an exhibition of Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale's work

Art One of my favourite paintings, certainly in my top ten is The Forerunner, painted in 1920 by the artist Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (see above). It’s the Italian Renaissance and in an imagined moment, Leonardo da Vinci demonstrates a small prototype of one of his flying machines to his patrons Ludovico Sforza and Beatrice d' Este, the Duke and Duchess of Milan. The surrounding multitude with their mix of scepticism and indifference are beautifully realised as are the fashions with their elaborate patterns especially one female figure in a bright aquamarine dress.

There’s much more about the struggles between Leonardo and his patrons at the website of the Lady Lever Art Gallery where the painting is held and is also the venue for an exhibition of Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale's work. She was one of the number of artists in the later waves of pre-Raphaelites, along with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, painting mythical, biblical and classical scenes in a relatively realistic form, the look which defines for many people Victorian painting (even if as is so often the case there was much more variety than that).

Fortescue-Brickdale has unfortunately remained relatively unknown, at least in comparison to John William Waterhouse (one of her influences), largely because she was working at a time when the pre-Raphaelite style was already falling out of fashion and it's a mark of the way that such things change that this the first show since a display at the Ashmolean in Oxford in 1972.  Also much of her work was in stained glass windows, book illustrations and small sculptures and is arguably often part of collections in which the star names receive the limited available wall space.

The exhibition is guest curated by Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Associate Professor in Art History at the School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand and co-author of  Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists.  She spoke to Laura Davis of The Liverpool Post recently about the exhibition and says "when we look at Fortescue-Brickdale’s work, we can see it as one woman’s attempt to engage with the issues of the time, to make her own decisions about contributing to the making of contemporary culture.”

Some of her best work is in books, especially a portrait of Shakespeare’s heroine Sylvia (from The Two Gentlemen of Verona) in a collection of old English songs and ballads, rendered in a contemporary, almost photo-realistic style, the colour popping out of the pages (despite the necessary low light levels in the gallery space). There’s also a rare chance to see a number of paintings long since hidden in private collections like Vivien and Merlin showing the moment the elderly wizard is beguiled by this beautiful young thing, her serpent-like figure accentuated by an emerald green cloak.

Fortescue-Brickdale’s trick is to express some rather profound ideas through startling images. In Time the Physician, the artist overturns the idea of “father time” as one of death’s heralds with an illustration of him binding the head of a knight, suggesting instead time as a great healer.  Another jaw-dropping watercolour (which is worth visiting the exhibition for alone) is The Guardian Angel in which a celestial interventionist stretches her cupped hands around a World War I bomber, shielding the pilot on what might be his final journey, in what could as well be an alternative poster for Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's film A Matter of Life and Death.

She’s often described as the last of the pre-Raphaelites and the appearance of one the twentieth century’s first technological achievements rendered in the style and imaginary structure of a movement begun seventy years before also demonstrates that even as Fortescue-Brickdale ploughed on with her work, even she was recognising that it was part of a bygone era. By the 1920s she’d apparently abandoned the style but by then she’d created a valuable body of work which deserves greater attention, something this exhibition will hopefully provide.

[Image: © National Museums Liverpool.]

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