The Pre-Raphaelite Experiment

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Bower Meadow (1850-1872) detail

Manchester Art Gallery has an important collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings that were bought on behalf of Manchester's citizens by our Victorian predecessors. We're embarking on a year-long project called the Pre-Raphaelite Experiment to find our what, if anything, these paintings mean to today's Mancunians.

We'll be working with local groups, families and schools to respond to and reinterpret four Pre-Raphaelite paintings from our collection. They are, James Collinson's Answering the Emigrant's Letter (1850) , Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Bower Meadow (1850-1872) , Sir John Everett Millais' Autumn Leaves (1856), and William Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd (1851). We've chosen these because they represent three recurring themes in Pre-Raphaelite art: nature, storytelling and modern life.

These four paintings are now hanging in Gallery 6, one of our Victorian Galleries, which has been cleared of all its other artworks. Along with them, there's a space for visitors to tell us what they think of the Pre-Raphaelites in general and the four chosen works in particular.

As the Pre-Raphaelite Experiment progresses over the next year, the display in the Gallery 6 will evolve, and we'll be blogging about what we discover.

Artist and gallery educator Matt Wardle is documenting responses from the project on his blog.

Feedback from our visitors 7 June 2011

No longer “radical" but still appreciated! Trends progress, styles change, we are a changing population but we should always look back.

I like the fussy detail in the lovely passive dolls. The escapist fantasy is colourful and yet sad. There is a lot of grass. J. Dean

Temptresses, terrified victims, passive dolls.

There’s an awful lot of pretentious twaddle about very good paintings.

Gaudy [????] full of heat and sexuality, tamed by time.

I like the detail but they appear so glassy-eyed it makes me not aware of their thoughts.

I find the pre-raph period in art fascinating, the details are perfect and so realistic. Absolutely beautiful. They’re so traditional and symbolic. Incredible. Lucy 14.

You have taken down several fine paintings to make room for this nonsense.

I haven’t been to Manchester for about 2 years. The Pre Raphaelite collection is why I am here today. Each picture tells a story. They are beautifully painted, and literally take my breath away. Please always keep them on show. A fabulous antidote to minimalism.

If “Installation” is the norm, then this style of work is la Nouvelle Vogue made new again.

When you look at it you have a sad feeling inside you. It makes you feel sorry for them.

Lets have more real art like this rather than modern day rubbish.

I have very mixed feelings about the PRB. Rosetti’s women seem to be contorted, as if they are being bent to his will – very disturbing! Millais ‘s Autumn Leaves seems to be the most profound image in the whole gallery – transcendence, decay, death – v. moving. C.

Autumn Leaves certainly invokes an inner appeal – smell of bonfire, mellow evening. Interesting to know about Matilda Proudfoot from local poet school – what happened to her?

My mum likes the pics but I’m not keen because they are romantic. George Campbell.

I think the paintings are old and realistic and have lots of detail. I like the big pictures because there are lots of different things to see and think about. Lily.

Feedback from our visitors, 23 May 2011

Forlorn narcissistic, opium inspired middle class but nice.

Feminine beauties usually are passive dolls, especially in Victorian paintings. The question is therefore entirely redundant.

Absolutely brilliant, remarkable colours, amazing subjects. Everything radical, escapist ideology and more. Fabulous. X

More paintings: less graphics.

A beautiful collection of Pre-Raphaelites – such colour + newness [unclear]. Don’t apologise for them, because values have changed. Yes, some are prurient – you can point that out. But they show female beauty, + sometimes strength. A feminist.

The Pre Raphaelites were rebels in their day, rejecting the rules of the Royal Academy and embracing the beauty of the modern day. Unfortunately, to modern eyes, they seem to represent the traditional, conservative, fuddy-duddy establishment. So be warned … no matter how rebellious and in-your-face you might seem now, you’ll still be old-fashioned in 100 years.

“The last real artists”?!? or do you mean “the last artists to paint pretty pictures?” …. Please don’t forget great later painters such as Picasso, Bacon, Freud, Hockney, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Magritte…. I could go on and on!!!

Absolutely incredible Pre Raphaelilte paintings. I feel honoured to be able to see them every time I visit Manchester.

Holman Hunt, Millais, Waterhouse, Alam Tadema, Madox Brown, all genius’s. DG Rossetti was repetitive and his draughtsmanship poor relative to the above named.

I’ve known about these paintings all my life – seeing them made me smile.

I’ve grown up in Manchester and this gallery has always been my refuge. I come and sit here and get lost in the beauty of Hylas and the Water Nymphs like I did when I was a child. 25 years and I still come here to admire the Pre Raphaelites.

Feedback from our visitors, 16 May 2011

Thrice Yearly pilgrimage to come and adore these Goliaths of art. Wonderful escape, packed with hidden meanings - strong women, beautifully painted - indeed Jewel in the crown of Manchester Galleries Collection.

I think it is a great pity that the display has been restricted to only 4 pictures of your collection. It makes the gallery look bare and unfinished.

Beautifully painted. A glimpse into ordinary life long ago.

I came here for a bit of peace and quiet. That’s what I got. This work still holds my attention.

Banality is over rated.

I love Autumn Leaves because the characters in the painting can make you feel their own feelings. Besides, the contrast between colours is amazing.

The female figures in many Pre Raph’ painting were idealised fantasy figures and bear no relation to real women. However, I think that’s where their power lies, in exploring the fantasies of the times in which they were painted.

This is rubbish, change it back.

Pre-Raphaelites have always managed to create beautiful and moving pictures that capture not only beauty but also deep emotion. The attention to detail is exquisite and what makes them so visually stunning, some argue that the women are idealistic fantasy figures, but the majority of the painted subjects are fantasy. The movement was so heavily inspired by mythology & romanticism, it would make little sense to create anything other than a fantasy.

Optimistic realism & tender attention, fine detail, radical subject matter but not compared to A. Kapoor.

Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Bower Meadow (1850-1872) Detail


The Pre-Raphaelite experiment is supported through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Heritage Lottery Fund

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer

Ford Madox Brown, The Irish Girl, detail
This autumn, Manchester Art Gallery stages the first major exhibition of Ford Madox Brown’s work since 1964.

Get Involved

Volunteer guide with adult group in the Victorian gallery
Find out how you can help us with this exciting project.