A Celebration of Portraiture at the Holburne this autumn

This autumn sees a unique show devoted to one of the giants of Victorian art open at Bath’s Holburne Museum – the first ever exhibition dedicated to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits. Plus, a unique chance to see the only widely accepted depiction of Jane Austen outside London.

Rossetti’s Portraits

24 September 2021 to 9 January 2022

This autumn sees a unique show devoted to one of the giants of Victorian art open at Bath’s Holburne Museum – the first ever exhibition dedicated to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits.

 

Rossetti’s Portraits features some of his most iconic artworks, including The Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris), 1868, which reveal the artist at the height of his creative powers, alongside his less well-known, but equally compelling early drawings of friends, family and fellow Pre-Raphaelite artists. The exhibition also explores the artist’s intimate relationship with his muses and their influence on his depiction of beauty.

 

Although founded in 1848 as a secret society, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood soon became one of the most eminent artistic movements of the Victorian era with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) at its centre.

 

In the 139 years since his death, Rossetti’s appeal as a great artist has continued to increase, although the last major UK exhibition devoted to his work was staged almost two decades ago. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

From 24 September, Rossetti will once again return to the public’s attention with an exhibition that surveys his distinctive use of portraiture, which blurred the boundaries between literary, mythological and symbolic subjects and the models whose likenesses are represented, especially the women closest to him.

 

Combining paintings, drawings, and photography from across the artist’s career, including some of his most celebrated and accomplished works, Rossetti’s Portraits opens with drawings of his early social circle, including members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood during the early 1850s. 

Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1868 © Society of Antiquaries of London: Kelmscott Manor

As young artists starting their careers, ambitious to ‘make it’ in the art world, the Pre-Raphaelites frequently practised drawing each other to improve their observational skills, as well as saving money on models. These drawings were often created out of mutual affection and were exchanged as gifts. Rossetti’s portrait of William Holman Hunt was sketched on the morning of 12th April 1853 as one of several portraits created by the group to send out to Thomas Woolner, a Pre-Raphaelite sculptor who had emigrated to Australia to try his luck on that continent. 

 

 The next section features a selection of intimate and poignant drawings from the 1850s of the artist’s wife and pupil, Elizabeth Siddal (1829–1862), showing the many facets of their relationship as a couple, as artistic peers, and as artist and model. 

 

Famous for posing in John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52, Tate), Siddal modelled for several Pre-Raphaelite artists before sitting exclusively for Rossetti from 1852 onwards. Alongside her work as a model, Siddal pursued her own artistic interests and was the only woman to exhibit at the 1857 Pre-Raphaelite display at Russell Place. Rossetti made a series of beautifully intimate studies of her carrying out everyday tasks and the works displayed at the Holburne allow visitors to see the daily life that ‘Lizzie’ and Rossetti shared together. Siddal frequently suffered from ill-health and a drawing he made of her during a stay in Hastings where they had gone for her to recuperate from the latest bout of illness features in the show. Siddal died tragically in 1862 aged only 32 and was buried with a batch of Rossetti’s poems. Her body was later exhumed so he could retrieve these unpublished works, further adding to his darkly romantic mythology.

Three years before his wife’s death, 1859 had seen a dramatic transition in Rossetti's technical and stylistic approach, as he embarked on a series of idealised and symbolic female oil portraits inspired by the Venetian Old Masters. Painted through the lens of his deeply-rooted relationship with literature and art, these pictures are visions of female beauty and sensuality, embodied in the form of his next principal model, Fanny Cornforth (1835–1909). Cornforth is the focus of one of Rossetti’s masterpieces, The Blue Bower (1865, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts), a painting infused with symbolism relating to the sitter. The blue cornflowers refer to her surname, while the passion flowers suggest her fiery nature. Indeed, the work has the feel of a character study; Cornforth commands the spectator’s gaze, as if to challenge their observation of her beauty. 

 

Rossetti’s Portraits concludes with the artist’s later, obsessive portrayals of William Morris’s wife, Jane (1839–1914), including one of the few formal oil portraits by Rossetti, The Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris), (1868, Society of Antiquaries of London : Kelmscott Manor). She had become Rossetti’s primary muse and model from the mid-1860s and remained so until his death in 1882. They often collaborated to create works such as Blue Silk Dress, with Morris adopting a slightly awkward pose that broke away from the conventions of Victorian portraiture to show the sitter with a curved back and sinuous posture familiar in many of her portraits and photographs. 

Ten years later, Rossetti returned to a watercolour preparatory study of The Blue Silk Dress, which he titled Bruna Brunelleschi (1878, Fitzwilliam Museum). In a letter to Morris, Rossetti explained that he opted for Bruna Brunelleschi as a reference to her dark complexion while attempting to keep her name from being directly associated with the painting. However, just as he did with The Blue Silk Dress, Rossetti evocatively captures her luxurious dark locks, long neck, strong distinctive features and sensual lips – epitomising the ideal of Pre-Raphaelite beauty.

Exhibition curator Sylvie Broussine says: “We're thrilled to be able to share with the public this fresh look at one of the leading figures of 19th-century British art. Though a lesser-known aspect of his body of work, nonetheless portraiture is present throughout Rossetti's career, from his informal, private drawings of his family and friends to his celebrated oil paintings of the women who inspired him. Rossetti is at his best when capturing the likenesses of those closest to him, and we hope that this exhibition draws attention to this important part of the artist's work.”

 

Chris Stephens, Director of the Holburne Museum says: “The Holburne’s Picture Gallery presents one of the greatest displays of 18th-century British portraits in the world. I am delighted, therefore, to mount this exhibition which explores the nature of portraiture and the boundaries between it and other forms of painting, while also making clear the stunning power and beauty of Rossetti’s art.”

Chris Stephens, Director of the Holburne Museum 

Image courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Vadehra Art Gallery. © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021.

Sunil Gupta: The New Pre-Raphaelites
18 September 2021 - 19 January 2022

 

To accompany its major new exhibition of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits, the Holburne is proud to announce a display of photographs by Sunil Gupta that explore the legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites and their influence on contemporary art.

In 2008, London-based artist and photographer Sunil Gupta (b.1953, New Delhi) was commissioned by Autograph gallery in London, to produce a body of work connected to LGBTQI+ rights in India. The resulting series of ten photographs referenced the struggle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Instituted during British rule in the 1860s, it criminalised gay sex between consenting adults and remained in place until it was finally repealed by the Supreme Court of India in September 2018.

Known as the Anti-Sodomy Law, Section 377 facilitated the arbitrary arrest and exploitation of LGBTQI+ Indians. In turn, this led to a closeted culture where alternate sexuality was pushed underground and made researching and treating serious medical problems such as STDs and HIV/AIDS extremely difficult.

Gupta’s photographs allude to works by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an artistic movement founded in 1848, only a few years before Section 377 was introduced. He says: “I was struck first by the vividness of the [paintings’] colours and then by the ambivalent sexuality of their subject matter.”

Inspired by the Tate’s collection, Gupta invited friends and fellow activists to model for him and re-enact the original works; at the time their involvement constituted an act of resistance, courage, and commitment, much like their UK counterparts who campaigned against Section 28 (in effect between 1988 and 2003 in England and Wales).

Through Gupta’s lens, well-known paintings such as Henry Wallis’ Chatterton (1856), Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), Sir John Everett Millais’ Mariana (1851) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1867), take on a new meaning as he reinterprets them. The New Pre-Raphaelites is representative of Gupta’s work, which spans three decades and documents his own life and involvement with issues of gender, sexuality, displacement and his own diagnosis in 1995 of being HIV positive.

 

This display of tightly composed images effectively force the viewer to confront a juxtaposition with an alternative social reality. Also, as the Pre-Raphaelites observed in the 1800s, Gupta’s photographs transpose the private into the public. In Gupta’s photographs, these ‘truths’ become gay couples, single men and women, and groups posing romantically, glimpsed in moments of passion and emotion. Combining symbolism and realism – just like the paintings that inspired them - the images concentrate on the real people who occupy the space of each print and, in some instances, show what would be deemed criminal intent according to Section 377, but most will recognise as an act of love.

Richly coloured, textured and patterned backdrops highlight the sitters’ colourful costumes, and their occasional nudity, Gupta demonstrates his eye for detail. It is important to note that the women portrayed in The New Pre-Raphaelites were at the time living on the margins of society. Although technically free from accusations of committing the crime of sodomy, before 2018 they risked being hunted down and, in some cases, burnt alive by their families who would rather see them dead than face social ostracism.

Sunil Gupta

Chris Stephens, Director of the Holburne Museum says: “I am proud and delighted to be showing at the Holburne such an important and courageous body of work as Sunil Gupta’s The New Pre-Raphaelites. We seek always to draw out the contemporary resonances of our historic exhibits and that could not be more powerfully represented than in this body of work in which Gupta uses Victorian pictorial compositions in order to raise marginalised and criminalised same-sex relationships to the highest level of romantic love.”

Sunil Gupta (b.1953, New Delhi) is a London-based photographer, curator and cultural activist. In the mid-1970s he trained at The New School for Social Research, New York, under Philippe Halsman and Lisette Model. He built on his BA in Photography at West Surrey College of Art & Design (1978–81) by completing an MA at the Royal College of Art (1981–83) and a PhD at the University of Westminster (2018). His work has been profusely exhibited internationally and he has published several photography books. Gupta has received numerous grants and awards, including an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society.

Jane Austen Comes Home to Bath

26 August - 27 September 2021

There is a unique chance to see the only widely accepted depiction of Jane Austen (1775–1817) outside London, when the sketch of the novelist by her sister Cassandra is generously lent to the Holburne Museum by the National Portrait Gallery.

Jane Austen is one of the most beloved writers in English literature, responsible for classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. A resident of Bath between 1801 and 1806, she lived across the road from the Holburne at 4 Sydney Place from 1801 until 1804. During this time, she frequently visited Sydney Gardens and attended the public breakfasts and evening galas.

 

This sketch by her sister Cassandra is the only surviving memento of Austen’s features and the sole widely accepted depiction of her appearance. Although the drawing is undated and unrecorded in the correspondence between the sisters, the sitter’s age and attire suggest a date of around 1810. 

 

As the novelist’s reputation grew after her death, the lack of a reliable portrait became increasingly challenging. In the late 19th century this sketch was turned into an engraving that, according to Austen’s niece Caroline, depicted a ‘pleasing countenance’, ‘though the general resemblance is not strong’.

This prettified representation became the accepted image of the author and, most recently, provided the basis for the £10 English note. Today, perhaps fittingly, these idealised features are instantly associated with an author whose personal life remains partially as elusive as her image. 

 

The work is rarely lent as it is extremely delicate and light-sensitive, so this is a unique chance to see it outside of London.

 

The portrait will be in Bath at the same time as the annual, hugely popular Jane Austen Festival (10-19 September).

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, circa 1810 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Curator Monserrat Pis Marcos says: “We are delighted to show this fragile and iconic portrait of one of the most important figures in English literature, and one of Bath’s most famous residents, at the Holburne – a building she knew and mentioned in her correspondence. We very much hope Miss Austen will enjoy her summer sojourn in our Georgian galleries.”

 

Chris Stephens, Director of the Holburne Museum says: “Jane Austen is part of the Holburne’s history. The Museum is housed in the old entrance to the Sydney Pleasure Gardens where Austen liked to take breakfast and to enjoy fireworks and concerts while she lived across the road. I am delighted to bring her portrait back to the place she seems to have enjoyed more than any other in Bath, and I am deeply grateful to our friends at the National Portrait Gallery for making this homecoming possible.

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The Holburne Museum