Friday, February 22, 2013

A Funky Old Pre-Raphaelite Screen

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of young artists who worked in England, beginning in the late 1840's. They were rebels, the bohemians of their day, who favored a natural approach, instead of the stiff, formal, artificial look that they said began with Raphael. Their subjects were drawn from poetry, myth and history, and often were placed in natural settings which they detailed with great care. The founding members of the group included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, who later were joined by Edward Burne-Jones and others.

It was a work of Burne-Jones, "Love Among the Ruins" based on a poem by Robert Browning, that lead me to discover the Pre-Raphaelites. The painting was used in one of the posters for an exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, DC on "The Treasure Houses of Britain", that was opened with much fanfare by Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Because of my interest in British design and art I was desperate to go, but there I was, stuck at the office in San Francisco, or so I thought. Then I had an incredible stroke of luck. Several of my clients were public rail systems, and on occasion I would go with them to the risk management section meeting of their trade group, the America Public Transit Association (APTA). One day I got a notice that the next meeting was going to be in Washington during the time of the Exhibition. So I got my wish and was able to see everything, including "Love Among the Ruins", which is how my love affair with the Pre-Raphaelites began.

Over the next ten years as I made frequent trips to England to find insurance for my rail transit clients, I would add vacation time and explore. I visited as many museums and stately homes as I could manage, and bought postcards of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings I saw. Eventually, it became a large collection, sitting in a box. One day I decided to do something with the postcards so that I could see and enjoy them, so I decoupaged them on to three panels of an old screen that I first covered with wrapping paper in a William Morris design, since he was their frequent collaborator. Then I affixed the postcards with Mod Podge and put the panels back in the wooden frame. The result was my funky Pre-Raphaelite screen, never a great art project, I admit, more of a memento that I kept in my office. When it was time for a change, I removed the Pre-Raphaelite panels, repainted the screen and moved on. Today I still have two of the panels, but they're very much the worse for wear. The other day I found them in the closet under the stairs and decided to bring them out for old times sake. 

For the time being they're in the hallway outside my office, and I'm enjoying them again, funky, old and tattered though they may be.

There's one more chapter to the story of "Love Among the Ruins".  After the Exhibition it went back to Wightwick (pronounced whit tick) Manor in Wolverhampton, home of the Mander family, and now a National Trust property renowned for its Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite works. I'd always wanted to see the painting in its intended location, so when I was in England about five years ago, I decided to drive up from London. It isn't a long trip as the crow flies, but with the horrible afternoon traffic I wasn't able to do it in a day, and wound up spending the night in Warwick. 

The next morning I got to Wightwick at opening time, only to find out it was closed to the public that day. When I told my sad story to a woman at the gate, she took pity on me and my profound disappointment, and phoned one of the current family occupants of the house, Anthea Mander Lahr, who very kindly gave me a personal, though naturally abbreviated, tour.  The house was breath-taking, and to a pre-Raphaelite aficionado, a mecca because everyone's work is there, including art, stained glass, fabrics, tile, tapestries and more. And there in the Great Parlour was my old friend, "Love Among the Ruins", looking as haunting and beautiful as I remembered, and very much in its rightful place. 

PS- Later I learned that at the time, Anthea was married to John Lahr, son of Bert Lahr, the cowardly lion in the 'Wizard of Oz'. When she died in 2004, she was described in her obituary as "much beloved". If she was as kind to others as she was to me, I can easily understand.

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