The Pre-Raphaelite Pen

Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Library

The Pre-Raphaelite Pen

The Blue Dress by Dante Gabriel RossettiThere's a wonderful photography exhibit going on at the National Gallery of Art right now, The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875.  I had the good fortune to get over and see it yesterday, and there were moments that just took my breath away.  To see Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blue Dress in person...Well, I'm glad they had a bench in the gallery or I would have fainted dead away from how lovely it was. 

But as I was walking through those brilliant photographs and paintings I kept being reminded of the writers who were intimately tied to this artistic movement.  Christina Rossetti, sister to Dante Rossetti, known for herThe Sunflower by Julia Margaret Cameron incredible fairy poem, Goblin Market, was nowhere mentioned in those halls, but seeing Julia Margaret Cameron's photograph entitled The Sunflower brought Christina to mind.  Her poem begins with two young sisters off to play in the woods who encounter the goblins selling their strange fruits. One sister chooses to eat a fruit, which only leaves her longing for them until she begins to waste away. The other sister must brave the goblins to take a fruit to her wasting sibling in order to save her life. It's a frightening story, as fairy stories can be. And seeing these photographs of the girls with windblown hair, tangled in branches, just stirs those same chords.

Another poet deeply involved in the pre-Raphaelite movement was Alfred Lord Tennyson.  There are both painted and photographed portraits of Tennyson in the exhibit, including his "mad monk" photo with his oily and dishevelled hair.  But perhaps the most stirring piece in the exhibit related to Tennyson, was the photograph of The Lady of Shalott, based on one of his most famous poems.  The image is of a woman draped luxuriously in a small boat afloat down a tranquil stream.  It was heartbreakingly beautiful.

Alice Liddell as PomonaFinally, and this to me was something of which I was completely unaware, were works by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.  Dodgson himself did a number of photo portraits of people, and there are several photos of him in the exhibit.  But what was most intriguing to me were two photographs of Alice Liddell, who was his muse for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. Julia Cameron pulls another stunning photograph together of Alice Liddell as Pomona, a Goddess of fruit bearing trees. This is not the young curiouser and curiouser Alice we know from the books, but an older, grown-up Alice. Still, she finds herself immersed in a world of fantasy, emerging from a primeval wood, wrapped in the name of a Goddess.  She need only be wearing a crown to be seen as a fairy queen.

The exhibit at the National Gallery of Art runs through January 30.  Do go see it if you have the chance, but read up on your pre-Raphaelite poetry before you go.