What lies beneath – Dreams and Stories: Modern Pre-Raphaelite Visionaries

Sketchpad doodles from the exhibition

What lies beneath – Dreams and Stories: Modern Pre-Raphaelite Visionaries 

Watts Gallery – until February 26, 2023

Wander through gentle blue skyscapes and visions of the sea in turn-of-the-century dreamlands.

The Watts Gallery’s current exhibition, Dreams and Stories: Modern Pre-Raphaelite Visionaries, invites the viewer to step into shimmering subliminal worlds of symbols and spiritualism. It showcases the work of several little-known artists who carried the ideas of the Pre-Raphaelite into the creative landscape of the 20th century. ​

It positions textural watercolours and impressionist oil on canvas alongside fairy tale illustrations and stained glass design, creating a diverse display of fine arts techniques.

Artists including Marianne Stokes and Frederick Cayley Robinson reinterpreted Pre-Raphaelite naturalism and romanticism as informed by the scientific developments of their day. Aviation heroes appear alongside celestial beings, and experimental psychology – particularly Freud’s theories of the unconscious – informs the artistic explorations of dreams and hidden emotions. 

These artists, who practiced between 1880 and 1930, were part of a wider European Symbolist movement. They were drawn to fairy tales, objects from religious rituals, and the growing occult interest in Spiritualism – inspirations made clear by the references to legends, folklore, and spirituality in their work. 

These modern Pre-Raphaelite visions seem to me a specifically female space. Depictions of women dominate the images – angels and legendary heroines as well as vulnerable children and women in domestic spaces. St Agnes is handed the ‘white garment’ of divine intervention, a girl bows her head in prayer, Fair Rosamund cowers before Queen Eleanor, and an injured child drops her spoon and bowl as she falls asleep before the hearth. The exhibition highlights the importance of female images in both the original Pre-Raphaelite movement and its revivalists, who use depictions of women in discussion with contemporary ideas around suffrage and the Social Purity movement. 

This gorgeous exhibition draws attention to a perhaps neglected artistic moment, and provides ample inspiration for practicing artists who feel a connection to the creative ideals of the original Brotherhood.

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