Some of the most memorable Victorian works of art and architecture were inspired by the middle ages. This major exhibition explores an era when, as the most powerful nation in the modern world, Britain looked back to a pre-industrial age of centuries past.
It presents a rare opportunity to see works by some of the greatest 19th-century artists and designers with important loans from national and regional collections, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, Royal Collection, Tate, Ashmolean and the National Trust.
William Morris and Augustus Pugin are represented together with the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Walter Crane and William Lethaby, and the pre-Raphaelites, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, John William Waterhouse and John Ruskin.
The rich variety of exhibits – from paintings and tapestries to furniture, stained glass and metalwork – demonstrates a Victorian taste for the Gothic style that encompassed all areas of art and design. The displays also examine how these objects expressed revolutionary ideas that influenced the monarchy, politics, religion, manufacturing and sexual morality.
Some of the most outstanding examples of design commissioned in the South West are on show, including the extraordinary watercolours for Knightshayes by William Burges and an extravagant bronze throne from Tyntesfield made to designs by Viollet-le-Duc. A range of high quality furnishings and fittings from Devon churches feature alongside the work of Harry Hems, an Exeter-based sculptor and wood carver whose distinctive brand of medievalist design may be seen across the region. One section focuses on the building of RAMM itself – certainly one of the most important Gothic revival buildings in the region, designed by John Hayward and inspired by John Ruskin.
The legends of King Arthur and his Knights were never more popular than during the Victorian era. A highlight of the exhibition is the first in the series of great Holy Grail Tapestries – one of the most ambitious projects of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Based on Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, these tell the story of the spiritual quest by the Knights of the Round Table for the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus and his disciples are said to have drunk at the Last Supper. On loan from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, The Knights of the Round Table Summoned to the Quest by the Strange Damsel is rarely on public display and will be shown in the West Country for the first time ever.
King Arthur was also rediscovered by 19th-century authors, most famously Alfred Lord Tennyson, and several of the richly-illustrated Victorian editions of his Idylls of the King are included. However, the Victorian medieval revival extended beyond Arthur. Novels, poems, plays and children’s books about Saxons, Danes and kings abounded, while the rediscovery of ruined abbeys and castles encouraged the taste for Gothic literature.
A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition with essays by Joanne Parker and Corinna Wagner, leading scholars in the field. Art & Soul: Victorians and the Gothic is available from RAMM during the exhibition at the special price of £12.95.