Fine art: The artists inspired by a mythical Britain

A detail from Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse

What do you do at the end of your life if you’ve built up an impressive private collection of artwork?

Cecil French, a friend of the poet WB Yeats and the actress Florence Farr, was an unsuccessful artist and poet himself, but he collected Pre-Raphaelite art, which had gone out of fashion so was reasonably affordable, throughout his lifetime. On his death in 1953, 45 drawings and watercolours went to the Print Room at the British Museum, but a significant part of his collection was left to Hammersmith and Fulham Council in London. Why? Because French owned several paintings by the leading Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and hoped the council would establish a gallery at the Grange in Fulham, the artist’s home of 30 years. That never happened – the large Georgian house was demolished in the 1960s – and instead the paintings have spent most of the past half-century or more in storage, largely unseen.

Now, in collaboration with a small gallery near Guildford, they are being shown, many of them for the first time in decades, as A Pre-Raphaelite Collection Unveiled: the Cecil French Bequest. It’s unusual to have an exhibition dedicated to a private collection – and the venue, the Watts Gallery, is also unusual. It’s dedicated to the work of one artist, George Frederick Watts, whose life spanned most of the 19th century and just into the 20th; but it regularly devotes a couple of rooms to specialist exhibitions of Victorian art.

It’s no surprise that the Burne-Jones paintings and drawings are at the heart of this small but significant exhibition. There’s a gorgeous watercolour of King Arthur’s half-sister Morgan le Fay gathering herbs at dusk for a magical potion, which the artist cut into fragments, but which was later reassembled by one of his followers. The Pre-Raphaelites were fascinated by the mythological history of Britain.

They were also greatly inspired by classical mythology. Burne-Jones’s The Wheel of Fortune shows Fortune turning the wheel on which nude figures of a king, a slave and a poet are bound – an unambiguous message that whatever our station in life, fate can treat us all with equal disregard. His Cupid Delivering Psyche is another beautiful classical subject. Taken from The Golden Ass of Apuleius, the story of Cupid and Psyche is often seen as an allegory of the yearning of the soul for God.

There are also works by GF Watts, who set up the gallery shortly before his own death in 1904, by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse, by Frederic, Lord Leighton, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and a few lesser-known artists.

The heartening news is that, with Hammersmith and Fulham Council and the Watts Gallery working so closely together on this exhibition, for which some of the paintings were restored, there now seems to be a chance that a permanent home will at last be found for the display of Cecil French’s Pre-Raphaelite collection.

A Pre-Raphaelite Collection Unveiled: the Cecil French Bequest is at the Watts Gallery near Guildford until June 3