Ann Gardom on an exhibition which asks ultimate questions.

Most people do not think of the Pre-Raphaelites as landscape painters. We tend to think of swan-necked exotic women or elaborate medieval narrative paintings when we hear the term Pre-Raphaelite. This exhibition at the Tate – a large one – emphasizes a very different aspect of their work, one that is perhaps more accessible than some of their paintings displayed, for example, in the recent Lloyd Webber exhibition.

Truth to Nature was a very important part of the Pre-Raphaelite manifesto. This was the ideal for which they strove and the reason for the hours and hours of meticulous painting in the open air which produced the pictures in this exhibition.

They saw themselves in the first instance as figurative painters, with the exquisitely observed landscape, plants and foliage as a background to the main purpose of the painting, but these very plants, sky and rocks eventually became subjects to be painted in their own right with as much care are and truthfulness as they could give them.

Industrial Background

They were painting at a time of great social turmoil with the Industrial Revolution and the huge growth in urban population changing the face of the country. The spread of the railways was bringing the countryside within much easier reach, and they painted widely in this country, imbuing many of their pictures with a sense of nostalgia and romantic longing. Increasingly the artist’s choice of subject, his feelings about it, and the manner in which he treated it were to become more important than the subject itself.

Holman Hunt’s Strayed Sheep is an astonishing tour de force, with brilliant lighting and colour contrasts showing the unruly flock of sheep on a cliff top with the sea below. It can be seen as a moral study, a nostalgic celebration of the English countryside, a meticulous examination of plants, animals and rocks – all painted with microscopic care and attention to detail. His Fairlight Downs – Sunlight on the Sea, however, is a small vivid depiction of the drama of reflected light.

Millais’ famous painting of Ophelia is also in this exhibition. We have become so used to seeing it in reproduction that the quality of the actual painting takes us by surprise. The details of the flowers in her hands, the waterweeds in the folds of her embroidered skirt, the beautifully painted white briar roses all compete for our attention with the figure of the dying girl floating in the water. There is also a wonderful silverpoint drawing of a lemon tree by Leighton (who also painted Roman interiors peopled with luscious women) which is breathtaking in its fineness of detail and delicacy of style. It even has a beautiful little study of snail shells at the bottom.

Ford Maddox Brown’s Hampstead from my Window is a warts-and-all painting of what was there, including the scar across Hampstead Heath where a much disputed road was proposed. When asked by Ruskin why he had painted such an ugly subject, he replied ‘because it was there’. His smaller painting, of harvesting, entitled Carrying Corn was the product of 70 hours painting and 21 visits to the site, an example of the time and the meticulous care and attention the Pre-Raphaelites gave to their work.

Exotic Topography

Holman Hunt and Thomas Seddon, both convinced and committed Christians, painted in the Holy Land. They were immensely moved by the sacred sites, implicit with religious meaning, and endeavoured to convey this in their paintings, both oils and watercolours. Holman Hunt painted his famous Scapegoat, depicting the Jewish custom of driving a goat, symbolically bearing the sins of the people, out into the wilderness to die. He spent ten days camping, on the shores of the Dead Sea, painting the salt flats where the goat has strayed to its death. It is a curious and very powerful picture. Seddon’s great work Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosaphat, ‘where’ he wrote, ‘Christ endured much suffering and agony for me’, is a minutely detailed portrait of the Mount of Olives. His religious commitment and zeal are evident in each loving detail of the painting.

Lear, more known for his Nonsense Rhymes, painted in Italy and the Middle East, and his very large The Quarries of Syracuse is a meticulous study of the rock formation in a huge disused quarry set in an open sunlit landscape.

The care and detail of the geological observations in these landscape paintings is emphasized by an interesting display of different pieces of rock alongside photographs of the paintings in which these formations appear. It makes clear how carefully the different rocks and shales were painted and how easily identifiable they still are. Brett’s dramatic Glacier of Rosentani is a study of scientific interest because of its meticulous and detailed painting of both rocks and ice formation. In painting natural phenomena the artists strove to combine artistic interpretation as well as totally truthful painting of what they actually saw.

Brett also painted a huge Panorama of Florence with almost the appearance of a walled medieval city, every roof and church spire carefully painted, with the mountains behind.

Scenes and Symbols

Man and his effect on his environment was of great importance in Pre-Raphaelite art. The countryside was seen as a place where men and women lived and worked, and also as a place under threat because of the same men and women. The fear of industrial expansion is implicit in some of their paintings – paintings of brick fields, of docks, of the spread of industrialization. In a series of etchings of London, one of which, Docks, is on display, Whistler gave poignant and elegant expression to this threat. Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, full of figures and painted in minute detail, is a beautiful and luminous painting of a fragile and threatened world. Millais’ The Blind Girl, a lovely sun-filled painting, is also about poverty disability and vagrancy.

Gradually the great emphasis placed on minute detail began to give way to a looser, more impressionistic way of painting. The fact that the countryside was always changing, with light changes, seasonal changes, or the more permanent effects of the spread of industry, encouraged painters to adopt a more fluid approach, and the Pre-Raphaelites began to move towards the simpler and more impressionistic approach to landscape. Whistler’s wonderful river scenes are echoed in the changing styles of Leighton, Inchbold and Holman Hunt. Inchbold’s Peat Burning is amazing in rose pink and aquamarine, almost abstract in its simplification. Leighton explores the effect of light on buildings in Capri in the Morning Light, and Holman Hunt paints the Thames by night in stark contrasts of dark and brilliant light.

Truth to Nature, what is that? Is it a detailed and meticulous depiction of every leaf and rock? Is it an interpretation of man’s relationship to his environment? Is it a nostalgic celebration of the impermanence and changeability of beauty? This exhibition shows how some remarkable artists saw and interpreted this ideal, what a costly and demanding process this was, and how it affects the way we see landscape painting to this day.

The Pre-Raphaelite Vision – Truth to Nature – is at Tate Britain till the 3rd May

Price £8, concession £6.

Anne Gardom is art critic for New Directions.