Magazine article The Spectator

Brooding and Soulful

Magazine article The Spectator

Brooding and Soulful

Article excerpt

The name of Frederick Sandys may not be that familiar today, but undeservedly he was one of the greatest of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood's disciples. He was also a Norfolk man, which is why this splendid exhibition is at the Norwich Castle Art Gallery. It also coincides with a handsome monograph and catalogue raisonne on Sandys, compiled by Betty Elzea, who has spent the last 25 years working on it. Sandys's moment has at last come.

Like so many young artists in the 1850s - Burne-Jones, William Morris, Simeon Solomon, Albert Joseph Moore - Sandys was drawn into the circle of the fascinating and charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Sandys imitated Rossetti's subject-matter - beautiful, bad women with lots of red hair - but did so with such breathtaking virtuosity that even Rossetti felt threatened. It was Sandys's genius to be able to combine the two threads of PreRaphaelitism, the brilliant technique of Millais and Holman Hunt, and the literary romanticism of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. His femmes fatales, such as 'Medea' (1866), or `Morgan-le-Fay' (both in Birmingham City Art Gallery), are among the most astonishing tours-de-force of the PreRaphaelite movement. Sandys may not have possessed originality but, like Millais, he was a masterly interpreter of the ideas of others. Sandys also had the usual PreRaphaelite accessory, a beautiful mistress and muse, Mary Emma Jones, with whom he had several children but never married. He also had something of an infatuation for a gypsy girl called Keomi, who modelled for him and others in Pre-Raphaelite circles.

Sandys was always short of money, and to survive he took to painting portraits. His mentor was Holbein. The results were some of the most beautiful and striking of all Victorian portraits, of which there are many in the exhibition. Their sheer quality and intensity makes them look more like Flemish or German pictures of the 16th century, rather than late Victorians. Sandys depended much on his Norfolk connection, and it is interesting to note that all the families he painted - Bedingfelds, Barstows, Clabburns, Colmans, Tilletts, Bulwers are alive and well and living in Norfolk. They have all been generous in lending their portraits. Some of the finest, paradoxically, are not of Pre-Raphaelite maidens, but of old ladies.

Sandys was also an outstanding draughtsman, perhaps the greatest of all the PreRaphaelites. …

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