HALFWAY along the first wall of the opening gallery in this fascinating show of some hundred works on paper is a brightly colourful image. A youthful deacon, fully vested in a shimmering gold stole and dalmatic, attended by a teenage server in skimpy lace cotta, is censing (offstage) the priest at mass.
On the distant altar, beneath a blue lancet window, burn the ten candles, while on the low altar next to the figures (prominently inscribed with the date 1263, as if to suggest that this was a medieval scene) stands a pot of lilies with a single candle whose red escutcheon bears the flames of the Holy Spirit; that has encouraged the suggestion that this depicts a high mass at Pentecost.
The artist, Simeon Solomon (1840-1905), was much less interested in the minutiae of the ceremonies of the Roman Rite than he was in finding young men to paint for a series of paintings of rituals of any number of religions. To be ordained to the diaconate, a candidate needs to be 23 years old, the same age as the painter was.
Coming from a Cockney Jewish family, Simeon followed his older brother, Abraham, and his sister, Rebecca, on an artistic path, exhibiting at the Royal Academy for the first time at the age of 18.
He was elected to the Savile Club five years later at the age of 28, and was befriended by other gay men such as Walter Pater and Oscar Browning. He travelled in Italy extensively in the later 1860s, but, in 1873, he was disgraced after a charge of public indecency and lost friends and fortune.
Unlike Oscar Wilde, who later owned two of his paintings, he was not imprisoned, but he never exhibited publicly again, and he spent his last 32 years living in workhouses, on charity, and in the gutter.
It is as if Solomon painted beautiful young men as a response to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s female “stunners” (his own word), portraits that form the core of the exhibition. Whether portraying the artist Elizabeth Siddall, whom he later married, or Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris with whom he spent much of his time, or the model Fanny Cornforth, who later became his housekeeper, there is no doubting that Rossetti’s interests lay elsewhere.
The medium of using pastel or pen-and-ink allows Rossetti a fluidity that is somehow overblown in the oil paintings for which these drawings are often highly finished designs. On this showing, other artists cannot hold a candle to him, even Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-98).
In 1883, Burne-Jones drew a delicate study of the artist Violet Lindsay, who had formed an influential group around her known as “The Souls” and had recently married the later Marquess of Granby and Duke of Rutland. It lacks the soft ingenuousness of his 1868 study of a woman’s head turned to the left, as if the weight of the aristocratic commission bored the older artist. After all, Lindsay was the granddaughter of the 24th Earl of Crawford.
ashmolean museum, university of oxfordWilliam Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Study for “The Light of the World”, 1851, pen and brown ink on an envelope
Elsewhere, Burne-Jones shows his mastery of exquisite detail, as in the 1858 pen- and-ink drawing of the parting of a knight and his damsel, which William Morris owned. It is so intricate that it is as if it is printed.
Alongside his late sketch (gold paint) for Hope, which at first sight looks more like an exultant Mary Magdalen standing in the empty tomb, is a pencil sketch of a pensive naked youth, his hand on his chin, as handsome as any of Solomon’s men. This is Pygmalion, caught in a moment of rapt intensity, gazing at the statue he has just carved that is coming to life as Galatea.
Whereas the later painting (Birmingham Museums Trust) is subtitled The Hand Refrains, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), reckoned the world’s most famous living artist by 1880, showed no such restraint in his 1890 painting of the scene in which the sculptor enfolds the naked statue to caress it into life, a work now in New York in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Many of the works on show sponsored other connections and thoughts.
In 1856, when John Brett painted the writer Emily Andrews (1824-62), who was married to the poet Coventry Patmore, with her hair caught up with a camellia, the success of the 1848 Dumas novel about the courtesan Marguerite Gautier had transferred to the stage as a play (1852) made yet more famous by Verdi (La Traviata, 1853). Eugénie Doche, who created the stage role and who went onto play it more than 600 times, looks strikingly like Brett’s calmer subject.
Rossetti’s Carlisle Wall depicts two lovers cursed by the Scots border; a theme of star-crossed love drawn from Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which, no doubt, will be much exploited if the SNP draw a debate for Independence.
And one final thought from this prodigious display: in 1857, aged 16, Albert Moore painted the trunk of a woodland tree with ivy growing up it. He exhibited it at the Royal Academy the following year. Albrecht Dürer and Lucian Freud leapt to mind, as well as an overdue notice to self to cut back some of the ground ivy at home.
“Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours” is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 20 June. Phone 01865 278000. Pre-booked ticket required: www.ashmolean.org