Throughout my student years in Birmingham, few months were complete without a visit to the Museum and Art Gallery, to stand in reverential awe before them. To wonder at Holman Hunt’s effusive skies, to empathise with Henry Wallis’ jewel-like The Death of Chatterton. The romanticized mist of youthful imagination; overly so perhaps, but glorious at the time; left me unwitting victim to their sensual allure. I bought the books, I bought the posters. Rossetti’s Proserpine, courtesy of Athena (no bare-bottomed Tennis Girl for me) hung on my student-room wall, as did two pages from Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer.
For a while they held their own, in the face of stern competition; at first the Impressionists, then Klee and Modigliani. And then the rot set in. All things visionary, all things symbolic coloured my taste. I stood speechless before the works of William Blake and Samuel Palmer (I still do). I succumbed to the heady intoxication of Gustave Moreau and Fernand Khnopff. The attachment was emotional, heartfelt, cerebral, until…..
Until I stood before William Blake’s life mask at the Tate exhibition in 2000, and felt the spiritual jolt, the uncanny physical presence of the man. Notwithstanding the beguiling beauty and mystery of the works displayed, it was the raw corporeal embodiment that took my breath, stood the hairs up on my arms.
And then the reconciliation began, slowly but inevitably. We visited the Andrew Lloyd-Webber collection at the Royal Academy in 2003, and fell under the Pre-Raphaelite spell once more. Those earlier passions were awakened, and found more mature, reflective accommodation. Burne-Jones’ wonderfully wan figures were no longer insipid, but seemed to possess a little of the visionary insight of Blake, the symbolic energy of Moreau. Yet still their effect was intellectual, emotional; never physical.
Then Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, that spiritual home of my early Pre-Raphaelite awakening, came good. Between January and May 2011 they hosted The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours. That exhibition laid me low. I walked from drawing to drawing, and stood speechless in admiration. Here it all was; romance, longing, yearning and devotion; intensity, sensitivity, obsession and lust.
This was to be a watershed experience for me, an object lesson in anticipation and overwhelming emotional response. I first spotted the drawing from across the room. I wanted to run to it, to shun the rest. I wanted to stand in front of it, to look upon it alone. I begrudged all other viewers. I coveted that space before it.
I trod the prescribed line, viewed each work in turn, paid due respect, moved on. And so it built, uncontrollably, wonderfully, slightly perversely; that anticipation of sensory consummation.
I turned the corner and finally stood before her. Study of Jane Morris for “Mnemosyne” – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, pastel on paper, 1876. Until that moment only music had ever precipitated an involuntary physical response; raised hairs, provoked tears. Never a painting or drawing. Never before. Never. I stood and fought back the tears. I stood and marvelled at this sublime drawing. I stood selfishly before her and battled vainly against my emotions.
She won. Welcome back Dante Gabriel.