Volume 21, Issue 3 | Autumn 2022

British Pre-Raphaelite Collection, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington

Reviewed by Tara Contractor

How does one create beauty when surrounded by ugliness and injustice? This is the question that transfixed the Pre-Raphaelites and the central theme of Radical Beauty, the new installation of the Delaware Art Museum’s collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. Without question, this is one of the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite painting not only in the United States, but in the world. Assembled largely by Wilmington mill owner Samuel P. Bancroft (under the advice of the artist and collector Charles Fairfax Murray), it is the US counterpart to the major Pre-Raphaelite collections assembled by industrialists in Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. I was lucky enough to spend a month at the museum in 2019 as a Samuel P. Goldman Fellow, and it remains one of my favorite places. The current installation moves the collection to a prominent—albeit smaller—new location near the museum’s entrance and draws out connections between the Victorian era and our own, responding to community feedback and calls for greater inclusivity.‍[1]

The installation’s bold title (surely a nod towards the 2018–22 exhibition Victorian Radicals) immediately asserts the provocative nature of Pre-Raphaelite art. The movement began in 1848, when a small group of young artists, disgusted with contemporary styles, declared themselves a Brotherhood devoted to resurrecting the spirit of art from before the time of Raphael. While this original Brotherhood dissolved by the 1860s, Pre-Raphaelitism remained a major force in British art through the Edwardian era, and the installation shows works from each of the movement’s many phases.

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Fig. 1, Entrance to Radical Beauty showing Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, ca. 1866–73. Artwork in the public domain; photograph by the author.

The first of the installation’s three rooms introduces viewers not only to the Pre-Raphaelites but to the world they lived in. Fittingly, it opens with one of the highlights of the museum’s collection, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith (1866–73), displayed alongside an enlarged photograph of smoke-shrouded factory chimneys (fig. 1). Evoking our contemporary climate crisis, this juxtaposition immediately places the Pre-Raphaelites within their industrial context, framing their lush, historicizing works as conscious efforts to imagine an alternative mode of living. The Delaware Art Museum’s collection is particularly rich in Rossettis from the 1860s onwards, characterized by jewel-like tones plucked from the Venetian Renaissance. These works confront the viewer with monumental, seductive women placed disquietingly close to the picture plane, and the effect is unsettling even today. An accompanying pamphlet offers visitors a welcome introduction to Rossetti’s works, acknowledging that while Lilith may look at first glance like “a painting created by and for men,” this biblical witch is also something much more complicated and threatening, a femme fatale (perhaps even a New Woman) uninterested in any gaze but her own.

This first room introduces visitors to a history of the Pre-Raphaelites that acknowledges the contributions of historically marginalized figures. I was delighted by the wall devoted to works by Elizabeth Siddall, an artist whose creativity and ambition has too often been eclipsed by her tumultuous relationship with and eventual marriage to Rossetti. Delaware’s collections are well poised to show off her work, and missal-like watercolors like Madonna and Child with Angel (ca. 1856) demonstrate how much talent and potential this short-lived artist had. Another welcome addition to this room is the Academic Study of a Seated Male Nude (1869) by William Wise, an artist best known as a designer of tiles for Minton’s China Works. Acquired by the Museum in 2021, this sensitive study of a now unknown Black model speaks to the Black presence in Victorian artistic circles and reminds viewers that nineteenth-century London was a racially diverse, modern city.

Facing Wise’s picture from the next room is one of Simeon Solomon’s finest works, The Mother of Moses (1860). While the painter Edward Burne-Jones described Solomon as “the greatest artist of us all,” his career effectively ended after he was arrested for his homosexuality.‍[2] Though he never ceased to produce work, he died in the workhouse in 1905. I am always glad to see Solomon’s work in the spotlight, and was especially glad to see this painting, in which both figures were modelled by Fanny Eaton, the Jamaican-born model who worked closely with the Pre-Raphaelites. Here and elsewhere in the installation QR codes elegantly direct visitors to audio-guide stops, and I enjoyed hearing a short biography of Eaton’s life read by one of her living descendants. The installation’s celebration of this Queer Jewish artist and Black model made the installation feel both welcoming and relevant.

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Fig. 2, Case of works by the “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.” Artworks in the public domain; photograph by the author.

Overall, this second room focuses on women’s roles within the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Around the perimeter are large-scale works by Rossetti alongside works by other artists in his circle, including Frederick Sandys’s Mary Magdalene (ca. 1859). Particularly notable is Veronica Veronese (1872), a glowing image of an emerald-clad woman, modelled by Alexa Wilding, who absently plucks violin strings as she contemplates the song of a caged bird. The audio-guide stop for the adjacent painting, Rossetti’s La Bella Mano (1875), explains how these works both draw and disturb the male gaze, suggesting the artist’s conflicting reactions towards women’s changing roles in Victorian society. A panel entitled “Models and Muses” further explains that these kinds of images shifted Victorian beauty standards, and that the Pre-Raphaelites were sensitive to the challenges faced by Victorian women—a slight overstatement perhaps, but one which at least invites viewers to reconsider works which can be too easily dismissed as sexist or kitsch. At the room’s center is a small case built into a floating wall featuring a variety of works by women artists working across media, from Alice Boyd’s elegiac St. Columba’s Farewell to the White Horse (1868) to exquisite enamel jewelry by Phoebe Anna Traquair (fig. 2). The accompanying text panel identifies these artists as “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters,” borrowing from the title of the 2019 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and describes both the barriers they faced as well as the new training opportunities afforded them by the South Kensington schools. As wonderful as it was to see these works, I felt somewhat uneasy seeing them isolated within a single, small case, particularly given the immense scale of the surrounding Rossettis. Boyd’s painting in particular was difficult to view clearly, and I wished that it and the other encased works had been integrated more seamlessly into the space and put into clearer dialogue with works by their male peers. My discomfort was, however, somewhat eased by the nearby display of Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale’s Botticelli’s Studio (1922), currently on long-term loan to the museum. The painting is an intriguing, late riff on the Pre-Raphaelite fascination with historic artists, but Brickdale’s composition focuses on Botticelli’s favorite model Simonetta Vespucci, and the painting makes a strong statement about the vital presence of women in artistic circles of the past. Particularly, this painting speaks to the agency of female models within the creative process, something that the installation could have touched on more directly. With very little revision, I think the Museum might easily shift their approach closer to that taken in the National Gallery’s 2022 exhibition Joanna Hiffernan: Woman in White. That show provided an exciting framework for understanding models as co-creators, one that should be applied to Pre-Raphaelite models like Fanny Cornforth and Wilding. The women of this movement are not well-served by efforts to distinguish the “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” from the “Models and Muses.” Nevertheless, Delaware deserves ample credit for highlighting the achievements of these women, especially since it remains such a rarity and a delight to see their works on view at all.

One of the installation’s strengths is the way it brings together Victorian art across media, highlighting the way that the Pre-Raphaelites blurred boundaries between artforms. Two of my favorite works in the collection are the chairs that William Morris and Rossetti designed for the apartment Morris shared with Burne-Jones when the pair first moved to London. These early forays in furniture design eventually blossomed into Morris & Co., Morris’s revolutionary effort to manufacture and sell alternatives to industrially produced goods. Surprisingly, the installation makes no mention of Morris’s later ardent socialism and political activism, despite the fact that this legacy vitally connects him to the socially engaged artists of our own day. This omission somewhat defangs the installation’s arguments about the Pre-Raphaelites’ radicalism, but the installation nonetheless impressively evokes the diversity of media in which Morris & Co. worked over the years. I particularly enjoyed seeing one of the museum’s 2020 acquisitions, the Noah window that Burne-Jones designed for Morris & Co. in 1874 (but which was not produced until 1909). Illuminated above the chairs, its rich green hues shining, the window is a poignant emblem for Morris and Burne-Jones’s lifelong friendship and collaboration.

Other delightful Morris & Co. objects can be found in the installation’s third room, which dives deeper into the museum’s collections of Victorian furniture, jewelry, and metalwork. Furniture and cases are displayed on a platform against a wall, with two-dimensional works hung behind them. Sometimes, these two- and three-dimensional works harmonized magnificently. For instance, the choice to display Burne-Jones’s stained-glass Viking Ship (1883–84) alongside Celtic Revival silver by C.R. Ashbee and others felt inspired, drawing out the fluid, semi-abstracted forms of each. Other pairings were a bit more puzzling, such as the display of John Everett Millais’s The White Cockade (1862) and Highland Lassie (1854) alongside a selection of glassware and jewelry, but this grouping still successfully evoked the eclecticism of a Victorian interior. Some of the most striking objects on display are William de Morgan’s ceramics, which are displayed beside an ebonized cabinet by Bruce Talbert that integrates influences from Japan and Ancient Greece. These objects are rightly paired with a small panel explaining the designers’ global influences, but I was left disappointed by the insufficient discussions of imperialism. While the label is correct to describe London as a center of international trade, much of this trade grew out of British gunboat diplomacy, and the overall emphasis on consensual trade and silence on looting elides this. The passive voice in phrases like “Today, the violence and conquest that established Britain’s Empire is deeply criticized,” felt strangely equivocating, a surprise within an installation which is otherwise clearly committed to presenting a more inclusive history of the nineteenth century.

More successful is the room’s discussion of the Pre-Raphaelites’ literary interests. It is always good to see Ford Madox Brown’s delightfully bombastic Romeo and Juliet (1869–70), a testament to the Brotherhood’s interest in Shakespeare which recalls their intricate book illustrations. I would love to see some of these illustrations displayed, but understand the difficulty involved in rotating such works on paper within a permanent installation. Prominence is also rightly given to Burne-Jones’s monumental Council Chamber (1872–92) from his Briar Rose series, an unusual painting which ostensibly illustrates the Sleeping Beauty fairytale but which, in its focus on the castle’s sleeping inhabitants, becomes hauntingly non-narrative. The painting’s radical emphasis on color and atmosphere is nicely drawn out by the nearby display of Albert Moore’s The Green Butterfly (ca. 1879–81), a meditative work which speaks to the growing interest in subject-less painting among artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Overall, the new installation proves the continued vitality and relevance of a world-class collection. Though now shown in a smaller gallery space, the collection’s strengths still shine, and the installation’s flexible responses to both community feedback and recent scholarship are to be applauded. I look forward to future visits, and to seeing how this collection continues to evolve in the years to come.


[1] Sarah Cascone, “To Boost Audience Engagement, the Delaware Museum of Art Tries Something Radically Simple: Post-Its,” Artnet News, June 10, 2019, https://news.artnet.com/.

[2] Robert Ross, “The British Section,” The Connoisseur, no. 13 (1908): 197. See also Simon Reynolds, The Vision of Simeon Solomon (Slad, Gloucesterschire: Catalpa Press Ltd., 1985), 8.