The Brotherhood of Ruralists and The Pre-Raphaelites

Author Peter Nahum & Sally Burgess
Publisher The Leicester Galleries (2005)
ISBN 187250809
Price £10.00
This publication is available for purchase from our gallery.


In 1975, Sir Peter Blake, Graham and Annie Ovenden, Graham and Ann Arnold, together with David Inshaw and Jann Haworth set out to cultivate a new Romanticism, abandoning London for the West Country. Their paintings are spiritual celebrations of the landscape that uphold the great tradition of visionary painting in Britain exemplified by JMW Turner, Samuel Palmer, Madox Brown and Paul Nash. This seminal exhibition is the first they have held in London for fifteen years. The artists were in attendance at the preview to sign their latest publication, The Ruralists. A Celebration.

The Brotherhood of Ruralists drew inspiration from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. To celebrate the Ruralist exhibition at The Leicester Galleries, paintings by Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Madox Brown, Holman Hunt, Millais, Ruskin and Arthur Hughes are included. In particular, The Leicester Galleries exhibits, for the first time since 1906, a famous painting by William Holman Hunt. Entitled Miss Flamborough (1882), the artist's daughter Gladys was the model. She hated her depiction so much that she persuaded her father's studio assistant to scrub out her image and repaint it. The badly painted figure, which had been retouched more than once since, has been rescued and the little girl finally re-emerges as by Graham Ovenden, whilst the landscape and her pet lamb remain by Holman Hunt; the most fantastic collaboration, over a period of 120 years, by two masters. The painting was unveiled on the opening evening.

The Ruralists' retreat to the West Country was a cathartic retreat which mirrored the romantic dream of their Pre-Raphaelite fore-fathers. Each group had sought solace and inspiration from an unspoilt time or place. Each held within their hearts Ruskin's plea to young artists in the close of Modern Painters: go to Natureā€¦ rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing. The traditions they idolised were romantic and mystical, with strong literary associations. The Brotherhood of Ruralists instinctively acknowledged the common ethos between their fellowship and that of the Pre-Raphaelites. Both groups were seven young artists, spiritually bound by shared ideals and dreams which they had found themselves unable to cultivate in a climate of rigid academic institution and banal criticism.

In 1976, the Ruralists' inaugural exhibition was held at the Royal Academy, where a century before Dante Gabriel Rossetti had first laid eyes on Holman Hunt's Eve of St. Agnes: the spark that led to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In the Ruralist exhibition, Graham Ovenden showed his Portrait of Peter and Juliette Blake, a labour of love and his homage to the Ruralists' vision. Behind the sitters, beyond the brick wall can be glimpsed the magical sweeping hills and fresh spring skies of their 'mystic arcadia'. Peter's daughter, Juliette, personifies the 'girl-child', which Graham describes as a part of nature, an organic part of nature, and therefore has the same validity as a growing tree.(1) The Ruralists, like the Pre-Raphaelites (2), placed as much importance upon their figurative work and portraiture as on their studies directly from nature. Crucially, Graham Ovenden explains of his figurative paintings, the portrait is the living human organism within it. The environment is only very secondary to the situation.(3)

The Ruralists' next groundbreaking exhibition, in 1980, was titled Ophelia. (4), a favourite theme shared with the Pre-Raphaelites. The following year the Brotherhood of Ruralists presented a major groundbreaking exhibition which was supported by the Arts Council and travelled to Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow and London. In 1983, the group worked on a project entitled The Definitive Nude, to compliment Peter Blake's retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery.

Within a few years of its formation, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood went from seven members to four. Just so with the Ruralists, when, between 1981 and 1984, Jann Haworth, Peter Blake and David Inshaw went their separate ways. The Arnolds and the Ovendens continue to live in the heart of the English countryside and to glorify in the nuances of nature. The Ruralists reunited in 2003 to hold a magnificent and powerful retrospective, The Brotherhood of Ruralists: A Celebration of Three Decades, in Wales at the Machynlleth Museum of Modern Art (The Tabernacle).

For the first time in fifteen years, The Leicester Galleries welcomed the Brotherhood of Ruralists to London and was privileged to hang their works alongside those of the Pre-Raphaelites. Whether by coincidence or greater design, two remarkable events mark this show. The first is the uniting of Graham Ovenden and William Holman Hunt in one painting. The second is that Gregory Murphy's heart-rending play, The Countess, describing the events surrounding the painting of John Ruskin's portrait by John Everett Millais in 1853 is running at the Criterion Theatre in the West End. After breaking all records in New York as the longest running play of the 1999-2000 seasons, this real Pre-Raphaelite drama has taken over three years to find its way to London. The clarity of Gregory Murphy's writing reveals for the first time the intense psychological drama which unfolded between the three principle characters; John Ruskin, the greatest art guru of his age, John Everett Millais, the head of the radical avant garde art movement in Britain and Ruskin's wife Effie, a young woman of great wit and intelligence.

(1)Graham Ovenden in an interview with Sir Alastair Johnston on the 11th September 1999

(2)For example Madox Brown in his portrait of his wife May Memories (cat. number)

(3)Graham Ovenden in an interview with Sir Alastair Johnston on the 11th September 1999.

(4)The exhibition travelled between which travelled between Cambridge and Bristol City Art Gallery