A Medieval Modern Symposium

I’ve just spent a delightful two days at the National Gallery of Victoria at a symposium to support the current exhibition Medieval Moderns- the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which closes on 12 July 2015. If you haven’t seen the exhibition- do!

Alison Inglis from the University of Melbourne, the convenor of the symposium opened with ‘An Introduction to Pre-Raphaelitism in Australia’. She highlighted the depth and breadth of the NGV collection, which was bolstered initially by post-Gold Rush and Marvellous Melbourne prosperity, but continually enriched and supplemented by recent acquisitions. She emphasized the familial, commercial and institutional networks between artists and collectors in Australia and Britain.

These familial networks were demonstrated in Isobel Crombie’s presentation on the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. She lived close by to Tennyson, whose work was so influential on the Pre-Raphaelites, and on occasion she consciously modelled her own photographs on the paintings of the period. Her use of blurring in her photographs was perceived as a means by which the emotional ‘essence’ of the subject was captured. Amanda Dunsmore followed with a presentation on William Morris and his influence on art and design, with a particular emphasis of ceramics- several of which have been deaccessioned from the NGV’s collection over the years. Shane Carmody, now at the University of Melbourne took a slightly different direction, speaking on Sydney Carlyle Cockerell , the London advisor to the Felton Bequest between 1936-9 who clashed with the Menzies govt appointee over his attempt to procure the Holy Grail Tapestries designed by Burne-Jones.

The second session focussed on Pre-Raphaelite artists in Australia. Although Thomas Woolner is best known for his work in England, he first came to attention when he emigrated to the Victorian gold-fields with Edward La Trobe Bateman and Bernhard Smith. Caroline Clemente’s paper emphasized the artistic networks that revolved around the Howitt family and their connections with the gold-rush elite. This was followed by two papers on Edward La Trobe Bateman, and particularly his work on Plenty Station, Yallambie. There’s an excellent blog written by the current owner of Yallambie homestead, which is sited on the original Plenty Station. Lucy Ellem’s paper looked particularly at Bateman’s treatment of the garden, and the evidence of acclimatization techniques revealed through these sketches

I really enjoyed Bronwyn Hughes’ paper on William Holman Hunt’s famous picture ‘The Light of the World’.


The painting was an imperial exhibition phenomenon, which spawned thousands of reproductions and, in Australia, two hundred stained glass representations. John Payne from the NGV directed our attention to the frames used by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which eschewed the fashion for attempting to replicate metal frames and instead used gilded wood, often in a very simple design.

Day Two of the symposium required some rejigging, and commenced with an enthusiastic young scholar, Nancy Langham Hooper, who presented on John Rogers Herbert, the RA artist who specialized in biblical (and particularly Old Testament) works- a large example of which (Moses Bringing Down the Tables of the Law) is undergoing conservation treatment at the NGV currently. She made a convincing case for the links between Herbert and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, even though the connections are not at first apparent.


Conservation work currently being conducted in public view on the Moses painting, second floor NGV.

The rescheduled second session saw Juliet Peers speaking on Bernhard Smith, who travelled to Victoria with Woolner and Bateman, but is rarely associated with PRB influence in Australia. Unlike many of the other artists, Smith had to work for a living as a gold fields commissioner and judge and he took his sketchbook with him on his travels. Vivien Gaston followed with a presentation on William Dyce’s sketch of Prince Albert the Prince of Wales as a young child for his mother, Queen Victoria, and the detective work in tracking down the other sketches made as part of this series.

The session after lunch examined two paintings that are hung in the current exhibition: Princeps’ painting The Flight of Jane Shore, the royal mistress to Edward IV who was publicly shamed by Richard III, and Burne-Jones’ portrait of Baronne Madeleine Deslandes, a pensive and quiet portrait that in no way reflected this wild and flamboyant leader of a salon that attracted artists, poets, writers (including Oscar Wilde) and composers in Paris.

The final papers of the symposium examined Rupert Bunny , particularly his work on female saints which has been eclipsed by his Parisian-themed work, and Christian Waller. This final paper was again of particular interest to me, living as close as I do to Fairy Hills where the Wallers lived (in Dr Blake’s house from the television series no less!) and Grace Carroll’s paper focussed on the house as an expression of Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities that also came through in the artwork of both Christian and Napier Waller.

So, all in all a wonderful well-organized symposium, with excellent speakers and a wealth of information and insight. Even better, it was free: an act of generosity from both the NGV and University of Melbourne and the speakers themselves.

One response to “A Medieval Modern Symposium

  1. This all sounds rather amazing.

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