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England’s Ashmolean Museum has acquired one of the most important Pre-Raphaelite paintings remaining in private hands. John Everett Millais’ (1829-1896) portrait of John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, has been on loan to the institution since January 2012. The work was officially given to the museum by the Art Council England under the Acceptance in Lieu of Inheritance plan, which stipulates that under British tax law debts can be written off in exchange for objects of national significance. The painting recently appeared in Tate Britain’s highly successful exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde.

Millais, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, was commissioned to paint the portrait in 1853 by Ruskin himself. While working on the painting, Milliais fell in love with Ruskin’s wife, which ultimately led to the breakdown of the Ruskins’ marriage, Millais’ friendship with Ruskin, and the artist’s involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. After marrying Ruskin’s wife, Effie, Millais gave the portrait to a friend in Oxford, Henry Wentworth Acland. The portrait remained in Acland’s family until his descendants sold it at Christie’s in 1965, where the late owner of the painting purchased it.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which formed in 1848, was a group of English painters, poets, and critics who rejected the traditional approaches to art and painting established by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo (1473-1564). Instead, the Pre-Raphaelites turned to medieval and early Renaissance art for inspiration often painting subjects from Shakespeare and the Bible. Pre-Raphaelitism, which rattled Britain from 1848 to 1900, was considered the country’s first avant-garde movement.

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When Jane Cordery, an art teacher in Hampshire, England discovered a portrait of a white owl in her attic, she was struck by the painting’s sophisticated brushwork. Upon her unearthing, Cordery decided to email a photo of the work to Christie’s in London.

The auction house determined that the painting, titled The White Owl (1856) was the work of pre-Raphaelite artist William James Webbe (fluent 1953-1878) and valued the painting at $113,449. Further research proved that The White Owl had been exhibited at the United Kingdom’s Royal Society during the mid-nineteenth century. It was here that famed art critic, John Ruskin, viewed the work and remarked on its painstaking composition.

The Webbe painting headed to Christie’s Victorian art sale last week and sold for $951,050, exceeding its estimated price and setting the record for the artist at auction. An anonymous British dealer purchased The White Owl at the Christie’s sale. While Cordery claims she had never seen the painting before, her partner said that he received the work as a gift from his mother.

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