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Previously Unseen Work by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Be Shown in Birmingham
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mnemosyne, 1876. © Private collection c/o Christie's Images Ltd., 2010.

BIRMINGHAM.- A previously unseen work by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is to go on show for the first time Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The Poetry of Drawing, opening 29 January 2011.

Rossetti’s brooding Mnemosyne (1876, private collection) is a striking large-scale pastel drawing depicting Jane Morris, wife of the designer William Morris and Rossetti’s most important muse in the last decade of his life. The drawing remained in Rossetti’s studio until his death and has been in a private collection ever since.

Rossetti fell in love with Jane and drew and painted her repeatedly, sometimes as herself but more often as characters from mythology and literature. Her distinctive appearance, with her heavy dark hair and strong, impassive features, has come to typify the later Pre-Raphaelite ideal of female beauty. When the novelist Henry James, having seen Rossetti’s paintings of her, met Jane in person in 1869, he wrote ‘It’s hard to say [whether] she’s a grand synthesis of all the pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made – or they a ‘keen analysis of her – whether she’s an original or a copy. In either case she is a wonder.’

The depiction of Jane on show in The Poetry of Drawing is a study for a painting of Mnemosyne, personification of Memory in Greek mythology. Rossetti began work on the painting (now in Delaware Art Museum) in 1876 and completed in 1881, the year before his death.

Councillor Martin Mullaney, Cabinet Member for Birmingham City Council, Leisure, Sport and Culture said; “It is an extraordinary coup by our world-class Museum and Art Gallery to secure this previously unseen work by Rossetti for the exhibition The Poetry of Drawing. I am very grateful to the anonymous lender for the generosity of this loan. I know it will help draw many visitors to our city to see this extraordinary exhibition.’

The Poetry of Drawing, organised by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, will debut in the city before touring to Sydney, Australia, next summer. The Birmingham showing (Gas Hall, 29 January – 15 May 2011) will be the sole opportunity for UK visitors to see the exhibition, which brings together works from Birmingham’s important collections of Pre-Raphaelite and later nineteenth-century art, some of them rarely seen, alongside key loans from public and private lenders. It is the most comprehensive survey of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and watercolours ever staged.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of radical young artists who banded together in London in 1848, revolutionised British art. This exhibition explores the vital role played by drawing and design in the work of the Brotherhood, their associates and followers. It includes watercolours as well as works in pen and ink and pencil, and stained glass, textiles and ceramics alongside their original designs. Through the portraits and caricatures the artists made of one another and often exchanged as gifts, the drawings also provide an insight into the Pre-Raphaelites’ relationships with their fellow artists, friends and lovers.

The exhibition includes the earliest appearances in Pre-Raphaelite art of red-haired Elizabeth Siddal who, along with Jane Morris, was the most famous Pre-Raphaelite model. The drawings of her on display include two studies by Millais for Ophelia (1852), the painting for which Siddal famously posed lying in a bath of water. In the exhibition his iconic drawing for the head of Ophelia (1852) from Birmingham’s collection is reunited with a finished compositional study in ink for the whole painting (1852, Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery) for the first time. Two watercolours by Siddal are also displayed, representing her role in Pre-Raphaelitism as a gifted artist as well as a model and muse.

The Poetry of Drawing includes works by the original members of the Brotherhood, including Rossetti, Millais, and Holman Hunt; their mentor, John Ruskin; and the ‘second generation’ of Pre-Raphaelites such as Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Sandys and Simeon Solomon. It also demonstrates for the first time the impact that Pre-Raphaelite drawing had upon turn-of-the-century British art movements such as Aestheticism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau, displaying work by later artists influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, such as Aubrey Beardsley.

The Poetry of Drawing gives an insight into how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood challenged the art establishment of the time and influenced subsequent artists and designers. There will be a rare chance to compare textiles, stained glass and ceramics by makers such as William Morris, William de Morgan and Florence Camm with their original drawings, and the opportunity to see watercolours and drawings never seen in public before, including significant examples by Rossetti, Arthur Hughes and Burne-Jones.

After its showing in Birmingham the exhibition will tour to The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (17 June – 4 September 2011).

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