An Australian Collector's Passion for the Pre-Raphaelites

An Australian Collector's Passion for the Pre-Raphaelites
William Holman Hunt, O.M., R.W.S. (1827-1910) Il Dolce far Niente (detail)
(Image courtesy John Schaeffer)

The power of Pre-Raphaelite paintings has never been more apparent than it is at the current time.  A blockbuster exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art at the Tate Britain and an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite and Nineteenth-Century Art at Leighton House Museum have reignited interest in the once unfashionable work of Victorian visionaries such as William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sir John Everett Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones.

Tantalising tales, subversive stares, distortions and contortions, masculine maidens and sexual innuendo are all present in the work of the Pre Raphaelites.  This is not the austerity, purity, refinement, modesty and chastity of Jane Eyre; it is a facet of the Victorian era that many people are unaware exists.  Pilloried at the height of the movement as being objectionably realistic and morally offensive, the Pre-Raphaelites have been described by many as the Young British Artists (YBA’s) of their day.

One man who is no stranger to the lure of the Pre Raphaelites is the Dutch-born, Australian based businessman and world renowned art collector John Schaeffer.  Over the past 25 years John Schaeffer has been one of the world’s most prominent collectors of British nineteenth-century art. Testament to his status as a collector and philanthropist is the John Schaeffer Gallery of 19th-century European art at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales – a space dedicated to Schaeffer’s passion for 19th-century European art.  

Schaeffer’s enthusiasm for Victorian art – the Pre-Raphaelites in particular; Lord Frederic Leighton most of all – is highly contagious.  An art lover in the truest sense, his love of Victorian art is the product of a desire to surround himself with beautiful objects.  And for Schaeffer, beauty is something that is visual, not something that is conceptual.  He speaks so passionately about his favourite artists that one can’t help but be impressed.  In fact, I credit his enthusiasm for my own rapidly developing interest in Victorian art.  Yes, I’m hooked.

An indication of the significance of his collection, the Leighton House Museum Pre-Raphaelite and Nineteenth-Century Art exhibition consisted entirely of paintings loaned by Schaeffer – 23 in total.  One of the paintings that appeared at Leighton House, Holman Hunt’s incredible painting Il Dolce far Niente, is currently on display as part of the highly acclaimed Pre-Raphaelite exhibition on show at London’s Tate Museum

Il Dolce Far Niente is undoubtedly one of the greatest representations of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic and is one of the most significant paintings in the Tate exhibition.  The spectacular painting typifies the startling realism, naturalistic beauty, bold colouration and refreshing honesty of the uninhibited Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. An Italian phrase, the painting’s title Il Dolce Far Niente translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing”, which in the context of Hunt’s artistic practice alludes to the artist’s desire to create paintings that neither preach nor teach.  In his memoirs, referring specifically to Il Dolce Far Niente, Hunt speaks of being glad “of the opportunity of exercising myself in work which had not any didactic purpose”

Sitting in an Egyptian-style chair, an enigmatic lady flaunts her luscious red curls which cascade down the shoulders of her sumptuous burgundy dress.  But her face is somewhat masculine, her pose awkward and unladylike.  She is by no means an archetypal feminine goddess.  By eschewing the sort of vacuous glamour that only appeals to the animalistic urges of primeval sexuality, Holman-Hunt draws attention to the anatomical beauty of the human form: the flawless skin, the perfectly structured nose, the plump lips, the curvaceous neck and the voluminous eyebrows that frame her sultry stare.  Hers is a truthful beauty, an enduring beauty, an intelligent beauty that never tires and never fades.  It is a beauty that engages the viewer as an equal – a fellow human being.  It is also a beauty that is as much about admiring and contemplating the exquisite detail, carefully considered composition and masterly execution of the painting itself.   

Schaeffer is incredibly proud that a painting from his collection is included in the current Tate show – and rightly so.  Not only has his painting been given a wall of its own when most others are shown together with other works, the chair that the maiden sits on in the paintings was tracked down by the Tate and is being exhibited alongside the painting.  The chair belonged to Hunt and was commissioned by the artist to imitate Egyptian furniture from the British Museum.  Schaeffer speaks of Il Dolce Far Niente as having “wall power” and a “beautiful radiance” that has been awakened by the display of the painting in a well-lit space at the Tate.  And what a sight to behold it is.

The Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition is important enough to be travelling to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, USA from Feb - June 2013 and will then travel to the not previously included Pushkin Museum in Moscow from July - October 2013.  Whilst many other lesser works are only visiting one or two destinations, Schaeffer's Holman Hunt will travel to ALL 3 destinations!

Another painting from Schaeffer’s collection that was exhibited as part of the Leighton House Museum exhibition, and which may soon be loaned to the Tate museum for display in their permanent collection, is Solomon J Solomon’s The Birth of Eve.  Solomon is technically not a Pre-Raphaelite artist but was strongly influenced by proponents of the Pre-Raphaelite movement such as Millais, Alma-Tadema and Leighton.  Although he is more accurately classified as a late-Victorian symbolist, Solomon produced several paintings that can be placed squarely within the Pre-Raphaelite tradition.  Solomon shared the Pre-Raphaelite predilection for the rejection of the banal and artificial historical painting that was the bread and butter of the Royal Academy at the time.

Schaeffer bought Eve in 2009 via Christie’s who sold the painting on behalf of Ealing London Borough Council.  At the time of the sale both the Tate Museum and Andrew Lloyd Webber were identified as being interested in Eve, but neither ended up bidding on the work.  Schaeffer recalls that he was the only person who bid on the painting and as such, was able to acquire it for the low estimate.  As it turned out, the Tate didn’t have the money, and Lloyd Webber didn’t have the space to house the life-size figures in the epic three metre tall masterpiece which depicts the miraculous creation of Eve from the rib-bone of a sleeping Adam.

The Tate might have missed out on purchasing Eve but the opportunity to display the painting in their hallowed halls hasn’t eluded them yet.  Negotiations are currently underway that could see Eve loaned to the Tate for an extended period of time.  During a discussion about the loan, Schaeffer was asked whether he would ever consider parting with the painting – a subtle hint that the Tate wouldn’t mind if Schaeffer donated the painting to them.   Having donated many works of art to various institutions over the years, Eve is likely to remain in the Schaeffer collection for now.