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Five artworks worth the trip to Canberra this summer

Love and Desire NGA 2018
John William Waterhouse, 'The Lady of Shalott', 1888 © Tate, London 2018

Seeing as Canberra has to host all of our politicians for much of the year, it makes sense that they should get some nice stuff come their way every now and then. This summer, the National Gallery of Australia has got a huge exhibition of some genuinely beautiful British masterpieces, 40 of which have travelled from London’s famed Tate for the warmer months. Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate has just opened, and it’s packed with the sort of artworks that’ll make your heart leap.

As with most major art movements, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born of rebellion. And as with most movements, it mightn’t be totally obvious to a 21st century audience, looking at the works in a major gallery, exactly where the rebellion comes in.  

The Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by three students from the Royal Academy schools (William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti), who rejected the stuffy mechanistic style which they felt didn’t capture the emotional experience of what they were portraying. They were, in turn, rejected by the art institution of the time, and it took them a long time to prove the value of their work.  

They’re considered Britain’s first modern art movement, and were inspired by literature and poetry – although Millais once pissed off Charles Dickens by depicting a young Jesus in a dirty carpentry workshop in the apparently blasphemous painting, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50)’.

Eventually they gained significant fame, thanks in part to their pioneering use of copyright laws, allowing their work to be reproduced in print. That’s why there are so many recognisable images in this Canberra exhibition. Here are five that you need to see in the flesh (well, the oil).

1. Rossetti shows a new side to Mary

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Ecce ancilla domini! (The Annunciation)', 1849–50 © Tate, London

Plenty of painters had depicted this particular scene before: the moment the archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she would bear the son of God. But most Renaissance painters showed Mary looking quite demure and composed. The critics weren’t impressed by Rossetti’s painting, in which Mary looks pretty scared and shocked by her unexpected visitor. And wouldn’t we all if our sleep were interrupted in such a fashion? 

Rossetti’s sister, the poet Christina Rossetti, modelled as Mary, focussing on showing a real emotional reaction.

2. Millais’ take on Shakespeare’s Ophelia

John Everett Millais, 'Ophelia', 1851-52 © Tate, London

The death of Ophelia is a pivotal moment in Hamlet, but isn’t actually depicted on stage. Instead, it’s described in beautiful, poetic detail by Gertrude. Millais created his version of the scene by taking to the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey with his easel and paints. It took him several days to find the right spot by the river because he was disrupted by a pair of rambunctious swans and a bull. He spent five months painting the landscape, working six days a week. When it was completed, he added Ophelia, modelled by artist Elizabeth Siddal, who had to lie in a cold bath for hours on end in a heavy dress. She eventually became unwell and Siddal’s father sent Millais a bill for his daughter’s medical expenses.

The painting went on to inspire countless other works of art, films and photographs, including Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave’s ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ music video and a scene in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left.

3. Hunt’s hit painting of Christ 

William Holman Hunt, 'The shadow of death', 1870–73

In this painting, completed by Hunt in Jerusalem, Christ is shown in a carpentry workshop, stretching after carving wood. Behind him, Mary kneels and looks up to see the shadow he’s casting against the wall, with a rack of tools appearing as the horizontal cross of a crucifix. 

The painting became a huge success for Hunt. It was exhibited as a single work and was eventually sold for £10,500. Engravings of the painting were sold in an edition of 4,000.

4. Waterhouse’s take on an Arthurian poem 

John William Waterhouse, 'The Lady of Shalott', 1888 © Tate, London

Both this painting and Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ were part of the original bequest from Henry Tate’s collection that created the Tate back in 1897. They’re two of the Tate’s most treasured paintings and hugely popular with visitors, so it’s a bit of a big deal that they’re both spending summer in Australia. The pair have never been lent together before.

This painting was inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s 1833 Arthurian poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’, which tells of a young woman imprisoned in a tower on an island near Camelot. She’s desperately in love with Sir Lancelot, and the painting shows her making her ill-fated escape attempt.

5. Morris’s meticulously crafted tapestry 

Edward Burne-Jones, 'The adoration of the Magi', designed 1887, manufactured 1900-02

British designer William Morris was a good friend of the Pre-Raphaelites and created an extraordinary range of furnishings drawing on similar aesthetics and ideas. This particular tapestry, showing the three wise men gifting Jesus with the Biblical Magi, belongs to the Art Gallery of South Australia, which owns the biggest collection of William Morris furnishings outside of Britain. It was commissioned by Sir George Brookman, a South Australian businessman and politician.

Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate is at the National Gallery of Australia until April 28, 2019.

While you're in Canberra, check out the newly-opened Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room and enjoy a drink at the city's best bars, distilleries, wineries and breweries.