'A feast for the eyes, mind and heart': Visitors hail 'revelatory' exhibition of forgotten painter Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E.R. Hughes. Until 21 February 2016.

You may think you know these magical pictures from posters and greetings cards, but there’s so much more to discover. That’s the message from visitors to the Enchanted Dreams exhibition, running until 21 February in the Gas Hall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. The first ever exhibition of the British artist Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914), Enchanted Dreams is revealing a forgotten painter of extraordinary talent.

The response we’ve had from visitors to the exhibition has been fantastic,

comments Victoria Osborne, Curator of Fine Art for Birmingham Museums Trust, who has been researching Hughes’s life and art for seven years.

They’ve been amazed and inspired by the range and quality of Hughes’s work. Many visitors have told us they came to the exhibition for Hughes’s famous fairy pictures, after seeing them on posters and greetings cards , and that the other works – especially his portraits and exquisite drawings – came as a complete surprise. The show has been a real revelation.

Enchanted Dreams is proving to be a landmark for Birmingham Museums, putting this unsung master of British art back into the spotlight where he belongs. Sadly, the exhibition is as ephemeral as one of Hughes’s fairy visions: when it ends on 21 February, his paintings and drawings will once again be dispersed across the world. Many of the works in the exhibition – including one of Hughes’s best-known pictures, Midsummer Eve are on loan from private collections and are unlikely to be displayed together again for generations. 

At the heart of the exhibition is Night with her Train of Stars (1912), which belongs to Birmingham’s own collection. It was given to the city in Hughes’s memory by the artist’s friends a century ago, in 1914. Night with her Train of Stars has become the most popular watercolour in Birmingham’s collection, captivating visitors with its intense colour, shimmering blue and gold surface, and tender imagery. “Hughes imagines Night as a gentle, maternal figure, cradling a sleeping child in her arms and scattering poppies, which symbolise sleep and oblivion,” explains Victoria. “Her ‘stars’ are a crowd of lively cupids who follow behind bearing shimmering lights. She gently hushes them so they don’t wake the sleeping child. The image is touching and comforting, but also has a darker poignancy: Hughes’s Night is an angel of death as well as sleep.”

Enchanted Dreams explores the hidden stories behind some of the most familiar images in British painting. It takes visitors on a journey through Hughes’s life and art, from his Pre-Raphaelite childhood to the luminous ‘blue phantasies’ like Night with her Train of Stars that he exhibited in London just before the First World War.

I wanted visitors to leave feeling that they had got to know Hughes as a man as well as a painter,” says Victoria Osborne. “The exhibition includes paintings and photographs of Hughes which really bring him to life. We meet him not only as an established artist, but as an angelic toddler in an early painting by his uncle Arthur Hughes, and as the beautiful young man whose good looks inspired artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Hughes was a victim of changing fashion in his own lifetime,” adds Victoria. “His works were painted with extraordinary finish and detail, but this kind of technique, together with his interest in fairy subjects and stories from literature, made his work seem increasingly old fashioned in the years before the First World War. When he died in 1914 he was almost immediately forgotten, and it took decades for him to be rediscovered and reassessed.

Now, a century after his death, Enchanted Dreams gives a first opportunity to appreciate fully Hughes’s technical brilliance and his distinctive imagination.

It’s easy to underestimate his talent, because his pictures are so immediately appealing. But this exhibition reveals other facets of Hughes: his perceptive and brilliant portraits, and his wonderful drawings in pencil and coloured chalks. By bringing his works together in one exhibition, Hughes is revealed as technically outstanding – a virtuoso draftsman and superb technician – but also as an artist who was in touch with some of the progressive developments in European art as well as the British art scene. Above all, Enchanted Dreams shows that Hughes had a rare and enduring gift: to inspire a profound emotional response. Visitors have told us again and again that they have not only enjoyed the exhibition but been deeply moved by it.

Victoria adds:

Works like Night with her Train of Stars and Midsummer Eve have become part of popular culture worldwide on greetings cards, posters and the internet, but are rarely seen in the original. This exhibition allows us to experience their extraordinary subtlety and beauty at first hand. But there is so much more to discover about ER Hughes than his famous fairy pictures. Enchanted Dreams is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rediscover this gifted artist and his work.

Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E.R. Hughes, including a magical Fairy Glen for children, runs at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery between 17 October 2015 and 21 February 2016. The Museum and Art Gallery is open Monday – Sunday 10am – 5pm, except Fridays 10.30am – 5pm (closed 24 – 26 December). Admission to the exhibition is Free for Children under 16, £7 Adults, and £6 Concessions. Online booking is available.

For more details, call 0121 348 8038 or visit www.birminghammuseums.org.uk.

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