Welcoming the Pre Raphs

In 2017, I wrote a blog as I left my year-long role as Coordinator for the Bouts Public Display and Activity Plan. I was sad as, although I’m not a massive blog writer, I thought that was to be my last. I remember ending it with three questions to myself:

‘Would I have changed anything [about my time at The Bowes Museum]? No.

Did I enjoy my time there? Definitely.

Given the chance, would I go back for a third time?… In a heartbeat.’

Well, I’m happy to say that I got that third chance. One which now sees me as Exhibition Assistant, a role which I couldn’t be happier to have. Admittedly, this is a role which I actually started just over 2 years ago… but it’s better late than never for another blog right?!

And what better way to come back with than by writing about what I know best- Exhibition installs. The Pre Raphaelite Knights: Reinventing the Medieval World install to be precise.

My first encounter with the Pre Raphaelite Knights project was all the way back in 2015 when I was a Creative Apprentice. I remember having the task of pulling together a 40+ strong object list of amazing paintings from venues up and down the country, ready for request letters to be sent. Truth be told, this is a project that’s been discussed and worked on for many years before that, however, 2020 was to be the year in which this colourful, impressive show was to finally open and to me (although maybe slightly biased), it was certainly worth the wait.

With the help of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, we secured a strong list of objects from various venues, including the Tate, Manchester Art Gallery and The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Through the various images, the exhibition looks at four different themes: National Identity, the Sacred, the Depiction of Women and Chivalry.

Organising logistics for loans takes months at a time, however once this was all complete, the week of install finally came in January.

Now, for all you can check and double check and check once more, I still never quite loose the fear of wondering whether the crated works are A) definitely going to fit through our front door and B) are able to be carried up the stairs.

One of the largest pieces, The Knight Errant by Sir John Everett Millais, has been displayed at the museum once before, exactly 100 years ago in 1920. This unintentional fluke generated many questions, however the one that came most to our minds was ‘How in the world did they get this up the stairs back then?’

Make sure you lift with the knees…

Thankfully, all the works made it safely into the gallery and the week long install could begin!

Many of the pieces came couriered to the museum, which means that a representative from the loaning venue travels with their object/s and oversees all elements of their install; from the unpacking, right through to the hanging.

As with many of our large-scale installations, we worked with North Exhibition Services to help us hang the works.

For most, this meant adopting our usual routine of carefully handling and holding the works into place, in order for someone to attach them to the wall. However, due to the size of some pieces, we had to use a slightly more mechanical approach.

Using the forklift helped to take the weight of the larger paintings, meaning that the handlers (and Vin [Exhibition Officer] and George [Exhibition Manager]) could focus on steadying the work.

Heavy duty paintings, call for heavy duty machinery

Although the exhibition is mainly painting based, we also have a selection of other objects, including a copy of Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King from Lincolnshire Archives, wooden idols representing saints such as St George and Joan of Arc and a two-handed sword kindly loaned by Glamis Castle.

It’s great to have a variety of objects in an exhibition, as it helps us to appeal to a wider audience. For example, although paintings may not fully interest an armour enthusiast, replica pieces just might. And by having these alongside paintings showing different kinds of armour, we can hopefully then ignite that interest in the works which the person might not have known they had… that’s the hope anyway!

Two-handed sword of Medieval origin

Once all the objects were in place, we could start to add in the graphics. Similar to the Jonathan Yeo Skin Deep exhibition, which we held in 2018, we wanted to add in different points of view to the exhibition, from both a historic and contemporary angle. For this, we asked PhD student Dan Oliver and Untitled10 artist Lady Kitt to contribute, with brilliant results! While Dan focused on the idea of chivalry and female intercession, Lady Kitt looked at how their initial love of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood was altered and encouraged them to search for their own Otherhood.

Sifting through the captions… hoping there are no typos!

By involving external voices to contribute to the narrative of our shows, we hope to add a different- often personable- viewpoint to help our visitors engage in different ways. Hopefully, this will be something we continue with in future exhibitions as well!

So, I guess that’s it… To say that’s the gist of an install feels pretty blasé, but I hope I’ve given a little bit of an insight into what we get up to in the Exhibitions team.

Despite the slightly confusing logistics of which courier we had in the building, with what painting and when (sadly this will permanently be ingrained in my mind until the exhibition leaves!), the Pre Raphaelite Knights install was a great success.

To finally see the exhibition come to fruition after all this time felt like a massive achievement and one which I’m glad that I was able to come back and be part of.

Now… time to plan the deinstall!

Blog by: Catherine Dickinson, Exhibition Assistant

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