his essay will do two things. First, provide an introduction to Victorian art, and second, explore a particular problem in the philosophy of art history. In terms of the problem, a book-length treatment would be required to address it properly, but, even so, it is possible to give a fairly detailed outline of both the problem and the route to its solution. In terms of method, I employ empirical historical analysis and a phenomenological approach emphasizing the body's role in perception.1
For much of the twentieth century, Victorian art was regarded unfavourably in the English-speaking artworld. It was taken to be anecdotal and/or moralizing, rather than true to the authentic artistic creativity revealed by modernist work. However, from the 1960s, the situation gradually changed. Important survey books by Quentin Bell, and then Jeremy Maas showed something of the rich scope of Victorian painting. Other works, such as Allen Staley's study of Pre-Raphaelite landscape, showed how Victorian art could sustain real depth of intellectual investigation. And an important and well-researched touring exhibition of Great Victorian Pictures in 1978 played a more general educative role.2
Since the 1980s, interest in Victorian art has grown exponentially, and now there are numerous survey books, individual monograph studies, and, in some cases, collections of essays, on most of the important artists.3
It is clear from all these studies that in many respects Victorian art is diverse. It is less fashionable to suggest that there may be a basic unity of style that subtends this diversity. The possibility of such unity is the "problem in the philosophy of art history" that I referred to in my opening paragraph.
Unity of style in this context is an example of what Erwin Panofsky called "iconology," or, the problem of "intrinsic meaning." It focuses on "those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion—qualified by one personality and condensed into one work" (Meaning in the Visual Arts 55). According to Panofsky, these basic principles "underlie the choice and presentation of motifs, as well as the production and interpretation of images, stories and allegories, and which give meaning even to the formal arrangements and technical procedures employed…"4
Panofsky himself did not explore the notion of iconology in a satisfying way. His famous little book on Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, for example, addresses analogies between medieval artistic and philosophical practices, but in strictly formal terms that fails to relate them to the broader socio-economic aspects of the society that produced them. In this essay, in contrast, I shall discuss the intrinsic stylistic meaning of Victorian artworks in a way that does take account of socio-economic factors.
The idea of "intrinsic stylistic meaning" is not fashionable. Much contemporary art history has been influenced by aspects of postmodern relativist "Theory" and would be wholly sceptical about the very possibility of such meaning. However, I have elsewhere shown the inadequacy of such scepticism in great detail, and have argued for the centrality of style.5
My investigation will start by considering what is probably the most internationally well-known aspect of English Victorian art—the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (hereafter referred to as the "PRB"). The group was founded in London in 1848 by William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), John Everett Millais (1829–1896), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). It was joined also by the painter James Collinson (1825–1881), the sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825–1892), and two writers on art, William Michael Rossetti (1829–1919), and Frederick George Stephens (1828–1907). The name PRB derives from the desire to accomplish something of the style and sincerity of art before it was reduced‐by academic teaching—to the formulaic study of Raphael and other great masters.
Unfortunately, a recent important work of scholarship on the Pre-Raphaelites has tended to misrepresent rather than clarify the significance of the group. Only by first correcting this, can the nature of the Victorian style be properly understood.
The Myth of Pre-Raphaelite Avant-Gardism
The problem arises from a major exhibition—Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Gallery, 2012–2013). In the exhibition catalogue, it is asserted that
This book and exhibition present the art of the Pre-Raphaelites as an avant-garde movement… The term "avant-garde" describes an organized grouping with a self-conscious radical, collective project of overturning current orthodoxies in art with new, critical practices often directly engaged with the contemporary world. It has usually been associated with movements such as Impressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. Pre-Raphaelitism belongs among the very earliest of the historical avant-gardes.6
Now, if we take avant-garde to mean no more than "very radical," then the Pre-Raphaelites might be described as avant-garde. However, this tells us nothing, and obscures a great deal. In his major study of the avant-garde, Peter Burger observes that it is "a distinguishing feature of the avant-garde movements that they did not develop a style. There is no such thing as a Dadaist or surrealist style. What did happen is that these movements… liquidate the possibility of a period style…"7
The liquidation referred to by Burger consists in the way avant-garde practice questions the scope and limits of artworks as modes of representation. The PRB and its legacy does not have such significance, even remotely. Their works have a style (as we shall see). And whilst their paintings are stylistically innovative they do not help revolutionize what counts as art (in the way, for example, that Impressionism eventually did through undermining the importance of "finish" in painting). Indeed, the highly detailed character of PRB works was eventually absorbed into much mainstream academic art practice. And the medievalizing thematics of Rossetti (and later followers such as Edward Burne-Jones) proved mainly significant for tendencies in Victorian and post-Victorian applied arts.
The PRB's own writings support this interpretation. From them it becomes clear that what drove these young artists was a belief in looking at nature for inspiration and attending to its details, rather than using formulae from past art, or contemporary populist styles. In later life, Millais stated the point uncompromisingly. "The Pre-Raphaelites had but one idea—to present on canvas what they saw in nature" (Letters 1896). Surprisingly, the aforementioned exhibition Catalogue does not even mention the single most extended statement of the Pre-Raphaelite project. It is offered by William Rossetti, the member who acted as a kind of secretary to the group. He observes that "the bond of vision among the Members of the Brotherhood was really and simply this—1. to have genuine ideas to express; 2. to study nature attentively so as to know how to express them; 3. to sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self parodying and learned by rote; and 4. and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues."8
The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition emphasizes, also, the importance of the great writer and watercolourist John Ruskin (1819–1900), treating him, in effect, as a thinker who influenced the formation of the PRB. We are told, for example, that "The young members of the PRB avidly read volumes one and two of Modern Painters, Ruskin's spirited defense of Joseph Mallord William Turner and landscape painting published in 1846. Ruskin was a key influence" (Barringer, Rosenfeld, and Smith 86). The authors of the Catalogue are by no means alone in this belief. Allen Staley, for example, also emphasizes the fact that "the Pre-Raphaelites had certainly been exposed to Ruskin and his ideas through his books" (7).
However, in his account of his father's life and letters John Guille Millais suggests that Millais senior (John Everett) was not at all receptive to Ruskin. Indeed, he emphasizes that no less a person than Holman Hunt himself told him that Millais "was never for a moment influenced by Ruskin's teaching" (Millais 61) and that, when asked to read vol. 1 of Modern Painters, he "resolutely refused to do so, saying he had his own ideas… Probably no artist in England read less on art or on his own doings than Millais."9
W. M. Rossetti also downplays Ruskin's relation to the PRB. We are told that "though it is true that Hunt had read and taken to heart in 1847 the first volume of Modern Painters… I do not think any other PRB (with the possible exception of Collinson) had, up to 1848 or later, read him at all" (Rossetti 135).
Oddly enough, it seems that even Holman Hunt's reading of Modern Painters vol. 1 was more a "one-off" acquaintance, rather than a sustained study. He recounts, for example, that he had great delight in "skimming over" the book after borrowing a copy for twenty-four hours from a student called Telfer, who had, in turn, borrowed it from Cardinal Wiseman. In Holman Hunt's words, "To get through the book I sat up most of the night, and I had to return it ere I made acquaintance with a quota of the good there was in it. But of all its readers none could have felt more strongly than myself that it was written expressly for him" (see Homan Hunt vol. 1, 90, for the "skimming over" remark; and 73 for the account of borrowing the book, and for the quotation). The last sentence here, suggests, in the very strongest terms, that for Holman Hunt, the impact of reading Ruskin was in terms of the confirmation of his own existing views, rather than the origination of new ones. This interpretation is supported by J. G. Millais's observation that Hunt had read the borrowed copy of Ruskin's book "with enthusiasm, as partially embodying his own preconceived ideal of art" (Millais 61). Indeed, Hunt actually specifies what it was about Ruskin's ideas that excited him. Whereas he previously believed that modern England tolerated art only as "vagabond cleverness," Ruskin's text showed him that there was someone else "who with unaffected enthusiasm cherished that taste which in the survey of prehistoric eras at once distinguishes man from the brute" (Holman Hunt 73). What enthuses Holman Hunt, in other words, is Ruskin's general affirmation of the civilizing role of artistic creation.
Now, for Ruskin truth to nature is an intrinsic feature of such creation, but it is clear from Holman Hunt's memoirs (however imaginatively they might have been fleshed out retrospectively) that he was already sympathetic to the importance of this truth before reading Ruskin. Indeed, a shared sympathy for it seems to have been instrumental in cementing Holman Hunt's and Millais's friendship in the first place (See Holman Hunt 42–67 and Millais 49). Of course, Ruskin did become a direct influence on the PRB after his letters of support for them were published in The Times in 1851. However, as my analysis shows, there is no evidence that he influenced the formation and beliefs of the PRB.
The importance of keeping Ruskin and the PRB separate in the 1840s, is that it shows the interest in truth to nature, to be an outcome of independently originated conceptions of art. Indeed, in the years immediately preceding Victoria's accession to the throne, another artist—John Constable (1776–1837) had also expressed some similar ideas. He notes, for example, that "When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is, to forget that I have ever seen a picture" (Leslie 279). Also, "The young painter, who, regardless of present popularity, would leave a name behind him must become the patient pupil of nature…"10
It can be argued, then, that the PRB, Ruskin's work, and, indeed, Constable's theory and practice involve separate approaches to theory and practice that converge, nevertheless, on the rejection of academic formulae and insistence on the authority of nature. This convergence of separate tendencies is the first indicator of an underlying unity of style that is present at the outset of the Victorian era. The PRB's own work and their writings make it very clear that they are not a real avant-garde diverging from other art practices in revolutionary ways. They are simply fed up with the academy schools' methods of learning by rote and copying great masters, and want to compose their works through looking intensely at nature itself. As young men they enjoyed the sense of being involved in the PRB as a "secret society," but it was one geared towards exhibiting and selling pictures, getting recognition, and enjoying convivial company in the pursuit of this, rather than organizing for artistic revolution. Their short lived journal The Germ, of 1850, is more a contemporary arts magazine than a manifesto. And, throughout their careers, all the artist members of the PRB (with the exception of D. G. Rossetti) exhibited at the Royal Academy and sought success there. Millais and Woolner became important full Academicians, the former, indeed, briefly serving as President of the institution.
What makes the Pre-Raphaelites radical is how they understand truth to nature—adapting techniques of painting to it, and then using it to rejuvenate or transform stylistic idioms already in place by the mid-1840s (an issue I shall return to in detail, in part III). Their techniques offer, in other words, an extreme form of what is already in the air. To suppose that the Pre-Raphaelites are avant-garde, making some qualitative break with the art practice of their contemporaries is to misunderstand both them, and, more importantly, the unity of style in Victorian art.
To understand this unity in fuller terms, however, we must now consider the circumstances from which Victorian art emerged, and then the socio-economic and cultural basis of the Victorian artworld itself.
Society, Religion, and the Artworld before Victoria's Reign
When Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom in 1837, British society was undergoing major transformations. The industrial revolution accelerated after 1815, with machine and factory-based production making traditional cottage industries, such as handloom weaving, obsolete. In both England and Scotland, this brought about a widespread movement of impoverished workers into the cities, seeking employment. Unfortunately, factory work often involved the harshest conditions—with long hours of monotonous labour, and appallingly crowded and insanitary living places.
Naturally, industrialization brought economic and other benefits to some. The spread of railways and steamships massively expanded the scope of markets, and a strong middle class of traders and manufacturers emerged, many of whom had considerable "disposable income."11 Technological innovations in printing and lithography allowed newspapers, journals, and popular and serious literature to reach a greater audience than ever before. Rising middle-class power had already found expression in the Great Reform Act of 1832 when the Parliamentary franchise was extended, and, for the first time, those great industrial and trade centres created in the industrial revolution were allowed to elect representatives.12
As well as economic transformation, Britain in the nineteenth century entered an era of religious change lasting through the Victorian age and beyond. Traditionally, Britain was a Protestant country which identified the Church of England with individual liberty and national identity. Roman Catholicism, in contrast, was associated with "foreign" Absolutist tyranny. Hostility to Catholicism was compounded, also, by the failure of the Papacy to recognise the Hanoverian dynasty as the legitimate monarchy of the United Kingdom. When this recognition eventually came (in 1766) restrictions placed on the eligibility of Catholics to vote, and to enter the professions, (amongst many other penalties) were gradually removed—most notably in the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.
As Roman Catholicism was rehabilitated it became attractive to some elements in the Church of England. During the 1840s many important figures converted to it, notably John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman (1801–1890), and, in the art world, John Rogers Herbert (1810–1890), Augustus Welby Pugin (1812–1852), and James Collinson. The restoration of the Catholic institutional hierarchy (the system of Archbishops, bishops, and parishes, etc.) in 1850, helped strengthen Catholicism in Britain. However, it also created something of a Protestant backlash—fearful that "Papal Aggression" was intent on re-conquering Britain. As we shall see later, strong currents of religious feeling are often reflected in Victorian art and its contexts.
The other societal aspect of pre-Victorian Britain to be considered is that of the artworld itself. In the broadest terms, it was somewhat restricted. Artists were generally regarded as having low social status. Even successful ones were often able to work on large paintings only through having other employment—such as working as a drawing master or through commissions for illustrating books and periodicals. Indeed, David Cox (1783–1859), the great landscapist, worked as a painter of theatrical scenery in his early career, and the outstanding history painter John Martin (1789–1854) worked as a decorative painter of glass.13 An artistic career was made especially difficult by the fact that there was virtually no state or Church patronage for the arts.
However, there was one important road to success—the Royal Academy. It was founded under royal patronage in 1768. Like all the European academies it was organized, intellectually, around a hierarchical aesthetic ideology. The first President of the R.A., Sir Joshua Reynolds, formulated the British version of this ideology very effectively in his Discourses. For him, visual art fulfils its highest potential and attains the intellectual level of history or philosophy, when it attains the "grand style." Reynolds describes what this means for the artist, as follows.
His eye being enabled to distinguish the accidental deficiencies, excrescences, and deformities of things, from their general figures, he makes out an abstract idea of their forms more perfect than any one original; and what may seem a paradox, he learns to design naturally by drawing his figures unlike to any one object. This idea of the perfect state of nature, which the Artist calls the Ideal Beauty, is the great leading principle by which works of genius are conducted. (46)
Reynolds argues further that the grand style is achievable only through "history painting." In art history, this is a technical term. It means painting that addresses scenes from the history and mythology of classical antiquity, or from the Bible, or which represents great secular historical figures and events in ways that exemplify their greatness. Other artistic genres are of lesser aesthetic status. Below history painting (and in descending order of importance, in Reynolds's hierarchy) are genre and courtly scenes, landscape painting, portraiture, and still-life (see especially Discourse Three in Reynolds 43–52).
At the heart of this ideology is an aristocratic world view which looks to the art of classical antiquity or other past masters for its inspiration. According to Reynolds, the Idealizing technique must be derived from study and synthesis of the strengths of previous art. Acquiring this skill enables the artist to develop a discriminating vision that can approach nature selectively. The purpose of painting, in other words, is not to be instructed by nature, but to improve upon nature's visual deficiencies through a kind of historically grounded purification. Of course, aristocratic taste in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was by no means tied exclusively to this. (Dutch genre painting and picturesque landscape were, for example, much in vogue.) However, Ideal Beauty had an aesthetic authority. It was that which the great artist and the cultured spectator pursued as the highest goal.
For the aspiring artist, this goal was best approached through the Royal Academy Schools. The Schools offered free tuition to selected students—based on a strict regime of study in life-classes and copying from antique casts. Opportunities to win prizes were also available to the enterprising student.14 Competition to enter the R.A. Schools was keen, and a number of private art schools, such as Henry Sass's in London, specialized in training students for entry to them.15
The Academy was self-funded, mainly through receipts from its annual exhibition for which an entry fee was charged to visitors. Anyone could submit a work, but only a minority of pictures were selected for display each year. In the absence of state and Church patronage of the arts, this exhibition was a major sales opportunity. The further route to success for an aspiring young artist admitted to the Schools would be to show works in the exhibition regularly, then be elected an Associate member of the Royal Academy (an "A.R.A."), and, eventually, be elected a full Royal Academician (an "R.A."). As well as immense cultural prestige, formal membership of the Academy brought important client contacts, the right to exhibit works in every exhibition, and the choice of the best hanging positions within the exhibition space.16 In terms of its internal organization and governance, the R.A. was entirely responsible for its own affairs. At any one time there could only be forty full Royal Academicians (forty-two after 1853), and twenty Associate Royal Academicians. It was the former group who were the governing body.
The Academy's self-funded status and organizational autonomy meant that it was not subject to state control. However, this put it in an ambiguous position. For whilst there were other artists' societies, none of them had the Academy's cultural standing and influence. This meant that when matters concerning the fine arts arose at a national level, the political powers had no choice but to consult the Academy, even though it was not accountable to them. In the early 1830s, two such matters arose. First, the decision to open a National Gallery—which involved a state-owned building in Trafalgar Square that was very large, and which, it was felt, could also be suitably occupied by the R.A. (whose existing premises at Somerset House were small). The R.A. did, indeed, move to the new building in 1837. Before that, however, the very proposal to accommodate the R.A. in state-owned property occasioned considerable critical scrutiny of its operations, and some attempts to make it accountable to the state.
The question of accountability arose also—if indirectly—from another incident, the burning down of the Houses of Parliament in a fire of 1834. This raised the question of in what style and with what décor the new buildings should be done. In the debate concerning this, the possibility of large-scale commissions for frescoes to decorate the new buildings was considered—not just as a practicality but as a means of redressing what was commonly regarded as English backwardness in the great tradition of history painting. In 1841, a Royal Commission was appointed to consider the matter, under the Chairmanship of Prince Albert (Queen Victoria's husband). By 1843, the first competition for the submissions of designs had been held.17
This debate over the decorations for the Houses of Parliament provoked broader questions about the status of art and, in particular, art and design education in the country as whole. Inevitably, critical questioning about the pedagogic role of the R.A. arose. For even though the Academy schools were based on life-classes and drawing from casts of antique statues, they had brought forth only a few talented history painters (such as John Opie, 1761–1807) and certainly no distinct English stylistic school.18 The internal organization and use of funds from the exhibition also struck many critics as misdirected.19
Throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s various attempts were made (through Committees of the House of Commons, and parliamentary votes) to make the Academy directly accountable to the state (for an interesting account of this, see Hoock 299–307). None of them succeeded. In the final analysis, the Academy's royal patronage placed it beyond government control. However, the ongoing debate and competitions concerning frescoes in the Houses of Parliament, and the recurrent anxiety concerning the need for a distinctive "English school" ensured that the Academy's aesthetic ideology would be critically scrutinized. Style in Victorian art is, in large part, the artistic expression of this critique.
The Victorian Artworld
n the 1840s the demand for art began to accelerate. As Paula Gillett notes "The level of public interest in art that began at mid-century and continued well into the eighties was unprecedented. Fabulously high prices were paid for pictures, periodicals devoted exclusively to art were founded, and England's major exhibition of art, that of the Royal Academy, caused tremendous interest and excitement each year. The social events that began the season for London's elite were planned around the show's opening" (12–13).
Interest in the Royal Academy exhibition was such, indeed, that, in the highest attended year of 1879, no less than 391,197 visitors paid the admission fee to see it (Gillett 13). In 1875, 4,638 works were entered for the Exhibition, with 561 accepted, 3,082 rejected, and 995 judged as "doubtful" (see Lambourne 35). Interest in visual art was reflected, also, in the sheer number of practising artists. Christopher Wood lists over 11,000 individuals recorded as having exhibited pictures at public venues during the Victorian era. The great market for visual art saw the corresponding rise of important individual dealers, such as Ernest Gambart (1814–1902), Louis Victor Flatow (1820–1867), and art dealerships such as Arthur Tooth, Thomas Agnew, and P. and D. Colnaghi.20
The question arises as to why interest in art expanded to such dramatic proportions. The answer is twofold—money, and the complexities of class-consciousness. The two are linked in the following remarks by Lady Eastlake concerning the years between 1830 and 1840.
A change which has proved of great importance dates from these years. The patronage, which had been almost exclusively the privilege of the nobility and higher gentry, was now shared (to be subsequently almost engrossed) by a wealthy and intelligent class, chiefly enriched by commerce and trade; the notebook of the painter, while it exhibited lowlier names, showing henceforth higher prices. To this gradual transfer of patronage another advantage very important to the painter was owing; namely that collections, entirely of modern, and sometimes only of living artists began to be formed. For one sign of the good sense of the nouveau riche collector consisted in a consciousness of his ignorance in matters of connoisseurship. This led him to seek an article fresh from the painter's loom, in preference at the discrimination of any older fabrics.21
The nouveau riche mentioned here would obviously buy paintings for their investment value, and to show friends and rivals and the world in general that they had money to spend. However, there is much more to it than that. Lady Eastlake emphasizes that the new art patrons preferred to buy new works. Perhaps, as she says, this was because they were not confident enough to buy older art. But surely, they would also favour the more modern because it expressed the time in which they themselves were working and had achieved prosperity and self-improvement.
Self-improvement is the decisive notion here. Hard work, and planning based on sound common sense and shrewd anticipation in their dealings with the "real world," enabled the new patrons to acquire fortunes, but also created new psychological needs. For to make a fortune buys, also, the means to make oneself as one might want to be—rather than as circumstances compel one to be. Success in trade and commerce or whatever, can find extension and expression through the enriching of one's surroundings and one's taste. Self-improvement, in other words, involves personal development as well as prosperity.
And this is not just an individual matter. For the new Victorian patrons, concrete social and domestic virtues were integral to personal development. These require art that portrays "real" people with "real" feelings—all in all, images with a strong "human interest" angle. This means depictions of the comforts and fulfilments of courtship, marriage, domestic life, worldly pursuits and the like. Through artistic portrayal, these can be represented as objects for contemplation and enjoyment, free of the tensions and "issues" that arise from the real-life experience of them. Just as important, the risks and dangers arising from their abuse can also be contemplated—in images pleasing to behold, but with a clear warning.
For the new patrons of the 1830s and 1840s, then, self-improvement could be achieved through art's education of taste and feeling. Artistic narratives allow personal and societal situations to be captured and made vivid, all in all, possessed through a contemplative pleasure. However, for the new patrons, there is also another key factor. Their fortunes have been made by virtue of the "here and now" modern world of exciting technological, economic, and socio-cultural "progress." If such a patron looks for self-improvement, then the circumstances whereby the search for self-improvement has become possible cannot be ignored. Self-improvement will involve an acknowledgement of modern progress—in terms of its possibilities and its problems. This is the major point of cleavage between Victorian art and the academic aesthetic ideology. Nymphs and shepherds, the doings of Olympian deities, and biblical scenes and landscapes presented according to the conventions of academic art, simply do not satisfy a Victorian patron's sensibility. He needs an art that not only presents personal and social situations made aesthetically vivid, but with a vividness that expresses, also, modern progress and prosperity. In practical terms, this means a "value-for-money" art—one which is the result of manifest hard work, patience, and painstakingness in questions of technique.22
The art which satisfies all these needs in the most general terms is genre.23 Genre art represents scenes from ordinary life, or literary and courtly scenes (rather than those classical, biblical, and overtly grand secular figures and events, that are the subjects of history painting). Put in the broadest terms, genre is the painting of social and material presence. Everyday events and activities are represented and improved upon—not through idealization but through being made vivid. There are, of course, many works of genre that are merely slight and decorative. However, genre works of a more serious kind (even light-hearted ones) tend to tell stories and/or represent states of affairs with visual fullness—in terms of volume, detail and texture, and tonal modelling. They emphasize the particularities of the scene represented, rather than the generalized beauty of the Ideal, or the prettiness and frivolity celebrated by eighteenth-century rococco. This means that they are more "realistic" or "naturalistic," comparatively speaking, than other pictorial idioms. They depict the aforementioned "real people" experiencing "real feelings," and are manifestly "value for money," through the amount of labour which the artist has to put into them.
Pre-Raphaelite naturalism is the most developed form of this. We have already encountered the PRB insistence on the authority of nature, but this has two aspects. The first is that of organic nature—as expressed in the familiar extreme attentiveness to details of foliage and landscape, and the like, as background settings for narratives such as Millais's Ophelia (1852, Tate Gallery, London), and Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd (1851, Manchester Art Gallery). Millais and Holman Hunt also painted pure landscapes but this was only a limited part of their output of finished works.
The real truth to nature involved in the Pre-Raphaelite style is summarized by Holman Hunt in a single remark—"it is simply fuller Nature we want" (Holman Hunt 87). As I understand this, "fuller Nature" centers on the faithful representation of what is given to vision, as such. Organic nature is included, but such fidelity involves, just as much, attentiveness to particularities of facial and gestural expression, to the body in all its physical fullness, to details and textures of fabric, costume, furnishings, interior décor, architectural settings and the like. Such truth to the fullness of human visual appearance and all its contexts, is what links Millais and Holman Hunt stylistically, to the otherwise very different Pre-Raphaelite D. G. Rossetti, and followers such as Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). No matter how these artists differ in their narrative choices and compositional structures, they have (in oil painting, at least) a shared commitment to representing the full material presence of human appearance and its contexts.24 The use of historical or biblical themes is especially conducive to this. Such scenes tend to offer richer potential (in terms of dramatic gestures, elaborate costumes, décor, landscape and architectural settings, and the like) than is available from more contemporary subjects.
Fuller Nature in the sense just described, then, is the real basis of the Pre-Raphaelite style. It expresses the aesthetic sensibility of a culturally progressive middle class. The members of such a class are interested in details of how others appear and present themselves, and the character of their individual feelings. They can also enjoy the stuff and substance of material possessions and the décor of human environments on the basis of genuine visual interest rather than as a mere means to display wealth, and acquire social kudos. Pre-Raphaelite fuller Nature is genre in its most developed form.
Now, traditionally, the great exponents of genre are Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, but the work of William Hogarth (1697–1764), and David Wilkie (1785–1841) had already shown that British artists could produce it too. In comparison with academically conventional artists, Hogarth's and Wilkie's work has more material fullness. Wilkie also has a special importance through establishing of an important compositional formula. Formulae of this kind are important for artists because they offer a basis for, as it were, "kick-starting" a work, that is familiar and thence comfortable for the viewer. Treatments of the relation between foreground, middle-ground and background in the ideal landscape of Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), and the use of repoussoir by Dutch landscapists, are examples of such formulae. Wilkie's formula, however, is an indoor structure—consisting of an interior with a window at the far left, a horizontally extended group composition, and an open door (or other compressed recessional structure) to the far right.25 This basic compositional device easily takes on symbolic value. For grouping figures in such a defined structure, can enhance the sense of family or collective "togetherness," a comfortable domesticity.
Genre in the broad tradition of Hogarth and Wilkie is taken further still in the early Victorian era, through the informal views of rustic life and domestic scenes painted by artists such as William Mulready (1786–1863) and William Collins (1788–1847). This indigenous social genre (as I shall call it) also influenced young painters. Richard Dadd (1817–1886) created a sketching club called "The Clique" amongst a group of students at the R.A. Schools in the late 1830s and early 1840s.26 These young artists preferred the social genre of Hogarth and Wilkie to the dry approach of the R.A. Schools. Members such as William Powell Frith (1819–1909), Henry O'Neil (1817–1880), Alfred Elmore (1815–1881), Augustus Egg (1816–1863), John Phillip (1817–1867), and Edward Matthew Ward (1816–1879) later went on to be notable Royal Academicians (or, O'Neil's case, an A.R.A.).27 John Imray, a trainee engineer who was a friend of Phillip's, was invited to the meetings to serve as an impartial judge of the drawings done each week. He recalled that "Frith said he intended to paint pictures of ordinary life, such as would take with the public. Egg thought his field should be illustration of famous works. O'Neil determined on painting incidents of striking character, appealing to the feelings. And Phillip desired to illustrate incidents in the lives of famous people" (Imray 202). These remarks show, very strikingly, how an interest in varieties of genre was already in place amongst young painters by the late 1830s.
Frith was the most professionally successful member of The Clique. He achieved fame through his portrayal of scenes from middle-class city life, and the modes of social interaction, and leisure and travel pursuits, enjoyed by that class. His picture Derby Day (1858)— a panoramic representation of social interactions at a famous English horse race—was fabulously successful. Frith also earned huge sums by selling the copyrights for reproductions of his works to dealers—in the case of Derby Day, to Ernest Gambart.28
Other artists gave social genre a more critical edge. Richard Redgrave (1804–1888) in The Governess of 1844, evokes the lonely existence of the life of a private teacher to a wealthy family. Holman-Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853, Tate Gallery) uses the fullness of human appearance and its settings to great effect—making the detailed but obvious gaudiness of the "kept woman's" house into an indictment of her spiritual poverty. The Crowther/Oblak collection's Song of the Shirt (1874) by William Daniels (1813–1880) is a more disturbing example of socially critical genre painting. Using dramatic chiaroscuro effects rather than detail, it shows the harrowing introspection of a seamstress working under the oppressive "putting-out" system. There are many other, more idiosyncratic explorations of social genre in the Victorian era. James Collinson of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood created a fascinating variety that I call the enigma study. This involves comparatively small works—based on a single figure, whose actions and/or way of looking at the viewer actively invite us to consider what it is they are thinking and/or feeling. Questions of their class-identity and expectations are raised. The Landlady (1856) and At the Bazaar (1857)—both in the Sheffield Museums Collection—are examples of this, and (despite the frequently condescending way in which Collinson was regarded by his PRB peers and treated by subsequent historians of art and culture) these are amongst the most reproduced of all Victorian paintings. (Other notable enigma studies include Son of the Soil, 1856, Manchester Art Gallery, and The Orange Girl, 1856; Happy Thoughts, 1860; and Private and Confidential, 1864, all in Private Collections.) The Crowther/Oblak collection has a fascinating example of an enigma study in the work entitled Image Boy (1858).
By the 1840s other, more specialized idioms of genre had established themselves alongside the social variety. In this respect, foreign artists such as the Paris-based Dutchman Ary Scheffer (1795–1858) and, most importantly, the French artist Paul Delaroche (1797–1856) had great influence. Delaroche's work was of immediate interest to a Victorian audience, because of his use of scenes from British history. However, what is even more important is his particular interpretative approach. Works such as Cromwell with the Corpse of Charles I of 1831 (a version of which was exhibited at the R.A. exhibition in 1850) represent great figures from history—but through non-climactic episodes from their lives (or deaths) that, whilst meaningful, are not made rhetorically heroic.29 And, again, in The Death of Elizabeth I of England (1828, Louvre, Paris), the great monarch's death is not presented as a climactic moment with angels singing, but, rather, as the death of a withered old woman, the manifest sumptuousness of her surroundings reduced, symbolically, to the same flaccidity as her dead body. The great deeds or circumstances of historical figures may make them famous, but Delaroche focuses on significant, yet ultimately more mundane "human interest" aspects to their lives (or deaths) situated, as it were, between the lines of their greatness. His painterly style, indeed, is one that represents through strong volumes, visual textures, and tonal modelling. All in all, Delaroche's work embodies that social and material presence which is distinctive to genre, and fuses it with history painting, thus establishing historical genre as an important tendency.30
Historical genre also developed in another form elsewhere in Europe. The German Nazarene Brotherhood—working in Rome from 1810 to around 1830 (and in some individual cases, much longer)—developed an approach to the biblical and related themes that went far beyond academic norms of history painting. Peter von Cornelius (1787–1864) was a major figure in the Brotherhood. In his work Joseph and His Brothers (c. 1817, Staatliche Museum, Berlin) the composition and style of painting presents its content with clarity of contour, subdued colouring, strong modelling, and great attentiveness to the particular characteristics of the narrative's participants. In this, Cornelius and the other Nazarenes, such as Johann Overbeck (1789–1869), took inspiration from the artists who preceded Raphael. Their work presents the human appearance in full terms, and, to some degree, anticipates the direction later taken by Pre-Raphaelite art.
Delaroche's work and that of the Nazarenes were extremely familiar to English audiences by the 1840s. Delaroche, for example, exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1844, 1847, and 1850, and Cornelius was well-known enough by 1841 to be invited to London to advise on the creation of frescoes for the Houses of Parliament.31
The Crowther/Oblak collection has some very significant examples of historical genre in the Delaroche tradition. Edward Matthew Ward's Marie Antoinette Listening to the Act of Accusation the Day before her Trial (1859), for example, is an important work. And Charles West Cope (1811–1890) touches on the religious tensions of the Victorian era in the complex iconography of his Oliver Cromwell and His Secretary John Milton, Receiving a Deputation Seeking Aid for the Savoy Protestants (1872). What is especially striking in both these works is that they address the human implications of momentous historical events by focusing on persons involved with, or related to them.
Historical genre was practiced by most of the great Victorian artists at some time or other. The Pre-Raphaelites, for example, did so through human-interest scenes from history, such as Millais's A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew's Day (1852, Private Collection) and The Order of Release (1853, Tate Gallery). Holman-Hunt did so through his many biblical or religious scenes. The painters who maintained an insistent interest in classical subject-matter—such as Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Edward John Poynter (1836–1919), and Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912)—do so in a way that presents vividly rendered moments from ordinary life in Greece or Rome or from non-climactic moments in the lives of Emperors or mythological figures. The Crowther/Oblak collection, for example, has a number of drapery studies from Leighton's great work Captive Andromache (c. 1888, Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, UK). Interestingly, Captive Andromache does not represent the drama of the Trojan princess being carried off to captivity, but a subsequent scene when she is sadly introspective and alone in her slavery. And in the style in which Leighton (and, indeed, the other classicists) treats the subject-matter, we find an emphasis on the sumptuous texture and stuff of flesh, costume, and the physical environment, rather than the generalized ideal of academic history painting.
Before moving on, one other fascinating variant of historical genre needs to be mentioned. Biblical themes (traditionally regarded as history painting) receive a genre treatment from artists such as William Dyce, John Rogers Herbert, and Holman Hunt. However, it takes on an especially important role in stained-glass window design. Key figures here are D. G. Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, William Morris (1834–1896), Edward Poynter, and, especially, Edward Burne-Jones and Henry Holiday (1839–1927). The fullness of human appearance and its settings described earlier (especially in terms of particularized expression and gesture, costume texture, and the physicality of human form) features strongly in most of the stained-glass designs by these artists.
A market for such work arose because, as the population grew in the cities, new churches had to be built there. Most commissions for stained-glass went to companies for whom the artists worked, rather than to the artists themselves. One important company—Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. (founded in 1861)—had, until 1874, Morris, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Ford Madox Brown as shareholders, and, in effect, employees. When Morris bought out the other shareholders in 1874, he continued to offer significant commissions to them. Another important company was James Powell and Co. for whom Edward Poynter worked, and also Henry Holiday (until starting his own company in 1891). The Crowther/Oblak collection has important stained glass window designs done by both Burne-Jones and Holiday for the aforementioned companies, and some provisional sketches by Poynter.
The other most popular mode of genre developed in Victorian times, was the literary variety (illustrating scenes from fiction or poetry). Earlier, I mentioned how the new art patrons' desire for self-improvement involved educating the feelings. Literature provided a great resource for this. The novels of Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774) and Samuel Richardson (1689–1761)—amongst others—strongly emphasize sentiment. What is paramount is the role of emotional responses amongst the characters, and, of course, from the reader. Love, deceit, tenderness, distress, and other feelings are what the plot tries to emphasize through its organization of episodes and events. Through this, the reader is initiated into "fine feeling," that is to say, an educated way of experiencing emotional transactions between people.
This emphasis on feeling rather than didactics is also found in the great British works of romantic poetry and fiction, and in the novels of Charles Dickens (1812–1870). For example, in the poetry of authors such as William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and John Keats (1795–1821), or the novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), a premium is again placed on evocations of personal feeling in relation to highly particularized evocations of nature or narratives set in the past. In Dickens, indeed, the reader is engaged as powerfully by his particular characterizations of memorable individuals as by the plots through which he links their adventures. The continuing importance of Shakespeare is also significant as a source that combines emotionally powerful plots with strong individual characterization.
Now, the key point is that such literature offers a major resource for the visual imagination. Biblical and classical works traditionally offered uplifting and morally edifying material, but the aforementioned authors engage with human issues in an immediate and personal style. By representing scenes from literature artists could offer subjects both familiar and attractive to a middle-class audience. Literature as well as the art dealer came to function as a middle-man in the market.
One other interesting feature of literary genre is the way in which some writers—notably Dante, and Milton—begin to figure in art not so much through the illustration of scenes from their writing as through illustrations of events from their own lives. (The Cope painting of Cromwell, for example, features Milton playing an advisory role to the Lord Protector.)
There are very few important Victorian artists who did not create works of literary genre at some time or other. The first appearance of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the Royal Academy Exhibition (in 1849), for example, included Millais's Isabella illustrating a scene from Keats's poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, and Holman Hunt's Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions—derived from the novel Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes (1835) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873). D. G. Rossetti frequently used the medieval writer Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur for themes in his earlier art, as did important followers of the Pre-Raphaelites such as Arthur Hughes, and Edward Burne-Jones. The Crowther/Oblak collection also has a drawing illustrating a scene from Keats's Isabella… by the Pre-Raphaelite follower John Melhuish Strudwick (1849–1937).
It is interesting that portraiture too, in the Victorian era, develops a genre-based mode. Countless Victorian portraits go through the salerooms nowadays, many of them done in a stylised primitive way. Others owe a debt to great nineteenth-century portraitists such as Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830). The Crowther/Oblak collection includes an excellent early Victorian example of this in the Portrait of John Whichelo by George Frederick Watts (1817–1904), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840. Whichelo is given an urbane, informally aristocratic appearance—consistent with one who is self-consciously and effortlessly a master of his profession (his profession being indicated by the presence of a paintbrush). The style of the picture complements this quietly rhetorical presentation, through its emphatic but controlled painterliness. This picture might be contrasted with two other works in the Crowther/Oblak collection—A Half-Length Portrait of a Woman Dressed in Black… (c. 1850) that we attribute to James Collinson, and Portrait of a Lady Wearing a Black Jacket (1850s), which we attribute to William Daniels. Both these later portraits have a matter-of-fact insistent attention to volume, texture, and modelling that avoids any rhetorical presentation. The Collinson picture, for example, does not flinch from showing the sitter's extensive birth-marks and Daniels's painting renders its subject with one eyelid drooping.
Of course, these pictures do not deliberately emphasize the physical "blemishes." The point is that they are simply presented as an aspect of the sitter's fullness of appearance, shown alongside the smart clothing and hairstyle that reveal her comfortable material circumstances. Genre-portraiture—emphasizing fullness of human appearance—comes to predominate in the Victorian era, although its greatest exponent G. F. Watts comes (after the time of his Whichelo portrait) to develop a broader handling, with a rendering of detail that is pronounced without being as insistent as in the two pictures of women just discussed.
The final great Victorian genre development is in landscape painting. Before Victorian times, such painting was dominated by formulaic work derived from Arcadian treatments of the Roman Campagna by Claude Lorrain or Poussin, or from "picturesque" landscape based on compositional structures (using controlled irregularity) derived from Dutch art of the seventeenth century. Painters such as Richard Wilson (1714–1782) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) were great masters of the classical and picturesque tendencies, respectively. And new ways of exploring the latter had been developed in the theory and practice of William Gilpin (1724–1804).
However, for much (if not all) the Victorian era, landscape still suffered from its lowly place in the academic hierarchy of the genres. Very few full Royal Academicians made their living as landscape painters primarily. Amongst those who did were John Constable, Frederick Richard Lee (1798–1879), Thomas Creswick (1811–1869), Benjamin Williams Leader (1831–1923), and Sir Alfred East (1844–1913); with one or two other R.A.’s, notably Clarkson Stanfield (1793–1867), specializing in seascapes.
Constable is much admired for the vibrancy and spontaneity of his best works, especially his large sketches. His emphasis on the importance of studying nature broke the formulaic spells of classical and Dutch landscape, and influenced younger artists. Creswick, Lee, and East, for example, produced more robustly naturalistic works than the pre-Victorian landscapists. But "naturalistic," here, does not mean unqualified "naturalism" of the kind found in Constable's best works. The technique of his followers creates, rather, a kind of landscape version of genre—very finished, rather detailed, extremely tidy, and, all in all, geared towards its human interest aspects. Nature appears gentrified—as a place of pleasant views and walks punctuated by the occasional uncomplaining rustic functionary (for a critical treatment of this, see Barrell). The other major Royal Academy landscapist—Benjamin Williams Leader—often worked in this gentrified idiom too, but he frequently went beyond it to create works of raw visual power that invest landscape with intimations of mortality. The famous February Fill Dyke of 1881 (Birmingham Museums Trust) is like this, as, too—on a smaller scale—is A November Evening, Worcestershire (1888) in the Crowther/Oblak collection.
Whatever the academic prejudice against it, landscape painting was extremely popular with the Victorian art-buying public. Many landscapes were shown at the R.A. exhibition each year. And artists with no institutional affiliation to the R.A. were able to make a good living from such art, selling through dealers, or exhibiting elsewhere (such as the annual exhibitions of the Society of British Artists or The Old Watercolour Society) (see Bayer and Page on the market popularity of landscape art).
As the Victorian era developed, alternatives to gentrified landscape emerged. Millais and Holman Hunt did some quite exceptional landscape paintings and sketches (the Crowther/ Oblak collection has two interesting small sketches by the latter artist). Indeed, under the manifest influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and Ruskin, a number of landscape painters established distinctive styles in the 1850s. Their techniques involve extreme attentiveness to details of vegetation, rock formations, skies, and (where relevant) the sea, that goes far beyond what any of the Academic landscapists would attempt. The main figures here are John William Inchbold (1830–1888), John Brett (1831–1902), William Davis (1812–1873), George Price Boyce (1826–1897), and Alfred William Hunt (1830–1896). Ruskin had especially close involvement with Inchbold and Brett (travelling with them in the Alps in 1857 and 1858). After around 1860, Davis, Brett, and Boyce, kept to something like the Pre-Raphaelite style, but Hunt and Inchbold diverged from it, working mainly in watercolour. Hunt became more, and indeed avowedly, Turneresque in his technique, whilst the latter developed an extremely idiosyncratic style that anticipates more modern approaches. Both artists, in effect, made visual poetic effects and atmospheres more important than truth to naturalistic detail. These are the two most important Victorian artists to go "out of synch" with the dominant genre-based style. (The Crowther/Oblak collection has a number of works by Hunt and Inchbold that exemplify these divergences.)
Two other idioms of genre should be mentioned as expressions of the Victorian style. Animal painting, which finds its most impressive statements in the work of Sir Edward Landseer (1802–1873), who tended to give his subjects strong anthropomorphic qualities; and fairy painting, represented by the isolated figure of Richard Dadd, but in more popular terms by artists such as John Anster Fitzgerald (c. 1819–1906), and Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901). (The Crowther/Oblak collection does not, at present, have any examples of animal genre, or fairy painting.)
n this essay I have argued, then, that there is a Victorian style—genre. Of course, one cannot fit every Victorian work into this category, but it is flexible enough to cover the most important works. Genre is the perfect expression of those new modes of middle-class taste and patronage that developed in the Victorian era, and in the years leading up to it. Such taste needs an art that shares its own hard working, common-sense approach to the world and its confidence in modern progress.
Now, of course, works of social genre are found in places besides England, notably, seventeenth-century Holland; and works of historical and literary genre are widespread in nineteenth-century France. What is it, then, that is distinctive about Victorian genre; in what does its intrinsic meaning or unity of style consist?
There are two answers. The first is that English genre is extremely comprehensive—involving social, historical, literary, portrait, landscape, animal, and fairy painting. The second answer concerns the visual fullness of genre—in terms of volume, detail, texture, tonal modelling, and its particularizations of human interest aspects. This makes Pre-Raphaelitism's "fuller Nature" more generally important. Far from being avant-garde rebels, the Pre-Raphaelite artists make use of just about all the established varieties of genre, and develop the basic logic of its visual fullness to an extreme that is not found in other national "schools." Victorian art's unity of style, in other words, is distinctive in terms of both its thematic scope, and the visual intensity of its most complete realization.
However, it may seem that an unresolved paradox remains. If the taste for Victorian genre involves a strong sense of modern progress, then why is it that historical and literary themes are so central to its achievements? Are these not backward-looking by their very nature? The answer is no. For example, historical and literary subjects (and, for that matter, rustic scenes) are particularly effective in educating feeling through contemplation. By definition, they are distant from the city-dweller's present pre-occupations. And if they involve romance, chivalry, or the like, then the dimension of feeling is heightened even more. Historical and literary subjects, in other words, are especially effective in "delivering the goods" vis-à-vis self-improvement.
These subjects are also positive in another sense. No matter how progressive the modern age may be, the Victorian patron qua city dweller, would inevitably notice the terrible squalor of industrial production and urban living conditions. The fondness for historical topics, therefore, can be meaningful as an escapist aesthetic—an imagined return to "better" times and contexts. This brings with it, also, an added advantage (noted earlier) namely that costumes and settings from past times tend to offer greater riches of color and texture in terms costume, drapery, décor, and other settings.
There is a final important "modern" benefit from historical and literary genre. It consists in the fact that when Victorian genre addresses the past, it appropriates it and equalizes it in relation to the present. It does not look to the past as a model to be copied, but as a place where people have the same experiential problems and fulfilments as the inhabitants of the present. In their very appearance Classical and academic artworks look to be from another time. But in Victorian genre, the costumes and settings from the historical past seem more like theatrical props in which a narrative concerning the past is being acted out in the present, and for the interests of the present. Rather than sacrificing its contemporaneity to the altar of past excellence, Victorian genre visualizes and symbolically possesses the past on the basis of contemporaneity. Scenes from classical antiquity, Arthurian legends, Shakespeare's plays, Cromwell's era, the French revolution, eighteenth-century novels of sentiment, Romantic poetry and fiction, all these (and other things besides) provide readily intelligible human interest situations, that can be depicted not only as made-present, but as made in and for the present. Indeed, even the genre aspect of animal and fairy paintings allows the non-human and fantasy world to be appropriated in terms of the psychological traits and quirks of the Victorian middle classes.
In Victorian genre, then, the past is made in the image of the present and its modern needs. Much more could be said about this and related topics, but, suffice it to say, that the Victorian art boom had ended by about 1890. This coincided in broad terms with changes of taste and shifts of power in the artworld, as well as broader market forces. For example, between 1877 and 1888 the Grosvenor Gallery offered a new prestige exhibition space for art that did not harmonize with the Academy's continuing "official" commitment to classicism and the ideal.32 New Gallery, and its successor the New Gallery, showed many works where classical motifs were mainly a vehicle for highly decorative work, or, as in the case of Burne-Jones, idiosyncratic imaginative visions (as shown, for example, in the Crowther/Oblak collection's Selene and Endymion). The so-called Aesthetic Movement consists of works on these lines—where the aesthetic function of the Victorian style begins to be asserted independently of the narratives in which it is embodied. James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) is probably the main representative of the tendency.
As well as being simultaneously extended and challenged by the Aesthetic Movement, by the 1890s the Victorian style had, in many respects, been taken to its limits. After about 1860, most of its varieties gradually absorbed and modified Pre-Raphaelite fuller Nature for individual artistic ends. Members of The Clique such as Egg, Phillip, and O'Neil, for example, had already incorporated aspects of it into their work by the mid 1850s; John Seymour Lucas (1849–1923) produced historical genre of astonishing naturalism; and artists such as William Logsdail (1859–1944), Henry La Thangue (1859–1929), and Stanhope Forbes (1857–1947) created even more naturalistic effects in the field of social genre—in their case, under the influence of the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884). John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) produced classical, literary, and social genre paintings of special importance. They achieve the perfect fusion of robust Delarochian historical genre and Pre-Raphaelite fuller Nature. Likewise in landscape painters, such as Alfred de Breanski (1852–1928) and Daniel Sherrin (1869–1940), the gentrified landscape of Constable's inheritors is turned into a showy virtuoso naturalism.
By the end of Victoria's reign in 1901, the Victorian style had already become mannered. In painters such as John Liston Byam Shaw (1872–1919) and Sigismund Christian Hubert Goetze (1866–1939)—both of whom are represented in the Crowther/Oblak collection—we find compositions of often bizarre complexity, and lurid colouring and detail. The fullness of appearance of Pre-Raphaelite painting is driven into overload, it plays games with itself. Indeed, whilst the Victorian style survived into the 1920s, it was no longer a progressive artistic force. The 1911 Post-Impressionist exhibition organized by Roger Fry (1866–1934) in London, had already shown the modernist alternative to the Victorian style, and the psychological impact of the First World War did the rest…
One final question arises. I have argued that the unity of Victorian style arises in the taste of a certain stratum of middle-class patron, and in modes of genre art which satisfy that taste. Does it follow, then, that such art has significance only in relation to this historical context? The answer is no. Self-improvement through art is an aspiration that—in age dominated by the obsessive need for entertainment—has taken on renewed significance. Even if the narrative meaning of Victorian works has lost much of its potency, the striving for fuller Nature has not. The superficialities of contemporary mass-culture demand that we consume, dispose, and then buy some new product. Visual art qua art, in contrast, demands that we dwell upon its particularity through sustained contemplation rather than consumption. And the Victorian style invites us to do this with special insistency. The present exhibition hopes to enable this.
Created 13 January 2014