Pre-Raphaelite Dreams: Maria Spartali Stillman

We’ve all heard of the ‘stunners’ that frequented Pre-Raphaelite canvases and the aspirations of the daring brotherhood: Millais, Hunt and Rossetti. But this exhibition in the leafy Watts gallery, tucked away outside of London focuses on another gorgeous Victorian woman that inspired not only G.F. Watts, but Julia Margaret Cameron and a host of powerful 19th century artists.

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‘Portrait of Mrs. Stillman (Marie Spartali Stillman)’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This small exhibition devoted to the Greek artist Maria Spartali Stillman is a revelation that highlights another staunchly talented female creative in the midst of a fiercely masculine Victorian world. Finally Elizabeth Siddal has a sister in arms. The delicate, intimate works on display in watercolour and gouache reveal a patient and dedicated hand, that gently layers soft tones of colour to create a sensational richness and depth. Something that few could accomplish – especially not the impassioned Pre-Raphaelite Movement of clashing egos and beliefs.

Spartali Stillman became famous in social circles alongside her cousins Maria Zambaco (Burne-Jones’s model and lover) and Aglaia Coronio as ‘The Three Graces’ because they were so drop dead gorgeous. In fact when the poet Swinburne met the imposing 1.9 metres tall Maria Spartali he declared she was so beautiful that he wanted to ‘sit down and cry’. In this exhibition, Spartali’s beauty becomes apparent in her faithful portraits by another trailblazing female creator, Julia Margaret Cameron.

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Maria Spartali Stillman, ‘The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo'(1889)

But the real star is Spartali’s own work, which thrived under the tutelage of Ford Madox Brown (the accomplished painter that Rossetti had coerced into joining the Pre-Raphalite Brotherhood without too much success). Clearly informed by her Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries, Spartali toys with the abundance of flowers and organic forms tumbling across her compositions – giving a wise nod to the criticism of the Kingmaker critic John Ruskin.

Inspired by her journeys to Italy, Spartali Stillman’s work reimagines the beautiful illuminated manuscripts and early Renaissance paintings of Venice and Florence, and  masterfully treads the line between the narratives of Dante and Christianity. This intimate connection to religion is evoked in works such as  How the Virgin Came to Brother Conrad in Offia and Laid her Son in his Arms where the impassioned friar reaches up to the Virgin Mary to give her the Christ child. In the distance, several rabbits hop by beneath low slung trees, as if a silence has fallen in the densely packed forest.

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‘How the Virgin Came to Brother Conrad in Offia and Laid her Son in his Arms’ (1892)

The standout moment of the show though falls to The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo, illustrating the medieval Italian Decameron of Boccaccio and the story of the young Ansaldo who created a garden filled with spring flowers and fruits in the middle of winter to win the love of Dianora. In a spectacular creation in watercolour Spartali weaves textures, colour and emotional intrigue to play with the relationship between these two leads.

While Maria Spartali married the older William Stillman and had several children, she continued to be a dedicated artist, with thrilling works inspired by her two step daughters  weaving rose garlands or Marianna trapped at her window also on display. Female purity and the complex relationship of women to the arts is at every turn in this show. And it is far too rare an insight into the creative backbone of one of the ‘stunner’s who’s face we know all too well.

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‘Kelmscott Manor: Feeding Doves in Kitchen Yard’ (1904)

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