After five years, the Pre-Raphaelites come home

Delaware Art Museum celebrates the return of the Bancroft Collection
via Delaware Online

They were the avant-garde artists of their time, seven young men in London, disenchanted with the art establishment. They were inspired to form a group — a brotherhood — whose purpose was to revisit the bright colors and detailed compositions that were more common during the period before Raphael and his Renaissance-era contemporaries. They painted, sculpted and wrote poetry in the mid- to late-19th century, and their work — which they signed with their names and the mysterious acronym “P.R.B.” — inspired the Arts and Crafts movement and the Aesthetic movement, spreading their influence to the dawn of the 20th century. In 1890, Samuel Bancroft, a Wilmington textile mill owner, bought his first piece of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Water Willow” (1871). It was the beginning of a collection he would continue building until his death in 1915. Bancroft’s efforts were considered unusual; French academic art, including works by Jean-Leon Gerome and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, was in vogue. “That’s what the everyday conservative person who wants to keep up with the Joneses was collecting, the kind of Gilded Age person,” says Margaretta Frederick, curator of the Delaware Art Museum’s Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art. The collection in 1935 was donated to the museum by Bancroft’s descendants with the condition that the Pre-Raphaelites be housed and cared for in a building that would be built on land also donated by the family — “like a bride and her dowry,” says Danielle Rice, the museum’s executive director. It is to that building, on a gently bending stretch of Kentmere Parkway near Rockford Park, that the collection will return Sept. 23 after an absence of more than five years. The collection was moved first because of the museum’s trouble-riddled expansion, then to complete an exhibition that traveled for more than two years. “The Return of the Pre-Raphaelites” will include several items on loan. The museum’s more than 150 paintings, drawings, photographs, decorative arts and illustrated books constitute one of the most significant collections of Pre-Raphaelite art outside Britain, and Delaware’s arts community is supplementing the museum’s efforts with an array of related programming throughout the next year. There are musical and theatrical events, panel discussions and exhibitions. Some are directly related to the Pre-Raphaelites; some are more loosely connected to the themes explored in the museum’s collection. All of those involved see “The Return of the Pre-Raphaelites” as an opportunity to spread awareness of their own organizations while celebrating a prestigious collection that largely has been forgotten by Delawareans in whose backyard it has resided for more than 70 years. While they’re at it, they intend to present the stories and personalities behind the brotherhood in a manner, they hope, that will grab the interest of a younger generation. The Delaware Theatre Company, for example, on Feb. 2 will present a reading of Gregory Murphy’s “The Countess,” which explores the juicy relationship between the painter John Everett Millais and Effie Ruskin, a subject of his work and the wife (for a time) of the critic John Ruskin, who had championed the Pre-Raphaelites. With the launch in the fall of 2008 of the University of Delaware’s one-month fellowship in Pre-Raphaelite studies, the museum hopes to establish itself as a destination for academic study of its holdings. A significant portion of the Bancroft Collection had been on a two-year, nine-venue tour as an exhibition called “Waking Dreams.” Soon, the work of the young men who thumbed their noses at the Royal Academy of Arts — the painters Millais, Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and James Collinson; the sculptor Thomas Woolner; and the writers Frederic George Stephens and William Michael Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel — again will be on display at the Delaware Art Museum. “The Pre-Raphaelites are old masters, and we don’t have a lot of that in our area,” Frederick says. “It’s part of our local history, because it’s a collection largely put together by one man, right here in Wilmington. It was very unusual in that he was collecting a kind of art that very few if any other Americans were collecting at the time.”

On a personal note, I was able to see in person the portion of the Bancroft Collection known as the exhibition called “Waking Dreams.” It was a beautiful thrill for me, a dream come true.

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