Exhibition review: The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The BBC2 bonk-buster Desperate Romantics presented the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood as a story of sex, drugs and seduction. Arrogant, young and full of laudanum, it was a wonder that amid all the bodice ripping anyone had any time to paint at all.

The Pre-Raphaelites have suffered from their popularity. Teenage girls of a romantic persuasion tend to identify with the beautiful dresses and the copious hair of the female models, whilst Andrew Lloyd Webber is a collector. Now the Ashmolean has launched, as its first major exhibition in its new temporary exhibitions centre, The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. It brings together over 140 pictures from the Ashmolean's own Pre-Raphaelite collection, along with international loans. The serious scholarship goes a long way to reclaim the Pre-Raphaelites from the lid of the chocolate box and to remind us that, in their day, their art was radical, vital and, yes, beautiful.

Italy's culture and landscape was a source of inspiration to the group, who met at the London home of John Everett Millais in September 1848, with the intention of altering the course of British art. The close study of nature was their credo. Their champion, John Ruskin, had written in Modern Painters, published in 1846, that artists "should go to Nature in all singleness of heart...rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." The name Pre-Raphaelite was chosen to exalt Italian work before Raphael, who was considered the epitome of the classical style by the Academy, and in order to signal their determination to defy convention and the supremacy of history painting. In fact, if they had been better informed about early Italian art they would probably never have chosen the label, for an interest in the Italian primitives had become almost conventional by 1848.

In the early years the Brotherhood chose Italian subjects for their paintings. Yet apart from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who grew up in an Italian speaking household, their knowledge of Italy and its literature amounted to little more than a faux medievalism acquired from English poets such as Keats and Browning. Unlike many of their continental contemporaries the members of the brotherhood did not spend time in Italy. There were no mechanisms to study there and most did not have parents who could fund a Grand Tour.

Rossetti, arguably the most influential member and the most ardently Italian of them all, never actually went there, perhaps afraid that the real country would fall short of the one he had constructed in his imagination. Millais and his wife did visit in 1865 as tourists, while Holman Hunt ended washed up in Florence and Naples on his way to the Holy Land because quarantine restrictions put pay to his travel plans. Ruskin, on the other hand, visited Italy when he was 14, and over the next fifty years no fewer than fifteen times.

Ruskin was a passionate conservationist who believed that Europe's architectural heritage was being irretrievably destroyed by inappropriate "restoration". The exhibition includes many of his painstaking studies of the buildings at risk. Also included are the little known and rather wonderful designs by Burne-Jones for the American Episcopalian church in Rome, an invitation that was the culmination of a dream he had had for much of his life.

It is also strong on the associates of the Brotherhood. Holman Hunt's pupil, Edward Lear, lived in Rome and painted landscapes, while Frederic Leighton, another sometime resident of Rome, learnt the art of landscape painting from Giovanni "Nino" Costa, an ardent patriot who founded a new school that become known as the Etruscans.

Gradually the term Pre-Raphaelite was to evolve from meaning a Ruskinian "truth to nature" to a more sensual celebration of the Venetian masters of the High Renaissance, such as Titian and Veronese. During my visit, it was the wall of Rossetti's women - his Aurelia and Monna Vanna and his languid study for La Pia de'Tolomei, based on the model Jane Morris - that attracted the most attention. Full of emotional and sexual suggestion these voluptuous, eroticised images will always be what, for most people, define the Pre-Raphaelites.

Until 5 December 2010

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser