Williamson Art Gallery: Liverpool Painters of the 19th Century

Caernarfon Castle by William Bond

Saturday 6 February – Sunday 20 March 2016

Exploring Liverpool’s painters of the 19th Century in parallel with the Walker Art Gallery’s exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion.

The Williamson has lent extensively to the Walker Art Gallery’s exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion, which focuses on a select group of Liverpool-based artists and their cutting edge Pre-Raphaelite realism. Our display will show additional work by those featured artists and a group of paintings and drawings by other artists working in Liverpool at the time.

In 1904 HC Marillier wrote a book called ‘The Liverpool School of Painters’ (‘school’ was often used to describe a group of artists, usually from the same place, it does not mean a place of education; the Liverpool Academy did, however have students). Even then he felt that the artists of Liverpool had not received the recognition they deserved: he compared them to the artists of Norwich:
“at its best the Liverpool Academy contained a body of men who were as important in art as the best of the Norwich School, and in respect of their modern naturalistic methods and brilliant colouring even more striking and interesting. But Norwich is proud of her painters, and Liverpool is not”.

Liverpool had grown in importance as a commercial city and its wealthy middle classes were enthusiastic buyers of art. What made Liverpool important to Victorian painters was not only that it was a source of patronage, but that it was more receptive to new ideas and young artists than the Royal Academy in London. This applied particularly to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who met with an almost universally hostile reception when they first exhibited their pictures. They decided, therefore, to exhibit their pictures in Liverpool, and in 1851, Holman Hunt was awarded the £50 prize. This was the first real public recognition that the Brotherhood had received and their good reception in Liverpool lasted for several years.

The connection with the Pre-Raphaelites was to have profound and lasting effects on Liverpool’s own painters. By far the biggest effect was on the landscape painters. During the 1850’s and 1860’s a really remarkable school of landscapists emerged whose work is still not sufficiently appreciated. The Walker Art Gallery has opened ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion’ (12 Feb – 5 June 2016) which features Liverpool’s own contribution to the movement by highlighting those artists who were born in the area or chose to make their careers here.

Some of the paintings in our exhibition illustrate the minute attention to detail that was a clear element of Pre-Raphaelite work, others show that all the artists had lives and careers that were not static: they varied their work and their interests, their styles moved on. We have also included some watercolours to show the range of work in our collection.

One of the other things this group shows, as does the Walker’s exhibition, is that a small group of patrons and collectors fostered the work of these artists and enabled them to develop their interests and talents. Without the support of the likes of George Rae and Joseph Beausire, just to pick two from Birkenhead, the Liverpool School of Painters would never have created their outstanding work.