History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 June 2014

The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1849

I love rooting novels in real events, plunking my imaginary characters down among genuine historical figures, the more idiosyncratic the better.

My latest novel, That Summer, takes place during the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement-- and who could possibly be more idiosyncratic or intriguing than those iconoclastic young painters? (Who had no idea that their art would one day adorn dorm rooms across America.)

A major scene in That Summer is set at the prestigious Private View at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1849, where my historical hero, Gavin Thorne, is showing his painting, Mariana in the Moated Grange.

Mr. Thorne and his Mariana are my own inventions-- but the rest of the Exhibition was lifted right from the historical record.  It's hard to describe just what a big deal the Royal Academy Exhibition was.  Don't think a showing at the Met.  Think the biggest blockbuster movie you can imagine.  This, in the days before television, before movies, before the internet, was entertainment with a capital E.  The royal family had first dibs on the show, followed by the wealthy and well-connected who crammed into the Private View, but once the show was opened to the public, the public visited, in droves.  And those who couldn't visit were able to buy engravings of the more popular pictures.  (Rather like DVD sales today, artists could make big money off those copies, if their pictures went big.)

Private View Royal Academy

(The picture above is of the Private View of 1881, but it gives you an idea of what Private View day would have looked like.  Just picture much fuller skirts on the ladies....)

Want to see some of what my heroine would have seen?

While I was researching That Summer, I hit a stroke of amazing luck.  I was able to acquire one of the original programs from the show, the very program that my heroine would have held:

photo (8)

Shall we open it up and take a look?

The fledgling Preraphaelites were well-represented in the Exhibition of 1849.  John Everett Millais made a stir with his Lorenzo and Isabella:


In the meantime, William Holman Hunt exhibited Rienzi, or, more volubly, Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions, a history painting about the fourteenth century Roman folk hero, Cola di Rienzo.


But where, you may ask, was that most iconic of them all, Dante Gabriel Rossetti?  Much to the annoyance of his friends, he had taken himself and his Girlhood of Mary Virgin off to the Free Exhibition at Hyde Park Corner rather than waiting for the RA show in May-- possibly because he was afraid that he wouldn't get a good placement in the RA show.

girlhood of mary virgin

Because Rossetti jumped the gun, and exhibited before the others, his is the first of the Pre-Raph paintings on which the initials PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) can be found.  (Hunt and Millais were not amused.)

You can play a fun game of "spot the PRB" in each of these paintings.  For example, it's hidden on the bench on which Lorenzo and Isabella are sitting in Millais's painting.

You can also play "spot the painter", since, to save the cost of models, the artists all sat for each other.  And, for my fellow Goblin Market fans, that's Christina Rossetti as the title role in Rossetti's painting of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.

The Royal Academy Exhibition was the big debut of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood-- so I couldn't resist having my imaginary Pre-Raphaelite, Gavin Thorne, be a part of it.

For my fellow Pre-Raph fans, there's a big exhibit up at the Metropolitan Museum in New York right now!


Blogger Elizabeth said...

I can't wait to read this book, Lauren. I'm fascinated by the PRB and the later members which included William Morris & Burne-Jones. All that scandal, romance and drama! However, I found the exhibit at the Met disappointing compared to the one at the V&A several years ago. Have you ever seen Desperate Romantics?

10:55 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! I haven't seen the mini-series yet (although I own the DVD!). I was waiting until after I finished the book because I didn't want it to influence me-- and then somehow there just hasn't been time. But one of these days I will finally have a big "Desperate Romantics" viewing.

Also, now I'm missing the V&A! (I set a scene in the V&A library in THAT SUMMER-- I love that place.)

4:58 PM  

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