Gallery strikes it rich with Pre-Raphaelite exhibition

·2-min read

The Pre-Raphaelites are known for their love of beauty but what's less well known is how several of their number tried to strike it rich during the gold rush.

The brotherhood of artists founded in 1848 was committed to authenticity, naturalism and beauty, but that apparently didn't preclude trying to strike it rich on Victoria's goldfields.

Three members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Edward La Trobe Bateman, Bernard Smith and Thomas Woolner, travelled all the way to Ballarat, but perhaps it's for the best they didn't last long as gold miners.

A new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat on show from Saturday displays intimate Pre-Raphaelite drawings and watercolours never before seen in Australia.

"We're really delighted that we can present it," gallery director Louise Tegart told AAP.

"The works on paper don't get shown very often because the light levels are quite damaging."

The delicate artworks, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, were specially couriered to Australia earlier this month.

The 19th-century movement is best known for paintings such as John Everett Millais' Ophelia and John William Waterhouse's 1888 masterpiece The Lady of Shalott.

But the works on paper offer a different and more personal perspective, according to Tegart.

"They are intimate in scale but they're also intimate in that they show the relationships between the artists as well as their models," she said.

It's also - gasp! - an opportunity to see works by the women involved with the brotherhood, including Elizabeth Siddal, who was Dante Gabriel Rossetti's muse and an accomplished artist in her own right.

Although the Pre-Raphaelites were founded on the other side of the world, there are more than a few links with the goldfields for those who look.

The Art Gallery of Ballarat itself, which holds the most significant art collection in regional Australia, was set up with a similar philosophy to the Pre-Raphaelites - founded on the notion that art should be accessible to everyone.

And a revolutionary streak can be found in the movement rebelling against the aesthetics favoured by the Royal Academy of Art - the Pre-Raphaelites famously disparaging its founding president Sir Joshua Reynolds as "Sir Sloshua".

At the same time as the works on paper are on show, a linked exhibition, In the Company of Morris, looks at the influence of William Morris and his contemporaries on Australian art.

It includes Deborah Klein, textile artist Paul Yore and ceramicist Fiona Hiscock and shows the themes the Pre-Raphaelites were dealing with are still relevant today, according to Tegart.

"It really shows how incredible and influential William Morris was as an activist and environmentalist," she said.

Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings & Watercolours is on at The Art Gallery of Ballarat from Saturday until August 6.