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A Pre-Raphelite Introduction to Art

Updated: Sep 5, 2020

In order to introduce our team, we decided to ask each individual member just what moment or artwork it was that introduced them to the world of art and how that moment has impacted their life within art history so far.

To kick things off we have our Events Manager, George Millership, showing us the turning point of his life towards the field of art history.


My first introduction to the world of art that I can remember wasn’t all that unusual. It was within a city art gallery, soaked from the rain outside, and standing in front of a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

I’m sure most seven-year-olds have had a similar moment. But, sodden to the skin and seeing water nymphs emerging from similar damp depths seemingly in front of me, had a monumental effect.

My experience with Hylas and the Nymphs wasn’t transformative, it didn’t make my heart beat fast or my eyes well up as many paintings have done since. The painting instead showed me something, something of how humans are capable of creating apparently breathing worlds from static objects.

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It was a disconnect: I knew someone had created this swamp and its mythological inhabitants, in the same way I created box houses and smiling suns from crayon. But I simply could not make the mental link between the physical action of applying pigment to canvas, and this framed world of swaying lily pads, silt, and song. It showed me the magic a brush and canvas could do.

Technically, mastery is rarely the most important aspect in determining the “quality” of an artwork. Indeed, looking back at the painting how, Hylas’ arm is far too long in proportion to his body, despite the Pre-Raphelite emphasis on naturalism. But for a seven-year-old to apparently sink from the grey skies of Manchester and into the green swathes of Grecian myth meant escape – an enrapturement in images I’ve held ever since.

Detail from John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Rightfully, Hylas and the Nymphs has been held under academic and popular scrutiny as a textbook example of the male gaze. In 2017, Sonia Boyce staged a ‘take-down’ of the painting, when she removed it from the gallery walls and had local drag performers re-interpret other gendered paintings within the gallery space. I wrote a bit more on this for Artsy, and as an adult, I’m much more interested in the identity politics of art than its illusionism.

But it’s raining in Manchester as I write this. And the art gallery has just re-opened after the peak of this pandemic. And after months of not being transported by the results of brush and paint, I know exactly which painting I will be viewing first; I’ll stand, gawping and dripping from the wet, as I did fourteen years ago.

George Millership (left) is the Events Manager for the Edinburgh University History of Art Society. Millership has published writings in Artsy alongside his studies and plans to write more in the future.

Written by George Millership c. 2020.

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