Beauty in Thorns Revisited – And Stepping into the World of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Canberra.

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In 2017, I was lucky enough to be approached by Penguin Random House to review Kate Forsyth’s book, Beauty in Thorns, the story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and in particular, William Morris (Topsy), Ned Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the women who inspired them:  Janey Burden, Lizzie Siddal, and Georgie MacDonald, and in the final section, Georgie and Ned’s daughter, Margot. Ned, Dante and William used the women in their lives as models for their paintings based on myths, literature and fairy tales – amongst other themes. Some of the most famous paintings by these artists feature in the story, and it opens with John Everett Millais painting one of the most well-known Pre-Raphaelite works, Ophelia, based on a character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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Kate Forsyth is my go-to author, the one I will always read and devour within days – her adult, young adult and children’s fiction. Beauty in Thorns focusses on the stories of the women – and how they affected the art, what they themselves created, and why they created what they did. The men still have a role and voice, but it is Lizzie, Janey, Georgie and Margot whose voices are at the front and centre of the novel. The intricate links between all these people and those who come in and out of their lives, end in tragedy in some cases, but happiness in others. The art they created was seen as radical for their time, and Kate Forsyth hints at this when the artists discuss progress and reviews and shows. Reading this the first time was magical, but when I found out that a selection of the paintings were going to be shown in Canberra, I knew I wanted to see them – and not just as images on a screen or in a book (though I did buy the guide and a book of Christina Rossetti’s poetry), and we headed down for a few days.

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Ophelia, by John Everett Millais, featuring Elizabeth Siddal.

Starting from many paintings I was unfamiliar with, I saw the progression of subject matter, from the everyday themes, to modern life, faith, truth to nature, romance, portraits, and the ones I knew about, the ones linked to myth, fairy tale and literature, the latter themes being the ones focussed on in Kate’s novel, and the ones that everyone heading to the Tate or this exhibition likely knows about, but all their art is exquisite and it’s easy to see why they chose to paint in this style, and why Kate Forsyth was drawn to them.

2019 BadgeSeeing the paintings for myself, and reading the book during my visit, brought them to life more than ever before. The book coming to life in this way was magical and enriching, and brought a new dimension to the novel, knowing what the end result of what had occurred in the novel, and knowing the stories behind the paintings, and the names of the models that weren’t always credited on the placards, but are mentioned in the guide, was very enjoyable.

I’ve linked back to my original review here too but being able to visit the world Beauty in Thorns is based on was amazing, and I have bought a few post cards to display in my room of my favourite paintings.

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