If the public were given a vote about who should be the winner of the 2012 Turner Prize, then judging from the scribbled notes posted upon it, the comment board would be a strong contender. That and the Pre Raphaelites, whom the Tate, perhaps rather unkindly, from the point of view of this year’s shortlist, had bundled into a double ticket. Of course comment boards can’t win art prizes – why this one is only a few days old and the Pre Raphelites are all dead and if they were alive would be over 150 years old, not under 50 as specified in the rules.
The Pre Raphaelite exhibition brought together works by Millais, Ford Maddox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones and a host of others. Not all of them were to my taste; some pictures such as the death of Chatterton or Ophelia were so familiar, that it was almost impossible to have any reaction other than, “oh yes, there it is”. Some of them to modern eyes were overly sentimental. I did not much care for the religious imagery in the Scapegoat; actually I didn’t like the goat itself. But there were some wonderful works there. In Isabella, the painting inspired by Keats’ poem Millais had captured such extraordinary expressions on the faces of the people round the room. Isabella herself is so sensitively portrayed as she submits to the interrogation and fondles her dog for comfort. The bully aims a kick at it; round the window grow herbs reminding us that her lover will be killed and that she will bury his head in a pot of basil. Millais was 19 when he painted it.
Virtually all of the paintings in the exhibition exhibited such an extraordinary degree of skill. Flesh looked lifelike, colours were vibrant, there was amazing detail; I was particularly impressed about how the quality and texture of cloth could be rendered in paint in paintings such as Burne Jones’ the Golden Stairs. I wondered how many artists today would be capable of producing works of that quality. I was aware that going straight into the Turner Prize exhibition would bring an abrupt and probably uncomfortable jump into the 21st century. And so it proved.
The first work the visitor sees are the huge intricate graphite pencil drawings of Paul Noble. It was interesting to see the progression of his drawing from 1996, when there was still evidence of lines having been rubbed out and redrawn, to the work of the present day which is so meticulous it is hard to believe that it does not involve some degree of printing. The drawings are of the fictional city Nobson Newtown and include hands and abundant turd like objects. Most impressive are the way his drawings can portray transparent buildings. It is astonishing what can be done with just a pencil and an obsessive mind.