Fifty Shades of Millais: The enduring appeal of the Pre-Raphaelites

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith 1866-1868; Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935


‘There’s going to be a new show of the Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate Britain this Autumn’.  This is a phrase so completely innocuous that a comment about the weather might be more interesting.  The Pre-Raphaelites have been shown more times than Jordan’s cleavage and are a tried-and-tested formula of a successful but uncontroversial art exhibition.  They are the curatorial equivalent of a period drama in the run up to Christmas.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith 1866-1868; Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935

Those who are looking for the cheap thrill of dismissing an artist and his work in order to give themselves a pat on the back for being clever enough to have an opinion on art need not consider Pre-Raphaelites: The Victorian Avant-Garde when it opens on the 12th of September.  However, those who are looking for a slightly more subtle and dare I say it, titillating thrill, can book their tickets now.

This is because the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the One Direction of their time, is completely and utterly sexy.  Admittedly, they are not FHM or Playboy sexy, and their women are not sex bombs of the Kat Upton variety.  They have the same sort of sex appeal as those period dramas I compared them to earlier.  This means Eddie Redmayne being a naughty boy and cuckolding the on-screen husband of Clemence Posey in ‘Birdsong’, or the original sex icon of period dramas’ Colin Firth emerging from a lake which caused women the world over to swoon in 1995.

From Holman Hunt’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’, to Millais’s ‘Ophelia’ to just about any painting of a woman by Rossetti (he’s definitely the Harry Styles of the group) these are paintings which were created by men who loved beauty, and who thought the women they painted to be the embodiment of that.

The paintings are not debased with crudity or straightforward references to sex, and they were painted in defiance of the conventions and banality of the Royal Academy and their contemporaries.  It is this which gives them their enduring appeal and what gives them the right to yet another new exhibition in the coming weeks.

This is because rather than paint precisely what they saw, they constructed fantastic scenes of what they wanted to see; visual feasts which employ every sense.  When we look at the sensuous work of a Pre-Raphaelite painter such as Rossetti’s ‘Beata Beatrix’ or ‘Proserpine’ we do not see the faded images of sexuality which this week’s issue of Nuts magazine will one day become, but we see it through the eyes of the man who created them and understand why he did.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca 1877; Copyright Manchester City Galleries



It is this enduring sex appeal that means the Pre-Raphaelites receive not only exhibitions and books, but television series such as ‘Desperate Romantics’ and the upcoming film ‘Effie’, starring Dakota Fanning.  It is this sort of sensuous appeal which brings generations back to the likes of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, whose characters are so much more tangible, relatable and understandable than the completely boring and vacuous Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, the sensuality and sex appeal of whom is about as subtle and enduring as Snooki.  The Pre-Raphaelites may sometimes be dismissed in academic or intellectual circles, but emotionally and sensually they hit the nail on the head and this is why the upcoming retrospective will not be the last.

Incidentally, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ just got knocked off the top spot of the Amazon top ten…. by the Hairy Biker’s latest recipe book.


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