Victorian painting is generally thought of as a pretty stilted, academic affair. The problem is that a lot of it looks like it wants to be more like drawing – particularly those paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who, in harking back to some fantasy of pre-Renaissance purity, created a style that emphasised crisp outlines and fussy detail over traditional painterly effects. If that’s the case, then surely an exhibition of their actual drawings should be a doozy, right?
Well, sort of. All the usual Victorian obsessions you’d expect are on view – scenes depicting winged fairies, or medieval knights-errant, or Roman-nosed youths lounging languorously amid Arcadian woodlands. Sure, it’s towards the cheesier end of the Romantic spectrum, but it’s all good fun in a naff sort of way. Less able to hold your attention, however, are the interminable number of portraits and life studies, which instead tend to leave you gazing about in awe at the exhibition space – the immersive, Orientalist fantasy that is Lord Leighton’s former home and studio.
It’s not that the drawings – from heavyweights such as John Everett Millais or Leighton himself, to scores of lesser-known talents – aren’t technically proficient, or full of astonishing levels of detail and precision. But with almost 200 works to get through, their depictions of beauty soon start to seem rather empty and repetitive. Or maybe it’s simply just not my bag. As the saying goes, if you like that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll undoubtedly like. But for my money, only a few pieces really stand out. Most notably, John Brett’s spectral illustration of a scene from a popular epic poem of the era, where his furious, roiling crosshatching creates an intense, almost hypnagogic effect. It conveys a mesmerising vitality that’s lacking elsewhere in the show.