Presentation on theme: "Victorian Art An Imperfect Legacy Queen Victoria: Self Portrait 1846."— Presentation transcript:
Victorian Art An Imperfect Legacy Queen Victoria: Self Portrait 1846
“Flaming June” 1895 Lord Leighton In the early 1960s, Andrew Lloyd Webber asked his grandmother for a loan of £50 to buy Lord Leighton’s painting of “Flaming June” from a shop in the Fulham Road. Her response was ” No, I will not have Victorian Junk in my flat!”
For much of the 20th cent, Victorian Art was unfashionable and seen as devoid of interest. Art critics were bleakly negative. The Pre- Raphaelites were dismissed as being of “ utter insignificance in the history of European culture” and but a “shallow interlude in Victorian philistinism” and their paintings were but “a bonnet shop”! Sir Kenneth Clark, more in sorrow than anger, considered Victorian Art as not very good, produced in a slack period in the history of art. But times and fashions and critical criteria change. Victorian Art has been rehabilitated to the point where in 2000 a then very affluent Baron Lloyd-Webber had to pay £6 million for another Victorian painting, “St Cecilia” by John Waterhouse, to add to his impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
“St Cecilia” 1895 JW Waterhouse
Victorian Art is now very much part of our cultural crown jewels and I propose to tell its story in the context of its social history. In 1769 the Royal Academy of Arts was founded to improve the training and raise the status of British artists for reasons of national prestige. This ensured that Art became part of an emerging British public culture. This elitist body, part public institution, part private club was devoted to the maintenance of the traditional standards and values associated with High Art. It did not encourage innovation as Victorian painters discovered to their cost and the RA’s reputation suffered in the later part of the 19th cent. because of its conservatism. The early 19th century saw reformers target the inaccessibility of art in Britain caused by the ownership of Britain’s art treasures by social elites and by problems of geography and the cost of access. What was the point of art if it was invisible to most of the population? A triumph of Victoria’s reign was the creation of public art galleries in London and most of our major cities through a combination of private philanthropy and Government authority In 1824, Parliament acquired several collections of Old Masters and founded the The National Gallery of England to “improve the taste of the public”. Housed in a tenement in the Mall, it did not compare favourably with the Louvre and a new purpose-built gallery was opened in 1838 by Queen Victoria. It was located in Trafalgar Square to provide convenient access to all classes. It was argued in Parliament by one of its aristocratic supporters that “it would be frequented by the industrious classes, instead of them resorting to ale houses, as at present.” The public loved it. In 1848 The National Gallery admitted over 700,000 visitors from all classes, an indication that High Art was becoming part of Popular Culture.
A Party of Working Men at the National Gallery 1870
It was enormously significant that Art had become an element of government policy because it was believed that exposure to it improved the moral and spiritual condition of all classes. There were high hopes that Art would win the battle against Alcohol and redeem the urban proletariat. With creditable foresight, the Government eventually provided an annual grant for the purchase of pictures which enabled the Gallery to assemble the great collection we enjoy today.. Even Sunday Opening of Galleries to improve access was eventually conceded later in the 19th cent. against strong opposition in Parliament.
The Debate on Public Access
Legislation was passed in 1845 allowing any town with a population of more than to establish an art or science museum on the rates. The result is a legacy of municipal art galleries in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and other cities and towns with fine collections of contemporary Victorian Art often donated by local benefactors and private civic institutions. The success of the 1851 Great Exhibition provided the money to create what has become the V&A, our popular national museum of the decorative arts and design. The Exhibition had shown the designs of British manufactures compared unfavourably with those of other countries. This shock catalysed the founding of Art and Design Schools around the country to serve British Industry and some of them still nurture sparks of British creativity today. Another 19th cent problem was that London, the Heart of the Empire, lacked a gallery to showcase British Art to the world. Exhibitions at the Royal Academy and elsewhere and travelling art shows provided only limited and impermanent opportunities to view British painting. It was estimated in the 1890’s, that since the time of Hogarth in the mid 1700’s, the British School had produced some 20 to artists whose work was largely unrecognized. Quantity was not a problem. For the Government, money was. The National Gallery was not the answer because a bias towards pre-modern foreign art had dominated its acquisitions since its foundation. It was an institution so conservative that it did not possess a single modern French painting until This anti-modern bias persisted in the 20th century with the unfortunate consequence that Britain does not have a fully representative collection of early 20th century Modern Art.
We have to be grateful to Henry Tate, the sugar baron and philanthropist for a memorable legacy. He harried and bullied a reluctant government to accept his offer of his collection of contemporary British painting and the money to build a gallery to house it. The government provided a site and The National Gallery of British Art dedicated to “the encouragement and development of British Art” or the Tate Gallery as it became known was opened in 1897 by the Prince of Wales. The Hundred Years War between the Tate and the National Gallery then erupted and it was only ended with the opening of Tate Modern a century later. It is worth mentioning also that in 1896 the National Portrait Gallery finally moved to its permanent home next door to the National Gallery to house the images of the Nation’s heroes. But what can be said about the art created for the new patrons and the new mass market in the 60 years of Victoria’s reign- the Age of Steam Power, Steel, Machines, Empire, Reform and Education. It started on a high note with that greatest of Victorian painters, Joseph Turner, sensing the seismic changes which were unfolding around him. He produced 2 iconic paintings embracing the beauty and power in technology and the end of the old way of doing things:
“The Fighting Temeraire” 1838 JW Turner detail
“Rain, Steam and Speed” J W Turner 1844
Perhaps these paintings were and are the definitive images of the Age of Steam. If Turner intended that nothing more needed to be said on the matter then Victorian painters took him at his word: there is little mark of an Industrial Revolution on Victorian Painting. Victorians did not want pictures of the rapid industrialisation happening around them and so artists did not engage with Technology. Even the splendid painting of “Work” by Ford Madox Brown is about navvies “in the pride of health and manly beauty” Muscles not machines were what mattered
“Work” Ford Madox Brown
“A Young Widow” 1877 Edward Killingworth Johnson In an age of Revolution and Reform, the cautious nature of Victorian Taste often produced conservative and escapist art. As the Art Journal said ”we are conservative by education, habit and principle “ Artists gave Victorians what they wanted: paintings that told stories and reinforced virtue and family values, sentimental pictures evoking strong emotions and paintings showing death, disasters and war. The evocative image of “The Young Widow” by Edward Johnson is a good example of an early soap opera format.
There was a taste for the Classical world, for the Medieval and for animals, children, and semi-nude women. Artists often looked to the Bible, Poetry and Literature for inspiration. Portraits and Landscapes were always in demand. Even Fairies were popular possibly because of their importance in British folk culture. Sleep was also a fashionable theme. John Fitzgerald, a then well known painter of portraits and fairies painted his reaction to the Age of Speed. His work “The Painters Dream” is a curious composition showing the artist in a drug- induced coma surrounded by fairies and goblins.
“The Painter’s Dream” 1857 J A Fitzgerald
“The Sleeping Beauty” E Burne-Jones Even the great artist Edward Burne Jones could not resist putting everyone to sleep in his beautiful painting of “The Sleeping Beauty”.
He was in love with the archaic. His objective in life was “to wage a Crusade and Holy Warfare against the Age” Victorian Art is technically proficient and conservative in style.It is well represented in our national and municipal collections and with a promiscuously wide range of subjects, it makes for interesting viewing Progressive, it was not! Even the reformist Pre- Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement looked back to earlier times to validate their ideas rather than to the future. In Architecture, the popularity of Victorian Gothic is another case in point. The status of Women Artists was improved in the Victorian Era and some made distinctive contributions to Victorian Art. They were first admitted as students to the Royal College of Art in 1837 and one wonders whether the new Queen influenced that decision. However, in their life drawing classes young women were protected by having to use a male model wearing a suit of armour. Admission to the Royal Academy Schools followed in with the armour replaced by a drape. Sadly, no woman was honoured with Membership of the Royal Academy in the 19th century. The invention of photography in the 1830’s and the development of paper prints by Henry Fox-Talbot meant that painting now had a new competitor as an art form. From its early days as a child of Victorian physics and chemistry, painting influenced photography and vice versa. This photo of “The Open Door” by Fox-Talbot is clearly influenced by 17th cent. Dutch painting.
“The Open Door” 1843 W H Fox-Talbot
“My Niece Julia Jackson” 1867 Julia Cameron Some two decades later, the photographs of Julia Cameron presented a new challenge for portrait painters.
“The Derby Day” W P Frith However artists soon realized that they could use photographs to achieve realistic representations more easily. William Frith was the first to do so in his very successful painting of England at play on “Derby Day”.
A critic wrote in the Art Journal, the conservative voice of the Victorian Art Establishment “it was the picture of the season but the tone of the subject was essentially vulgar and no supremacy of execution can redeem it”. And now the painting is a National Treasure. Prints based on original paintings had been part of the art market since the 18th century. Photo-based engraving techniques allowed the mass production of cheap prints for the domestic market and Art prints were regularly included in, for example, The Illustrated London News and other journals
Print: “Crossing Lancaster Sands” JM Turner 1877
Boring a Gun 1875 The new technology catalysed a huge expansion of pictorial journalism and it is there that one can find images of the Industrial Activity that are hard to find in Victorian painting.
“Bubbles” 1886 J E Millais Pears Soap Advertisement Pictorial advertising also developed; the most famous example being that of Millais’ painting “Bubbles” which was used to sell Pears Soap.
Art news and art criticism become an important feature of popular journalism. The writings of John Ruskin, the most famous of Victorian art critics, were a major influence in the 19th cent. debates about the nature of Art. In summary, I believe that the evolution of Art Culture in the Age of Victoria into a creative activity of national importance supported by a Public- Private partnership was a major achievement which for the last hundred years has served us well. Some Art Historians have claimed that in his later work Turner was the first Impressionist painter. He is certainly a claimant but there are other candidates such as David Cox, for example, who painted this lovely picture of “Rhyll Sands” in 1855.
“Rhyll Sands” 1855 David Cox
“Balmoral” 1865 Queen Victoria Whatever their merits, she deserves to be nominated for a posthumous Turner Prize, if not for her art but for the Britain she left behind in 1901