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Love and Death: Victorian paintings from Tate on view at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
J W Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888. Oil on canvas, 1530 x 2000 mm. ©Tate London 2012.

BIRMINGHAM.- This autumn eleven of the most spectacular Victorian paintings in the national collection have traveled to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for a special exhibition.

Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate features major late 19th-century paintings from Tate alongside related works from Birmingham Museums’ own collections. The centrepiece is John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888), one of Tate's most famous and popular paintings, which rarely travels outside London.

The eleven loans from Tate are complemented by paintings, sculpture, and works on paper from Birmingham Museums’ own collection, giving a context to showcase important Victorian works that have rarely been shown in recent years. These include Frederic Leighton’s preparatory oil for And The Sea Gave Up The Dead That Were In It (c.1892) and an exquisite pencil study by the same artist for the profile of the dead Romeo in The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet (1857).

The opening section of the exhibition explores the Victorian fascination with life in the classical world, from lovers’ flirtations to dramatic martyrdom. Alma Tadema’s Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon (1868, Birmingham Museums), which imagines the ancient Greek sculptor Pheidias unveiling his work on the Parthenon frieze for the first time, hangs alongside some of his depictions of ancient Rome from Tate. These paintings, such as A Silent Greeting and A Favourite Custom, combine sometimes playful subjects with a serious interest in depicting Roman life.

In Leighton’s The Bath of Psyche (Tate, exhibited 1889), the nude figure of Psyche is based on a classical sculpture he had seen in Naples. The same artist’s Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words) of 1861 (Tate) also has a classical setting, but in this work Leighton is interested not in historical authenticity or mythological references, but in creating harmonies of colour and evoking an atmosphere of stillness and contemplation. In the Birmingham exhibition Lieder ohne Worte is displayed alongside Albert Moore’s exquisite paintings of draped female figures, Dreamers and Sapphires (both Birmingham Museums), which share an interest in formal qualities of colour and composition over narrative content.

The second gallery of the exhibition is dominated by two huge paintings in which beauty and tragedy meet. Waterhouse’s haunting The Lady of Shalott (1888, Tate) depicts Tennyson’s doomed heroine sailing down the river to her death. Herbert Draper’s The Lament for Icarus (exhibited 1898, Tate) is inspired by the Greek myth of the beautiful youth who flew too close to the sun and plunged from the sky. In Birmingham, The Lady of Shalott is shown alongside earlier depictions of the subject by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Birmingham artist Arthur Gaskin, to explore the Pre-Raphaelite influences on Waterhouse’s painting. Meanwhile sculptures by Alfred Gilbert and Frederic Leighton of the male nude figure, selected from Birmingham Museums’ important collection of Victorian bronzes, complements Draper’s painted nude, helping to cast light on changing Victorian attitudes to the body in art.

These dramatic works are joined by George Frederic Watts’ s mysterious Symbolist figure The All-Pervading (1887-90, Tate) and Anna Lea Merritt’s Love Locked Out (1889, Tate), which in 1890 became the first painting by a woman to enter the national collection. Painted following her husband’s death, it shows the grieving figure of Love pushing vainly against the locked gold doors of a mausoleum. In the same room, Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle (1886, Tate), showing a female figure carrying out a magic ritual, is shown alongside Frederick Sandys’ Medea (1866-8) and Morgan-le-Fay (1864) from Birmingham Museums, to explore the enduring appeal of the image of a seductive yet dangerous sorceress.

Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate is a landmark exhibition for Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, celebrating the great national collections as well as exploring the drama of love, beauty, tragedy and death.

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