Our guide to the best Pre-Raphaelite collections in the UK
Love them or loathe them the Pre-Raphaelites occupy a peculiar and influential space in the history of British art. Even today, over 150 years after it was painted, one of the most popular paintings in Tate Britain’s postcard shop remains Millais’ classic portrayal of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, Ophelia. And in many ways, the painting serves as a kind of blueprint of the Pre-Raphaelite style; the beautifully tragic girl, the truth to nature, the literary theme and layer upon layer of symbolism.
But there’s more to the Pre-Rapahaelites than tragic maidens and medieval escapism – and their collections are not confined to London. Their influence can be seen in galleries, museums and heritage sites across the UK, with particular strongholds in the great industrial cities of the Victorian era.
National Museums, Liverpool
No investigation of Pre-Raphaelite art would be complete without a visit to Liverpool where The Walker Art Gallery has one of the most impressive permanent collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world. And so it should be; Liverpool was the only place outside of London to have its own circle of Pre-Raphaelite painters – patronised by the many merchants and industrialists in the city.
The Walker boasts some important works by Holman Hunt and Rossetti, which can be viewed alongside the work of local Pre-Raphelite painters John Lee, William Davis and James Campbell. The gallery is also the permanent home of Millais’ first fully Pre-Raphaelite oil painting Isabella. Executed entirely on the brotherhood’s principles, it shows how the artist attempted to achieve a truth to nature whilst developing a highly styled archaism, both of which became central tenets of the ‘Pre-Raphaelite technique’.
Staying in Liverpool, another important collection is located at the Lady Lever Art Gallery and Collection. This wide-ranging holding (once the pride and joy of an Edwardian philanthropist and soap magnate), features yet more famous examples of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Amidst the paintings by the likes of Constable and Gainsborough is Holman Hunt’s famous portrait of a mountain goat, The Scapegoat as well as works by Millais and Rossetti.
Not content with two excellent galleries, Liverpool’s credentials as a major centre for British Victorian painting are confirmed by a fine third collection at Sudley House Art Gallery. Overlooking the Mersey, this former home of the Victorian shipbuilder George Holt is filled with his personal collection of 18th and 19th century British art.
Here you will find works by Gainsborough and Turner, but it’s the in situ collection of Victorian interior decoration that offers a perfect context and environment to view paintings of the period.
A good place to start an investigation of London’s permanent Pre-Raphaelite collections is at Tate Britain’s excellent Walk through British Art exhibition, specifically the room dedicated to the period from 1840-1890.
Nestling within this collection of paintings (again effectively reflecting the tastes of Victorian entrepreneurs, industrialists and merchants) can be seen classic pieces such as Burne Jones’ magnificent mixture of medieval myth and Victorian romanticism, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. The subject matter, the king renouncing his title for the love a beggar, particularly suited the fledgling socialist politics of the artist – something often lost in the sumptous colours and richness of the painting.
The gallery is also home to one of the most famous and best loved paintings in the UK, Millais’ portrait of Elizabeth Siddall as Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, Ophelia. The stories surrounding this painting have since passed into myth: the model Lizzie Siddall catching her near death of cold in the freezing bath in Millais’ studio; the subsequent legal action by the model’s father; the painter (in a typically Pre-Raphaelite quest for realism) almost drowning in the Thames whilst making studies of flowers. But even without the attendant folklore, visitors to the gallery are generally in agreement; it’s a beautifully executed piece, rich with symbolism and metaphor.
Tate Britain also affords visitors the chance to see April Love by Arthur Hughes. A keen exponent and champion of the Pre-Raphaelite style, at the time of its unveiling John Ruskin was so enamoured with Hughes’ painting (typically based on a poem of Tennyson) that he attempted to buy it – only to be thwarted by William Morris who scooped the picture for himself.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Entering into the heart of nineteenth century industrial Britian, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery houses one of the biggest and best Pre-Raphaelite collections you’ll find anywhere in the world – and that includes Lord Lloyd Webber’s mansion.
Amongst the famous paintings on show are Hunt’s vibrant and detailed The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, Millais’ The Blind Girl, extensive tapestry panels of Morris and Co. and a version (yet another!) of Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England.
There is also an ever-rotating selection of drawings taken from the gallery’s collection that runs to over a thousand items, but the gallery’s main specialisation is Edward Burne-Jones. Boasting the largest collection of his works anywhere in the world, here you can really appreciate the sumptuous detail and scale of this prolific painter – no more so than in the massive watercolour, Star of Bethlehem, actually commissioned for the gallery in 1897.
Besides these bombastic but beautiful masterpieces, the gallery is also home to the sexually charged paintings and drawings of one of the more tragic of Pre-Raphaelite artists. Simeon Solomon’s promising career on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite circle was cut short after he fell foul of late Victorian morality. Charged and convicted of indecency and attempted sodomy, he ended his days as a penniless alcoholic ostracised by his former friends in the St Giles Workhouse in London.
The De Morgan Collection
Although the London museum was sadly closed in 2009, The De Morgan Centre is still well worth a mention. The collection, which looks after the work of the renowned Victorian ceramicist, William De Morgan and his wife, the painter Evelyn De Morgan, can be seen in various locations across the UK and features some fine examples of their paintings and ceramics as well as a large archive of documents and papers relating to the life and work of these two archetypal late Victorian artists.
Both were heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite style; Evelyn adopting the Burne-Jones manner of languorous medieval maidens in her paintings whilst William went on to become the most famous designer of pottery tiles in William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement.
The De Morgans were also key players in those typically fin de siecle concerns of pacifism, spiritualism and women’s suffrage and their life and work offers an important glimpse into how the language and style of Pre-Raphaelitism persisted well into the Edwardian period.
Despite its closure the collection is still available through a series of loans, exhibitions and tours both in the UK and internationally. Currently pieces from the collection are on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Cannon Hall in Barnsley, Watts Gallery in Guildford and Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton. In addition to these long term loans parts of the collection are often sent out on short-term loans, see the De Morgan Centre website for up to date information.
Manchester Art Gallery
For another classic Victorian ‘civic’ gallery in a great industrial city we move north to Manchester Art Gallery. Designed by Sir Charles Barry in the Greek Revival style this recently refurbished gallery was built by public subscription between 1827-34.
It is also home to some true classics of the Pre-Raphaelite genre. One of the most popular art prints of the late Victorian period, William Holman Hunt’s, The Light of the World can be viewed alongside a very different picture from the movement; Ford Madox Brown’s classic symbol of Victorian labour and industrialization, Work.
The gallery also holds Millais’ Autumn Leaves and William Lyndsay Windus’ The Outlaw, both prime examples of the importance the movement gave to realism in nature.
Holman Hunt’s early gaudy experimentation with the use of realism, The Hireling Shepherd, is also on view along with John William Waterhouse’s classical rendering of Hylas and the Nymphs – a painting that neatly bookends the later period of Victorian painting with its heady mix of idealised beauty, romanticism, myth and sensuality.
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The university city of Oxford has a strong association with the Pre-Raphaelites, most notably Edward Burne Jones and William Morris, who met here and began their lifelong fascination with art, beauty and all things medieval.
It is fitting then that the Ashmolean Museum holds an excellent collection of early Pre-Raphaelite pictures, including paintings and sketches from Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Arthur Hughes and two of the paintings from the Brotherhood’s first stormy showing at the RA Summer Exhibition of 1850. Much of the work here comes from the collection of Thomas Combe, an important early patron of the movement.
Outside of the Museum, Pre-Raphaelite fanatics can visit a stunning set of murals painted by Rossetti, together with four other artists (Arthur Hughes, Val Prinsep, Spencer Stanhope and Hungerford Pollen) at the Oxford Union between 1857-9. The ceiling at the Union was designed and painted by William Morris with help from Edward Burne-Jones, and it’s a great oppourtunity to see what we today regard as ‘classic Morris’ leaf motifs.
The murals and ceiling may be viewed at any time when the library is open, although there is a charge (a mere £1.50 per person and another £1.50 for the audio guide, which is recommended) for visitors who are not members of the Oxford Union Society.
Whilst in Oxford it is also worth taking a look at Keble College Chapel, where Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World can be found in a specially constructed side chapel. The surrounding buildings designed by the architect Butterfield are also a treat for Victorian enthusiasts.
The Farringdon Collection at Buscot Park
The Faringdon Collection of British Painting at Buscot Park in Oxfordshire is an extensive holding that features some important examples of Pre-Raphaelite art.
In particular, the collection offers a great opportunity to experience the sheer scale and grandeur of the work of Burne Jones, most notably in the Legend of Briar Rose, a typically imposing adornment comprising of four large canvases and ten connecting scenes.
There are also some famous Rossettis, including an interpretation of a popular theme of the day, Pandora. The painting features a typically pouting and luxuriant rendering of that most famous of Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunners,’ Jane Morris, who as well as being the wife of his colleague and friend William Morris, was for many years Rossetti’s not-so-secret lover and muse.
The Fitzwilliam Museum
Not to be outdone by the strong Oxford connection, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has amongst its impressive array of works by Degas, Picasso and others, some important examples of Pre-Raphaelite art. These include a version of Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England, Rossetti’s Joan of Arc and Girl at a Lattice and one of the best Millais Pre-Raphaelite portraits, the Bridesmaid.
The Fitzwilliam also boasts Ford Madox Brown’s William Tell’s Son, the sitter for the portrait being the artist’s grandson – Edwardian novelist, Ford Madox Ford. In another slightly oblique angle on the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic the museum also houses a rather fine collection of armour – the very stuff of many a Burne-Jones and Rossetti composition. One can only surmise as to whether the artists made study visits to this peculiarly Victorian collection.
Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery
This Grade 1 Listed building houses a nationally important collection ranging across two galleries at Tullie House.
The recently refurbished galleries are home to an impressive haul of works by Pre-Raphaelite artists, their heirs and related Arts and Crafts Movement textiles, ceramics, metalwork, furniture and costume.
Highlights include works by founding brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his ill-fated wife Elizabeth Siddal. There are also by William Morris and Ford Madox Brown and visitors can find a series of Burne-Jones ‘cartoons’ made as studies for a set stained glass window designs for St Martin’s Church, Brampton.William Morris textiles and William De Morgan ceramics can also be seen.
Guildhall Art Gallery, London
The recently re-opened Guildhall Art Gallery houses a number of Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces among a wider collection of important Victorian Art.
Millais’ Woodman’s Daughter and Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata are just two highlights of a group of fine paintings bequeathed to the gallery in 1902 by Charles Gassiot.
In common with Ruskin’s father, Gassiot was a port and sherry merchant with a penchant for art. Part of his sizeable bequest includes many classics from the Victorian painters including some frankly syrupy examples of Millais’ later work such as My First Sermon.
Elsewhere the collection boasts Sir Edward Poynter’s Israel in Egypt as well as Millais’ equally gooey follow up, My Second Sermon.
The Higgins, Bedford
An important player in Bedford’s cultural scene The Higgins is an unusual combination of recreated Victorian Mansion (originally the home of wealthy Bedford brewers the Higgins family) and an adjoining gallery housing an internationally renowned collection of watercolours, prints and drawings, ceramics, glass and lace.
It’s particularly strong on Victorian art and among the many treasures are works by Burne-Jones, Millais, Rossetti, Holman-Hunt and Sandys.
A new exhibition this summer promises to delight with a full look at the stylistic extremes of the Victorian period. Romance and Rebellion: The Art of the Victorians guides visitors from the older traditional artists to the Aesthetes, the Pre-Raphaelites to the Decadents and the Social Satirists to the Exquisites. The exhibition charts the period chronological showing how these styles grew and flourished alongside one another. The exhibition features the work of J.M.W. Turner, Frederic, Lord Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler, Richard Dadd and Aubrey Beardsley.
When in London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, arguably the world’s greatest museum for art and design, is a good place to gauge the wider influence of the Pre-Raphaelites.
The British 19th Century Furniture Galleries include many examples of furniture by artists working under their influence and, as one might expect, the work of William Morris features heavily – he has his ‘own room’ with two further rooms designed by members of the Arts and Crafts movement on the ground floor.
In the Paintings Galleries there are also paintings by Burne-Jones such as his magnificent The Feast of Peleus and portraits by Watts in the Ionides Bequest in the Henry Cole Wing.
The William Morris Gallery
With your appetite whetted for the sumptuous designs of Morris and Co. a visit to The William Morris Gallery, purely devoted to England’s best-known Victorian designer, is a must.
Located at Walthamstow in another of the several surviving Morris family homes (this one was the Morris residence from 1848 to 1856), the former Water House is a substantial Georgian property set in its own extensive grounds (now Lloyd Park). Visitors are treated to permanent displays of printed, woven and embroidered fabrics, and at every turn there are rugs, carpets, wallpapers, furniture, stained glass and painted tiles designed by Morris – with a little help from his friends Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and others.
Visiting the former residence of an artist to view art and other objects in situ affords its own peculiar pleasure and this visit to house that has a passionate staff and a recent sympathetic renovation will not disappoint.
Leighton House Museum
If you really want to taste the atmosphere and get to the heart of Victorian London’s artistic milieu, a worthwhile addition to our list is Leighton House Museum, the former studio-house of the great Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896). Located on the edge of London’s Holland Park, it is one of the most extraordinary of London’s 19th century buildings.
The extraordinarily sumptuous interiors are hung with important paintings by Leighton and his contemporaries; including Millais, Burne-Jones and Watts.
It’s an unforgettable insight into Leighton’s private world and though he is today known more as a classicist rather than a Pre-Raphaelite painter, a visit here helps our understanding and appreciation of the Victorian art world.
Southampton City Art Gallery
On the south coast, Southampton City Art Gallery is home to an impressive collection of major Pre-Raphaelite and related work.
Space constraints mean the drawings, gouaches and paintings are rotated and some may be tucked away at any one time, but a trip here is worthwhile if only to see the stunning Burne-Jones set of ten gouaches for the Perseus Series, which were reglazed in 2013 with support from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation.
A beautiful group housed permanently in their own wood panelled room – the artist worked on them between 1876-85 with the intention of making a set of oil paintings but only four were ever completed.
Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum
A wonderfully atmospheric setting for a museum, the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth is a veritable treasure trove for those searching for the Pre-Raphaelites and immersion in the Victorian artworld.
The collection features work from many of the great Pre-Raphaelites including Sandys, Arthur Hughes and the later classicist Alma-Tadema. However the highlight has got to be the iconic painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti depicting “the turner of men’s hearts”, a femme fatale with her roots in both pagan and Christian traditions – it is luxurious, sensuous and rich with symbolism.
The stunning Victorian interior of this building and the beautiful views out over the Dorset coastline complement the eclectic collection making this a must visit for any self respecting Pre-Raph fan or Victorianist.
The historic Torre Abbey in Torquay is a dissolved monastery which was later renovated as a private house and now boasts a sizeable gallery. Here you can view an impressive collection of paintings including a large piece by Holman-Hunt, some Burne-Jones sketches and a couple of paintings by Valentine Cameron Prinsep, an artist who adopted the Pre-Raphaelite fascination with medievalism and helped Rossetti with the Oxford Mural.
Their new exhibition, curated from the Arts Council Collection for Summer 2017, will for the first time bring together and quite literally ‘face off’ 33 works from 20 award winning, contemporary British artists in the Arts Council Collection and rare, visionary works from Pre-Raphaelite artists in the Torre Abbey Collection.
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery
If you’re in East Anglia at Norwich Castle Museum you’ll find two large scale pieces by Burne-Jones, a Morris and some fine examples of the work of A.F.A. Sandys – a younger and later contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who was much influenced by them.
The Victorian Picture Gallery houses the famous Edward Burne-Jones work ‘Annunciation’ which was a gift from Lord Battersea, a well-known Pre-Raphaelite art collector who enjoyed many holidays in Norfolk.
Further north, Museums Sheffield holds a modestly impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelite works. The collection, which can be seen at the Graves Gallery, includes Burne-Jones’ quintessential vision of Pre-Raphaelite beauty, The Hours as well as pieces by Millais, Holman Hunt and Arthur Hughes.
It’s also worth noting that a collection by Pre-Raphaelite champion John Ruskin also resides here. The Collection of the Guild of St George was created for Sheffield’s workers over 130 years ago and was filled with artworks, minerals and other beautiful objects designed to inspire creativity in Sheffield’s industrial workers and to be a haven from the busy workday world.
The Graves’ new exhibition for Summer 2017 focuses on the idea of gardens and nature in art, a fundamental feature of Pre-Raphaelite Art. An Earthy Paradise: Gardens in Art includes works from the Ruskin Collection.
Laing Art Gallery
The Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, boasts a strong collection of British oil paintings, watercolours, ceramics, silver and glassware with the Victorian period particularly well represented.
The most important Pre-Raphaelite pictures include Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil, Arthur Hughes’ Potter’s Courtship and Burne-Jones’ Laus Veneris (shown above), a typically large and dominating painting complete with the prerequisite medieval maidens and knights clad in armour. This, and many other examples of Pre-Raphaelite art can be found in Gallery D.
National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff
In Wales The National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff has a very impressive collection of pieces from the period including works by that holy trinity of Pre-Raphaelite brothers Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and Millais as well as works by Waterhouse and Frank Dicksee.
Their collection of Art in Victorian Britian in Gallery 6 provides visitors with an overview of how artistic styles developed during the Victorian Period. Themes of industrialisation, growing wealth and a search for natural beauty are well represented in the gallery to provide a deeper understanding of the world that influenced the art.
One of their recent additions, shown above, is an impressive example of the Victorian Welsh landscape, painted by John Ingle Lee a little known painter who embraced the Pre-Raphaelite style in its prime.
There are numerous properties and locations dotted around the UK where you can explore preserved Victorian interiors and view art works and artefacts from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One such place is Wallington in Northumbria, which boasts an impressive series of murals by William Bell Scott, a keen associate of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Executed around the same time as the Oxford Union Murals, the Wallington Murals consist of eight main panels painted between 1857 and 1862 on canvas, and subsequently fixed to the walls of the main hall.
The frieze tells the story of Northumbria from the building of Hadrian’s Wall to the growth of industrial Tyneside and is the centrepiece to Wallington’s Pre-Raphaelite decorative scheme.
The pillars between the main panels are also of interest with herbaceous designs contributed by various guests. These included that great adherent to Pre-Raphaelite doctrines, Arthur Hughes and that champion of them John Ruskin.
Wallington also offers the chance to take in some good examples of Pre-Raphaelite sculpture. A particular favourite is Thomas Woolner’s mother-and-child with its bizarre base – depicting graphic scenes of ‘early savagery’. Woolmer was one of the first signatories to the tenets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There are other Woolner’s on site and also works by Alexander Munro, who was encouraged by Rossetti.
Staying in Northumberland, Cragside House near Rothbury is an imposing structure built on a bare and rugged hillside in the 1880’s, but inside it is one of the most modern and surprising houses for its time in the country.
The imposing house is crammed full of technological wonders whilst its preserved Victorian interiors offer a unique chance to experience the rich world of Victorian art.
Cragside was the first house in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity and it had the luxuries of hot running water, electric lighting and a Turkish bath. For fans of Pre-Raphaelite art it also contains a brilliant set Evelyn de Morgans.
There is also an extensive collection of other Victorian paintings including works by John Rodham Spencer Stanhope, George Frederick Watts and Walter Charles Horsley and some interesting Victorian sculpture and stained glass by Morris & Co after designs by Maddox Brown, Burne-Jones and Rossetti.
For one of the best surviving examples of a house built and furnished under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a visit to Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton reveals many original William Morris wallpapers and fabrics. There are also some great examples of Kempe glassware and ceramics designed by William de Morgan and a new gallery that showcases sumptuous artworks lent by the De Morgan foundation.
Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the property include works by Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Burne-Jones’ Love Among the Ruins.
Standen, East Sussex
Another former private house with Pre-Raphaelite connections, now run by the National Trust, can be visited at Standen in East Sussex. Again it’s Arts and Crafts inspired – built by Philip Webb, the architect in whose office William Morris worked for a time.
The beautiful interior retains many original features and contents including Morris & Co wallpaper and fabrics as well as sculptures, paintings and drawings by Ford Maddox Brown, Burne-Jones, Sandys and Rossetti.
Additional reporting and research by Alison Groom.