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  • Fiona Prior

Love and Desire

Love and Desire

Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate

I love it when there occurs an intersection of good things in life. I experienced one such serendipitous moment in Canberra, there to see Love and Desire, an exhibition of the gorgeously romantic works of the Pre-Raphaelites.

image: ‘The Legend of St George and the Dragon, VI: St George Kills the Dragon’ 1866, Edward Burne-Jones

It all came about because of the image by Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Legend of St George and the Dragon, VI: St George Kills the Dragon’ (1866). I did a double-take in front of this painting as the dragon in this work is a Komodo Dragon (a species still scampering round the Island of Komodo and Flores) and not the scaled, winged, fire-breathing variety that you would expect in this mythologically themed work. I was intrigued with regard to how a Komodo dragon figured in this 1866 painting. Wrong country, wrong (real) dragon in a mythological work … just ‘wrong’ all round?

image: Komodo Dragon (same feet, same tail, same size, same dragon species?)

The next day I was sharing brunch with a group of friends, one of them the scholar Raimy Che-Ross (who once discovered an ancient city in the jungles by the Johor River no less! More here ). Raimy suggested that the Zoological Society of London was established round the same time or a little before the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Possibly there was a Komodo Dragon in the exotic species section of the zoo, or maybe the society’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles had come across an image or reference to the creature in his explorations in South East Asia?

A little more research and I discovered Raimy was on the money with regards to the Zoological Society of London, as it was established in 1826. Unfortunately for my theory though, I could find no reference to the Komodo Dragon until 1898, post-dating the Burne-Jones’ painting.

image: ‘Ophelia’ (detail) 1852, Sir John Everett Millais

But back to the main game. Of course the Pre-Raphaelite was exquisite. Sir John Everett Millais’ ravishing ‘Ophelia’ is surrounded by wild flower and river weed as she floats to her death, the equally ravishing 'Lady of Shalott' by John William Waterhouse sails on the barge to her own doom after being unable to resist looking directly at the humongously handsome Si Lancelot from her prison tower and 'Circe' the Enchantress weaves her spell on just about anybody who sees her in the William Waterhouse painting. It is captivating and churlish of me to note, amongst such mythological themes, that we women seem to be bearing Christ, dying of love or casting wicked spells, a lot:)

image: ‘The Lady of Shalott’ 1888, John William Waterhouse

Most enjoyable of all however was the combination of elements: a gorgeous exhibition, an out of town dash with beloved people then a meeting with friends not seen for a while, and the wonderment of a Komodo Dragon who has curiously wandered onto a nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite canvas. Just fabulous!

image: ‘Circe Invidiosa’ John William Waterhouse

until 28 April 2019

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