Last night, in the most recent chapter of my own personal Pre-Raphaelite season, I visited the Wandsworth Museum again to see the screening of a short film produced by Ken Russell for the BBC in 1961. It starred Mrs Wilhelmina Stirling, sister of the painter Evelyn de Morgan, showing visitors around her house – Old Battersea House, looking like an idyllic country retreat (where is this? it is not the Battersea I know…) – where she had collected the paintings of her sister and the ceramics of her brother-in-law which are now exhibited at the Museum. Mrs Stirling, aged 96, appeared in a white fur hat, strings of pearls around her neck, and generous folds of white lace at her cuffs; she began to recount with glee tales of the ghosts with whom she shared her home. Recalled to the true purpose of the interview, she told of the young Evelyn making such a mess in the nursery with her paints that water was banned; young Evelyn stole water from the dolls’ tea party. Eventually she made it to the Slade and so came into being the porcelain ladies and diaphanous fairies who represent her myths and morals, dreams and realities… We left Wilhelmina, however, seated in all her dated finery before a typewriter – sole acknowledgement of modernity in a house lit by oil lamps – zealously punching out a follow-up to her 37th book, ‘Ghosts Vivisected’.
I did see the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain this week too. I took three hours to get round 7 rooms – a record exhibition-viewing time for me! Hunger and tired feet were forgotten thanks to the splendid company and the splendid paintings. Admittedly, there was no discernible curatorial ‘argument’ and the themes assigned to each room were decidedly arbitrary (a clearly secular portrait in the room entitled ‘Salvation’? A beautiful, transcendental, but clearly unpopulated Scottish landscape by Millais in a room dedicated to ‘Mythology’??) – but taken as a blockbuster survey of the Pre-Raphaelites it was a winner. Note: to be seen with girls in a reasonably romantic frame of mind. The tragic love story of ‘The Huguenot’ and other such tales of chivalry, passion and despair will then make you sigh with an indefinable emotion – to the extent that I almost missed lunch. A total aberration.