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It’s been a really rather arty week. After treating myself to the Van Dyke book a few days ago, today I went to the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain. I’d really recommend it if you’re looking for a quick dose of culture. Many of the paintings are lovely to look at and don’t require much background knowledge or effort to appreciate. I always feel so virtuous when I’ve done something like that, rather than just going to a bar. It’s a bit like going to the gym, only actually fun.

I’m not a massive fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but they certainly have both some interesting life stories and some pretty pictures.

Things I’ve learnt about the Pre-Raphaelites from this exhibition:

  • They really like women with red hair, seemingly to the point of a fetish.
  • They seem to like painting these redheads whilst they are wearing green dresses. To be fair, that’s a good look. In my teens I used to dye my hair red all the time and green clothes looked awesome with it.
  • They really like Tennyson. A good quarter of the paintings seemed to be at least loosely based on Tennyson poems. Again, I’m right there with them on that. Tennyson is one of my absolute favourite poets. When I was going through a bit of an emo phase years ago, his poems were better than anything My Chemical Romance could come up with for quoting in an artfully depressed way. I can still recite several of them even now my hormones have levelled out.
  • They seem to have a bit of an obsession with sheep. One painting is beautifully entitled, “The Pretty Baa Lambs,” (the Ronseal of artwork nomenclature), but there seemed to be sheep (and occasionally, for a change of pace, goats) cropping up in the oddest pictures. I’ve nothing against sheep, but they’ve rather lost me on that one.
  • They had a bit of a thing for wife-swapping. Not in the fun “let’s all put our car keys in a bowl” seventies style thing, but a more melodramatic Victorian version, in which they keep tragically abandoning one woman in order to steal their best friend’s wife.
  • A disproportionate amount of their paintings are about death and doomed love, be it from history, mythology, literature or their own lives.

Unlike Van Dyke, who is entirely relevant to my novels, the PRB (as they liked to call themselves, like some kind of rap collective) are a bit of a stretch, so to justify this post, here are some pictures from the exhibition that sort of relate to the series:

This one’s called the Wounded Cavalier, which rather speaks for itself. Oh no! Damn you sinister Roundhead onlooker.


This is a painting of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Roundheads. (My civil war tutor at Oxford is crying at that over-simplified statement). As you might have gathered, I’m fairly partisan on the subject of the English Civil War, and I bloody hate Cromwell. Ford Madox Brown, the painter of this work, seems to disagree. (PS. See what I mean about the sheep?!)

This is one of my absolute favourites. It’s just so beautiful. It’s a painting of Lilith, by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti. In some traditions, Lilith was the first wife of Adam, before Eve came on the scene. In vampire mythology, she’s sometimes regarded as the mother of all vampires. When I called Harriet’s college Lilith College (which is entirely made up), it was her I was thinking of when I named it. In Book Two, there is a character who sometimes goes by the name of Lilith, and who despite her beauty and ancient power, is the nominal leader of the Roundheads. I wasn’t conscious of having seen this picture before today, but I think I must have, because this is exactly how I visualise my character. (She’s got the red hair, sadly she isn’t wearing a green dress, but I promise at least half the women were).

And finally, because if there’s one thing I like, it’s attractive historical figures, here’s a fairly cute (if rather arrogant looking) portrait of Rossetti:

If you fancy taking a look yourself, the details are here: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/pre-raphaelites-victorian-avant-garde

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