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A Pre-Raphaelite love story

The Legend of King Arthur comes to Falmouth in a ground-breaking exhibition.


Words by Hannah Tapping


A spectacular exhibition tracing the stories of Arthurian legend and the Pre-Raphaelite artists will complete its journey at Falmouth Art Gallery this summer. Part of a year-long touring exhibition at three renowned British public museums selected for their connection to the stories of King Arthur – the William Morris Gallery in London, Tullie House in Carlisle and Falmouth Art Gallery in Cornwall – each stage of the tour has been tweaked to tell the stories of their particular region. “The Legend of King Arthur: A Pre-Raphaelite Love Story is the culmination of five years of research into the legend of King Arthur and its influence on the Pre-Raphaelite movement,” explains Natalie Rigby, exhibition curator. “Touring the UK, the show pinpoints the Arthurian legend and the Pre-Raphaelite artists to locations associated with it. Each venue has based its curation upon site-specific links in relation to its history.”


To put some context to the exhibition we have to look back to 1848, when a group of artists and poets joined together to challenge what they saw as the pervasive dullness of paintings exhibited annually at the Royal Academy of Arts. In this group was William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner and they were mentored closely by Ford Madox Brown. Natalie goes on to explain: “The belief of the collective was that the classical poses and elegant compositions of the Renaissance artist Raphael – and the artists who came after him – had corrupted academic art. They sought to champion a new form of artmaking. They invented the term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ and adopted the name, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (P.R.B.).”


“The movement was a major influence on many other artists and has become known arguably as England’s most successful art export. Despite its popularity, the influence of the Legend of King Arthur on the movement has not received much attention and is little understood,” adds Natalie. Frederic George Stephens set out to paint the first P.R.B painting to feature King Arthur in the late 1840s: “It depicts Mort d’Arthur, or the death of Arthur,” explains Natalie, “and shows Sir Bedivere helping the mortally wounded King to find the Lady of the Lake.” The painting, although unfinished, resides in the Tate collection. Many members and associates of the Brotherhood soon followed Stephens’ lead. William Holman Hunt (1850), Elizabeth Siddal (1853), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1854), Edward Burne-Jones (1858) and William Morris (1858) all produced works with the Arthurian theme.


The grand finale of this spectacular touring exhibition, which tells the story of the links between the legend of King Arthur, the Pre-Raphaelites and Cornwall’s Arthurian heritage, will bring the entire Lady of Shalott series of paintings by John William Waterhouse together for the first time ever, secured by Falmouth Art Gallery as a major part of the exhibition.


Painted over a 20-year period, these have never been exhibited together in the UK, providing an exclusive and unique opportunity to see them all together in Cornwall. Alongside the major works, oil studies, drawings, etchings and sketchbooks from the series and Waterhouse’s personal copy of ‘Tennyson’s Poems’ with drawings and annotations will also be displayed. ‘Sir Galahad’ by George Frederic Watts, comes from Eton College where it has not left the Chapel since it was donated by the artist in 1897. Tracing the legend of King Arthur across Cornwall, there will be over 60 iconic works of art. While the exhibits have differed slightly between the venues, all have explored the King Arthur legend through the lens of Pre-Raphaelite artists and their followers, who were challenging the conventional paintings they had typically seen at the Royal Academy in the mid-1800s.


The job of bringing the exhibition to Falmouth now lies under the stewardship of Morwenna Lewis, Falmouth Art Gallery’s new director: “I inherited Falmouth’s part in this exhibition from Natalie,” explains Morwenna. “She has played a vital part in this incredible project curating it over a period of five years and putting the wheels in motion with the partner galleries.”


Morwenna is responsible for moving all of the artworks from Tullie House in Cumbria and then their re-installation at Falmouth Art Gallery. “It is a huge task,” explains Morwenna, “as every piece in the collection has to be checked and then hung or installed in the gallery. We have pieces from both private and public collectors with some coming from as far away as Canada.”The scale of the exhibition is vast and it was reviewed by The Times as being a “sumptuous swoon of a show.” To enhance the exhibition here in Falmouth, visually impaired visitors are able to access additional information about the exhibition via Bloomberg Connects which offers additional, expert-curated content. A fully illustrated book will accompany the exhibition; this collection of essays, written by internationally recognised Arthurian specialists and notable academics, will explore the legend and its influence upon the Victorian period.

In terms of the importance of the exhibition for Cornwall, Morwenna explains further: “Cornwall is a touchstone location for the Arthurian legend. From the lesser-known connections with places such as Malpas and Loe Bar to the more prominent links with Tintagel, the myth, legend and history that surrounds the story of King Arthur is part of the fabric of Cornwall. It feels to me as if Arthur belongs both everywhere and nowhere and the fact that this is a touring exhibition bears testament to this. It is bigger than anything the gallery has put on before, and promises to be an indulgence for the senses, capturing the quintessential spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, delighting locals and visitors alike.” Award-winning Falmouth Art Gallery is owned and administered by Falmouth Town Council. Family friendly and free, it resides in the Historical Municipal Buildings built by the Victorian philanthropist John Passmore Edwards in 1894. The gallery cares for an outstanding and eclectic collection of over 2,000 artworks, from 17th-century allegorical paintings to contemporary ceramics. It also holds a collection of contemporary automata, an extensive print collection, an illustration archive, and is home to the RCPS Henry Scott Tuke Collection.


This exhibition has been kindly supported by Visit Cornwall, Visit England and Cornwall Museums Partnership. It is being made possible with support from Art Fund and the Government Indemnity Scheme through Arts Council England. After travelling extensively for first two legs of the tour, the final stage of the exhibition can be seen at Falmouth Art Gallery from 17th June – 30th September.


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