Hello, my name is Rosemary and I like the Pre-Raphaelites. No, wait! Don’t leave! I wanted to buy you coffee…
I like the Pre-Raphaelites the same way I like pumpkin spice lattes despite 95 percent of people telling me they’re repulsive. Because these medieval-loving Victorians are the pumpkin spice lattes of British art. They’re syrupy-sweet gloop tinted a strange orange colour and topped with unnecessary frothy swirls.
The story of nineteenth-century Western art is the same as that of fashion, food and sex: the French did it better. Tate’s latest attempt at reclaiming the pale-faced Brits is a retrospective of oil paintings, watercolours, sketches, stained-glass and tapestries by Edward Burne-Jones, a Pre-Raph so thoroughly Pre-Raph he’s like a venti-sized PSL with a caramel shortbread on the side.
Some of the paintings are undeniably naff. The reunited ‘Perseus’ series in particular is very New Age gift shop. His big-eyed proto-Tim Burton portraits are much more interesting, especially when compared to the frothy society portraiture of John Singer Sargent being painted at the same time, and ‘The Briar Rose’ series is just supremely pretty.
But the real revelation is in the first two rooms. Preliminary sketches and drawings are normally the filler bit of a big exhibition, but here they’re the most interesting part. Ethereal, ghostly figures vaporise at the edges, including a mermaid head with Mona Lisa smile and candy-floss hair.
Elsewhere, there’s meticulously detailed Medievalist pen and ink drawings that rival – perhaps trump – the skill of the more famous Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Millais. They also disrupt the idea of Burne-Jones as creator of big, bold, brash artworks.
Mainly, though, it’s sticky-sweet prettiness with more whimsy than Paperchase’s unicorn range, and it’s probably bad for your health (and reputation as an art critic). Anyway, I’m off to Starbucks.