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Customer Review

on 29 October 2012
On a recent visit to a Nordic country I met a Professor of Aesthetics who had never heard of the Pre-Raphaelites! Is this the book for her? Is it, as claimed by the publishers, "the definitive book on Pre-Raphaelitism for the 21st century"? The book is the catalogue of a popular exhibition at the Tate Britain that will also be seen in Russia, USA and Japan. In contrast to many catalogues, the book is organised thematically rather than by artist. The 8 sections are: origins, manifesto, history, nature, salvation, beauty, paradise and mythologies, each of which has a short introduction. The names suggest that the authors were struggling a bit to find a theme, or series of themes. Two initial chapters deal with the idea that the Pre-Raphaelites were an artistic avant-garde (Barringer & Rosenfeld), and with the techniques they used to achieve their characteristic effects (Smith). A final section concerns the Pre-Raphaelite legacy and is written by one of the world's leading experts, Elizabeth Prettejohn. The rest of the book is a series of descriptions of the works illustrated, which in general are quite good, though a bit uneven in quality, and quite often rather short.
The book has over 200 illustrations in colour that are, on the whole, printed fairly well. As always, the larger the size of the image, the better it is. Several of the smaller images are less sharp and are difficult to appreciate; some are too dark and a few have an odd colour balance. But the larger images mostly show good colour accuracy and are sharp.
The book seeks to persuade us that the Pre-Raphaelites were avant-garde in many respects, in their paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography, applied arts and also in literature and political theory. A book of this size cannot possibly deal with all these topics in detail and the last two in particular are not covered significantly. But the book does include some sculpture (such as Munro), a few photographs (e.g. Cameron), and several examples of applied arts form Burne-Jones and William and May Morris. None-the-less, the main emphasis is on paintings. So, do the thematic sections work for the paintings? The answer is a heavily qualified `Yes', although of course some of the works would fit into more than one category. Why, for example, is Millais's Blind Girl under `Nature' and not `Salvation'? Why on earth is Madox Brown's washstand in the `Salvation' section? But it is instructive to read the book through from the beginning since this allows you to focus on the formal qualities and meanings of the works rather than on the development of an individual artist. In the section on Origins and elsewhere we are told what a big impact the van Eyck (Arnolfini Portrait) recently acquired by the National Gallery had on the artists; it is therefore frustrating to have to leaf through the pages before finding a reproduction in the `History' section on page 76 - not indexed. The book includes three of Elizabeth Siddal's paintings and one of her drawings. The drawing is `The Lady of Shallot' and it is instructive to compare this striking little piece with the huge painting by Holman Hunt of the same title. Siddal's paintings, especially the rarely exhibited `Lady Clare' (beautifully reproduced) are moving and pushed the boundaries of art of the time. It is impossible to cover here more than a tiny fraction of the great paintings in this book, but suffice to say that lovers of the Pre-Raphaelites will find here many of their favourites.
I was rather disappointed that the publishers (The Tate) did not make better use of this book to fulfil their aim to make it definitive. The use of space is odd: many of the works would have benefitted from longer texts and yet there is a lot of white space in the book. If there was a limit on the text, then why not use the space to print larger reproductions, some of which are just too small for comfort (e.g. Madox Brown `Chaucer' and `Work', Seddon `Jerusalem', Crane `Triumph of Labour', etc.). But many of the larger pictures glow and are a delight.
In sum, I do not think that this book, however enjoyable, fulfils the promise of being the definitive book on this topic for the 21st century. For that we need a book, or books, of vision and the century began with just such a book: Prettejohn's magnificent `Art of the Pre-Raphaelites'. This landmark publication made a convincing and elegant case for the avant-garde nature of Pre-Raphaelite art.Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, The It can be supplemented by catalogue-raisonnées and other books on individual artists that have been published so far this century: Madox Brown Ford Madox Brown: A Catalogue Raisonne (2 volumes) (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art),Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer; Holman Hunt William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonne (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art),William Holman Hunt: Painter, Painting, Paint; Rossetti Rossetti: Painter and Poet; Millais John Everett Millais; Burne-Jones Edward Burne-Jones: The Earthly Paradise,The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination.
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