In January 2016 I travelled to an exhibition at this charming and centrally located museum and art gallery; to attend an exhibition of the works of Edward Robert Hughes. E.R. Hughes belongs to that second generation of Pre-Raphaelite artists and was the nephew of Arthur Hughes, an important member of that first generation.
Like many an artist before him and since, the public are often familiar with the work but not the name of the creator, this I discovered for myself, as I recognised the beautiful works on display. Some such as his ‘Midsummer Eve’ I have seen reproduced on greeting cards and prints, it is said to be his most reproduced work. Like many others however, I am more familiar with the works of his famous uncle Arthur, than with Edward himself.
The importance of this exhibition, even when taking into account the internationally famous collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings that Birmingham can boast, is the gathering of so many of works of Edward Robert Hughes from across the UK and beyond. The museum had gathered not only the fine examples in house but many works from other galleries and private collections; including that of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Visitors to this exhibition were given a rare opportunity of seeing works, not usually seen together and many had not been shown publicly for a century.
In the nineteenth century two philosophical approaches to art developed. One argued that art should have meaning and this the Symbolist philosophy, can perhaps be described as being; ‘Art for Truth’s sake.’ The alternative viewpoint, oft championed by Oscar Wilde, is that art exists to be beautiful. That philosophy ‘Art for Art’s sake,’ is perhaps best described as Aesthetics.
Although these two philosophical approaches to art existed then, exist now and quite possibly, have existed since man first drew on a cave wall, they have not always existed in harmony. Debates on the nature, place and function of art have threaded their way through history, often stimulating talent to even greater heights of exploration.
This exhibition like many, illustrated that perceived subtext of art and the conflict within the viewer. Are we just looking at a pretty picture or is there a symbolist meaning? Did the artist deliberately place a meaning or was it subconscious, perhaps accidental? Are we subscribing a meaning upon a work of art that the creator never intended? These are questions that very often, are impossible to answer but that doesn’t mean we should not try.
The exhibition combined both a chronological and subject focus approach to the presentation. Hughes earlier works displayed in context and in comparison with other selected Pre-Raphaelite artists, including his uncle. Much of his early work showing his more obvious influences from within the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
When displayed within the context of the subject matter it was clear that like many of that school, his choice of subject was often romantic and mythological. The majority of Hughes works are stunning, simply beautiful in the composition. Yet there are other works that appear a little too sickly-sweet in the execution. In this category I personally would include his ‘Midsummer Eve,’ yet many would strongly disagree with me.
Like another later artist Hughes had a blue period but unlike that other artist, it was not so much a total presentation of a work in blue but an alternative exploration of the colour. In the example of Hughes, blue is the colour of the night and from the subtle shades of the twilight to the deep midnight blue; he played, toyed and captured the night in a series of pictures, many of which are perhaps amongst his most famous and should rightfully be regarded as amongst his masterpieces.
Amongst my personal favourites and in my opinion, one of his most significant works, is ‘The Valkyrie's Vigil’ depicting a somewhat melancholic gatherer of the slain, brooding upon the battlements of what could be Valhalla. My other favourite is that example loaned by Her Majesty; ‘Dream Idyll’ which captures a puzzling, fairy-tale and dreamlike atmosphere.
One of his most famous and important pictures however, is that rather intimidating and enigmatic picture; ‘Night with her train of stars.’ Winged night but with more than one pair of wings it seems, comforts a child as she progresses across the skies in full array and accompaniment.
Inspired by and taking its name from a line in the poem Margaritae Sorori by Ernest Henley, the painting is a paradox. Does night bring death, peace or protection? Are the innocent cherubs truly innocent or maleficent? This work is generally hailed as one of his most significant works, it is a masterpiece indeed.
Looking at his work, singly, grouped by subject and in comparison with the other artists included for context, such as Arthur Hughes, Rossetti, Solomon and Bunce. One realises that in truth, Edward Robert Hughes should be far more well-known than he is. His chalks and watercolours are magnificent, composed and executed with refined skill and insight.
Some are somewhat disturbing and amongst these I include, obviously and predictably, ‘Oh, what's that in the hollow?’ A fascinating painting of a rather androgynous figure, dead and decomposing in a pool. The air of death and decay is suggested by the nearby crows and the briar entwining the figure. The picture is hauntingly beautiful and disquieting, yet still carries with it a suggestion of life, as the briar is in bloom.
Hughes assisted many famous artists during his career, both as a model and as an assistant. In this latter role he is often uncredited, even when much of the finished work is in his hand. Hughes is noteworthy for assisting William Holman Hunt in his later life, as Hunt became increasingly frail. This includes completion of ‘The Light of the World,’ that famous painting on display in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.
This suggests to me that Hughes was quite possibly a modest man, willing to step aside and allow the master, William Holman Hunt full credit. Perhaps the hand that produced ‘Night with her train of stars,’ did not need to prove their own genius.
My day in Birmingham was very enjoyable and certainly educational. I found far more of interest than I could have imagined. The main exhibition was without doubt worth seeing but the other parts of the museum collection, were most impressive. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is far larger than I expected and like the British Museum, one can wander along a labyrinth of galleries, each one hiding wonders in almost every corner.
It is also worth mentioning the wonderful and very patient museum staff. They are exceptionally polite individuals, who are not only willing to share their opinion on their particular favourite items but are also very helpful when guiding lost tourists.
Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E.R. Hughes ran from the 17th of October 2015 to the 21st February 2016.