[The Awakening Conscience (1853) William Holman Hunt]
Years ago, when the children were little and we were in the midst of reading many fine illustrated books by the likes of Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Shirley Hughes, Sarah Garland, John Burningham, Quentin Blake, Helen Oxenbury, and Jill Murphy, I came across a thought-provoking article by Anthony Browne whose Willy books we all enjoyed. In it, he wrote that children need to develop their 'visual literacy' just as much as their verbal literacy. They, and the adults they become, need to be able to read/decode images for patterns, symbols, clues and messages, metaphors, jokes, and irony.
[Our English Coasts ('Strayed Sheep') 1852 William Holman Hunt]
These thoughts came back to me when I saw the Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate last week. Now there's an exhibition that requires a high level of visual literacy; these painters are nothing if not determined to cram in as many messages and symbols and morals as possible into their canvases. William Holman Hunt, in particular, likes to take the moral high ground wherever possible; as he grows older the enormous painting get odder and more bizarre, and have the effect of making me feel horribly queasy.
[The Triumph of the Innocents (c.1883) William Holman Hunt]
Although I have always been interested in the PRs, I've never considered myself a true devotee, preferring instead to pick and choose the works I like. And, once again, what comes out of a walk round the exhibition is a sense of young men trying too hard to convert the world to their ideas by making viewers aware of every last message of an image (not mention the fact that virtually all their women look utterly miserable or sullen or ill). Far better are the more subtle, natural, less overtly demanding portraits and scenes and moments of everyday life. But you couldn't ask for a better tutorial in visual literacy than the exhibition as a whole.