abstact idea such as Silence, or Music for instance and deptict them through the beauty of women and nature. For him beauty was something to be celebrated and revered. This simplicity makes his work immediatly accessable and is probably one of the reasons I admire him so much.
Rebecca pointed out how 'Silence' like much of Rossetti's work flattened the space within it.
'Something stops the viewer from going further into the picture, and makes it immediate and intense'
I love this idea and will use it in my portrait of Grace. I want it to invite the viewer into her personal world, a space that is unique just to her.
As my visit to the gallery wound to an end and the art works were locked away in dark saftey once more, I thanked Rebecca for giving up her time to help me in my research. I certainly feel I got a lot out of it. I have many things to think about and ideas to work on. Plus I got the opportunity to view art work that fires me and fuels my imagination. Next time you take a stroll down Mosely Street, spare a thought that nearby somewhere deep beneath your feet lie glorious images that are just waiting to be seen and inspire!