The Beardsley Generation @ the Heath Robinson Museum

This small but entrancing exhibition explores the impact that a radical new photographic means of reproduction (process engraving) had on the art of illustration at the end of the 19th century.

Through 50 or so drawings and 20 or so illustrated books and magazines, the exhibition brings together a treasure trove of images from what many consider the golden age of illustration which lasted from around 1890 to the early 1900s.

The Pilgrim stretched both of his hands up towards Heaven by Charles Robinson (1900)

The Pilgrim stretched both of his hands up towards Heaven by Charles Robinson (1900)

Informative

As always the exhibition is in just the one room at the Heath Robinson Museum and looks small, but there are now fewer than 20 wall panels, some quite lengthy and packed with technical, historical and biographical information, so that reading all of them almost feels like reading a small book.

A brief history of Victorian illustration techniques

In the early Victorian era, book illustrations were mostly produced from steel engravings. Artists such as George Cruikshank (some of whose prints I was looking at earlier this week, in the Guildhall Art Gallery) and Hablot Browne were expert at etching on steel. However the process was expensive, requiring the illustrations to be printed on different paper separate from the text and then bound in with the rest of the book.

By the 1850s publishers preferred to use wood engravings, with the result that master wood-engravers developed large workshops which employed many engravers. The artist presented his picture on paper or on a whitened woodblock and would hand it over to the skilled engraver. The engraver then converted the picture into a woodcut, carving away the areas that were to appear white on the final print, leaving the raised lines which would take the ink, be applied to paper, and produce the print.

Thus the engraver played a major role in interpreting the artist’s work, sketch or intention, often superimposing his own character and style on the image.

Still, it did mean you could make illustrations without having to be a skilled etcher and among the first artists to take advantage of the new medium were the pre-Raphaelites, led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais.

They were followed by a second school of artists, sometimes called the ‘Idyllic School’, which included G.J. Pinwell and Arthur Boyd Houghton, who infused their essentially realistic works with intensity and emotion.

Job's Comforters by Arthur Boyd Houghton (c.1865)

Job’s Comforters by Arthur Boyd Houghton (c.1865)

There followed in the 1870s and ’80s what the curators call ‘a period of dull realism’ which is not dwelt on. It was at the end of the 1880s that the technical innovation which the exhibition is concerned with came in, and transformed the look of British illustrations.

Process engraving

In the late 1880s process engraving replaced wood engraving. An artist’s drawing was transferred to a sheet of zinc so that areas to be printed in black were given an acid-resistant coating and white areas left exposed. The plate was then dipped in acid so that the white areas were eaten away. The plate was then attached to a block of wood which could be inserted into the block holding the type, so that illustration and text were generated together by the same printing process.

This new process required that the artist’s image be in pure blacks and whites without the kind of fine lines which had flourished in etching on steel or in wood engraving. Moreover, the artist could be confident that the line he drew would be exactly what would be presented to the reader, without the involvement of a wood engraver to enhance or (possibly) detract from it.

At a stroke, the older generation of artists who had relied on master wood-engravers to work up their rough sketches for publication was swept away and replaced by a new young generation of penmen who relished the clarity of line and space encouraged by the new technique.

The most dramatic proponent of the new look, who exploded onto the art scene like a small atom bomb, was Aubrey Beardsley (b.1872)

How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram from the Morte d'Arthur by Aubrey Beardsley (1892)

How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram from the Morte d’Arthur by Aubrey Beardsley (1892)

Beardsley was an illustrator of genius who had created an entirely new and personal visual world by the incredibly young age of 20. There are four prints and two drawings by him here, plus three book covers and books laid open to show his illustrations in situ. What a genius.

Having explained this major new development in print technology, the exhibition also explains several other influences which were swirling round at the time and contributed to the development of the ‘new look’. These included:

  • Japanese art
  • European Symbolism
  • Venetian and Renaissance art
  • with a dash of Dürer thrown in

Japanese

After the Harris Treaty of 1858 reopened trade links between the West and Japan, one of the many consequences was a flood onto the Western art market of Japanese woodblock prints.

Known in Japan as ukiyo-e or ‘pictures of the floating world’, the Japanese style was notable for not using perspective to add depth, or light and shade to create a sense of volume and space in the images. Instead the Japanese used ‘dramatic boundary lines’, i.e. clear, distinct, black lines – to create images – and then used colour, again not to create depth, but decoratively, filling in the shapes created by the lines with plain washes.

Japanese art had a profound influence on Western artists at a time when they were looking for ways to revive what had become tired traditions and to combat the rising challenge of photography.

Setting a Japanese print (in this case Nakamura Shikan II as Benkai by Utagawa Kunisada) next to the works by Beardsley allows you to immediately see the liberating impact that the Japanese habit of stylising the image has had for the European – allowing him to abandon almost all conventions of perspective and depth.

Actor Nakamura Utaemon Iii As Mitsugi’s Aunt Omine by Utagawa Kunisada (1814)

Beardsley’s best images float in an indeterminate space, bounded by extremely precise and clear lines which give his best images a wonderful clarity and dynamism. But Beardsley wasn’t alone. A greater or lesser element of simplification and stylisation characterises most of the artists working in the ‘new look’.

The last fancy of the contemporary buck for Pall Mall magazine by Edmund J. Sullivan (1900)

The last fancy of the contemporary buck for Pall Mall magazine by Edmund J. Sullivan (1900)

Symbolism

Symbolism was an art movement which swept northern Europe in the 1880s and, although its techniques remained largely realistic, in some case hyper-realistic, it applied these approaches to subject matter which was infused with obscure and semi-religious feelings.

Symbolism took images of death, yearning, loss and mystery, and showed them, no longer in the bright light of nineteenth century rationalism and optimism, but brooded over by a more modern sensibility and psychology. A drawing of Salomé by Gustave Moreau is used to exemplify the Symbolist effect.

Its influence can be seen in an illustration like this one by Charles Ricketts, which takes the well-worn subject of Oedipus and the Sphinx but drenches it in arcane symbolism – inexplicable figures and flowers adding to the sensual, erotic yet mysterious atmosphere.

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1891) by Charles Ricketts

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1891) by Charles Ricketts

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

The exhibition lists and explores other influences including the impact of a classic printed book from Venice titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili or The Strife of Love in a Dream, published by Albertus Manutius in 1499, and regarded as a masterpiece of typography and design by collectors.

A Garden Scene from 'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili' attributed to Francesco Colonna (c.1499)

A Garden Scene from ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’ attributed to Francesco Colonna (c.1499)

Copies of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili became available in England in 1888 and influenced Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Crane, Charles Ricketts, Aubrey Beardsley and Robert Anning Bell.

List of artists in the exhibitions

The exhibition includes works by all of those illustrators and more. I counted:

  • Aubrey Beardsley – 4 prints, 2 drawings and three book and magazine covers or pages
  • Alice B. Woodward – 2 drawings
  • Louis Fairfax Muckley – 1
  • Herbert Granville Fell – 2 drawings and a watercolour
  • Alfred Garth Jones – 2
  • Thomas Sturge Moore – 1
  • Laurence Housman – 5
  • Charles de Sousy Ricketts – 2
  • Paul Vincent Woodroffe – 1
  • H.A. Eves – 1
  • Harold Edward Hughes Nelson – 1
  • Byam Shaw – 1
  • Edgar Wilson – 1
  • Cyril Goldie – 1
  • Henry Ospovat – 1
  • Robert Anning Bell – 2
  • Philip Connard – 1
  • Jessie Marion King – 3
  • James Joshua Guthrie – 2
  • Edmund Joseph Sullivan – 2
  • Charles Robinson – 3
  • William Heath Robinson – 3
  • Arthur Boyd Houghton – 1
  • Walter Crane – 1

Books on display

  • Le Morte d’Arthur illustrated by Beardsley
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream ill. by Robert Anning Bell
  • The Kelmscott Chaucer ill. by Burne-Jones
  • Poems of Edgar Allen Poe ill. by William Heath Robinson
  • Poems of John Keats ill. by Robert Anning Bell
  • Poems of John Milton ill. by Garth Jones
  • The Faerie Queene ill. by Walter Crane
  • plus illustrated versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the Book of Job, the Yellow Book, and more

All the works were worth looking at closely, studying and mulling in order to enjoy the play of line and form. Many of the prints are wonderfully drawn and warmly evocative. Every one is accompanied by a wall label, and the twelve or so most important artists merit bigger wall labels which give you their full biography along with influences and major works to set them in context.

These biographical notes help you to make connections between different artists linked by having a common publisher, or working on a common publication or magazine, or who knew each other and encouraged, helped or shared ideas. The exhibition really does give you a sense of an entire generation excitedly inventing a whole new style of art.

Nostalgia

I think at least in part I respond so warmly to so many of the images is because, as a boy growing up in the 1960s, lots of the old books in my local library and the children’s books which my parents bought for me, contained just this kind of late-Victorian / Edwardian illustrations.

Looking at almost any of them creates a warm bath of half-forgotten memories of curling up in a corner and totally immersing myself in thrilling stories of Greek heroes and mermaids and pirates and pilgrims.

Tailpiece by Edgar Wilson (date unknown)

Tailpiece by Edgar Wilson (date unknown)

This is another wonderful, heart-warming and highly informative exhibition from the Heath Robinson Museum.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Seen and Heard: Victorian Children in the Frame @ Guildhall Art Gallery

This is an exhibition of artworks on a subject which is so straightforward, so hidden in plain sight, that it is easily overlooked – children.

To be precise, children in Victorian art.

Victorian Children in the Frame

Guildhall Art Gallery has brought together nearly fifty paintings from the long nineteenth century – approximately 1810 to 1910 – which demonstrate some of the ways in which children were depicted by artists during this long period of tumultuous social change.

The exhibition space consists of two large rooms divided into ‘alcoves’ or sections, each devoted to a different aspect of the painted imagery of children 1810-1910. At the start there is a timeline showing the major legal and educational reforms which affected children through the nineteenth century.

Timeline for Seen and Heard at the Guildhall

Timeline for Seen and Heard at the Guildhall

Introduction

Before the 19th century children were depicted in art works as miniature adults. By the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837 children were being depicted more realistically, shown playing with toys or pets. Childhood began to be seen as a distinct and particularly valuable period of life, and children – middle and upper-class children, anyway – as needing coddling and protecting.

It should be mentioned early on that the majority of the 46 or so paintings on display are of a quite mind-boggling soppy sentimentality. The commentary doesn’t mention it but the Cult of Sentiment which had arisen in aristocratic circles in the late 18th century carried on and came to full bloom in some extraordinarily sickly paintings during the 19th century. Chocolate box doesn’t begin to describe them. They may be too sickly sweet for many modern tastes.

That said the exhibition includes a large number of artists, most of whom will be unknown and, since every picture has a useful and informative label, reading them all gives you a good sense of the range and diversity (or lack of it) during the period.

And it’s really interesting to see what inhabitants of distant historical periods liked, commissioned and paid for. Sharpens your sense of the enormous cultural changes which took place during this period, and which separate us from that distant time.

This first section includes:

  • John Strange and Sarah Ann Williams (1830) by John R. Wildman
  • The Artist’s son (1820) by Martin Archer Shee
  • Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn
Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn

Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn © the Royal Academy

Children in poverty

There is a slight disconnect in the exhibition between its wall labels and the actual content. The labels emphasise that throughout the period tens of thousands of children suffered from malnutrition, illness, abuse and overwork. And right at the start of the show there is a big display panel listing the major legislation passed during the 19th century with the twin aims of:

  1. protecting protect children from exploitation and
  2. educating them

This explains that free state education for the under-10s wasn’t available until 1870, while it was only in 1874 that children under the age of ten were forbidden from working in factories. These and other basic historical facts make for startling reading.

However, when you turn from the information texts to the pictures you discover that the exhibition itself has almost no paintings of working children, apart from a handful showing romanticised road sweeps and shoe polishers.

There is no depiction whatsoever of children working in coalmines or in any of the hundreds of thousands of factories which sprang up across the land, in any trades or of the thousands of under-age girls who worked as prostitutes.

There’s no depiction of the kind of workhouse described in Oliver Twist or the bullying junior schools shown in Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield.

Instead this section contains some more chocolate-boxy images:

  • Cottage children (1804) by William Owen
  • The Pet Lamb (1813) by William Collins
  • Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington
Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington © Tate

Compare this painting by Thomas Kennington with the Raeburn above. It is interesting to observe the difference in technique between the early and later part of the century (Raeburn 1814, Kennington 1885), the way a Thomas Lawrence-type softness has given way to a style more roughly painted and with more realistic details (the ragged trousers, the hole in the floor).

But it’s still desperately sentimental, though, isn’t it? Still the same rosy red cheeks and catchlights in the eyes.

Children and animals

The commentary suggests that the British public was sentimental about animals long before it cared about poor children, pointing out that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in England in 1824, whereas the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wasn’t founded till 1884.

The commentary claims that children and animals became increasingly associated as the sentimental Victorian era progressed, but I personally wasn’t convinced of that. One of my all time favourite paintings is Gainsborough’s depiction of his two daughters with a cat, on show at the National Portrait Gallery’s recent exhibition of Gainsborough portraits – and this dates from 1760.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the association of sweet little children and sweet little animals became more mass produced, a shameless catering to the sentimentalism of the new Victorian mass public. In this show it is exemplified in Millais’s couple of paintings, My First Sermon and My Second Sermon, showing the sweetest of innocent little Victorian girls sitting in her smart Sunday best. This was a madly successful painting which was widely distributed in the form of prints and reproductions.

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Also in this section are:

  • The First Leap (1829) by Sir Edwin Landseer
  • Portrait of a Young Girl (1891) by William Powell Frith
  • The Music Lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton
  • Sun and Moonflowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie
  • Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere
Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere

Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere © Tate

Children at play

What more nostalgic and anodyne image could you conceive than the innocent children of unspoilt crofters fishing by a clear crystal stream or playing harmless games in a rural garden, as depicted here.

But as the century progressed the notion of ‘play’ became commercialised and integrated into a capitalist economy. Playrooms were built in posh houses, playgrounds were built in new housing developments, the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 gave parents special days to spend with their children.

A further development was the invention of seaside resorts, in the first half of the century only for the rich but leading to the development of increasingly popular resorts like Blackpool, Scarborough and Brighton. The paintings in this section capture all phases of this development but with the emphasis mostly on some really cheesy scenes of innocent rural play.

  • The Nutting Party (1831) by William Collins
  • Borrowdale, Cumbria (1821) by William Collins
  • the Kitten Deceived (1816) by William Collins
  • Try This Pair (1864) by Frederick Daniel Hardy
  • Gran’s Treasures (1866) by George Bernard O’Neill
  • The Playground (1852) by Thomas Webster
  • The Swing (1865) by Myles Birket Foster
  • The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

Foster was a skilled watercolourist who painted scenery around his Surrey home of Witley. Looks wonderfully idyllic, doesn’t it, but not much to do with the themes of the commercialisation of holidays and recreation time mentioned in the wall labels.

The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

Children of city, country and coast

The commentary points out the population explosion which characterised the 19th century, and that most of it took place in new towns and cities. This big increase in population gave rise to hair-raising infant mortality statistics as newborns and toddlers fell prey to the diseases of humans crushed together in cramped, insanitary conditions – typhoid, cholera and the like.

However – counter-intuitively – instead of showing paintings of this squalor and disease, the commentary uses these facts to explain a section depicting children at the seaside, including:

  • Children at the Seaside (1910) by Frank Gascoigne Heath
  • John, Everard and Cecil Baring (1872) by James Sant
  • 3rd Lord Evelstoke as a Boy (1871) by E. Tayleur
  • The Bonxie, Shetland (1873) by James Clarke Hook
  • Word fromt he Missing (1877) by James Clarke Hook
  • Shrimp Boys at Cromer (1815) by William Collins
  • Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke
  • Georgie and Richard Fouracre (1889) by Henry Scott Tuke
  • Two Children on Deck (1894) Henry Scott Tuke

This latter trio of works makes Tuke, a leading member of the Newlyn School, with his strongly homoerotic portrayals of teenage boys, possibly the most represented artist here.

Ruby, Gold and Malachite was one of the handful of paintings here which really stood out as serious masterpieces which hold their own today. But then it is debatable whether it is about childhood at all. The naked boys are no longer toddlers but on the verge of manhood and that, surely, is part of its appeal.

Pondering the difference between childhood and adolescence made me realise that the exhibition doesn’t actually give a working definition of ‘childhood’ which is, in fact, a problematic category. There is a vast difference between 6 and 16.

Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke

Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke © City of London Corporation

I was really struck by this work, An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne, an artist who studied in France in the 1870s and 1880s and brought the plein air approach back to Britain. 

An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne

An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Really looking at this painting I realised that what it has in common with the Tuke painting is that both have a matt finish, very unlike the shiny and slickly finished super-gloss finish of a Millais or Riviere.

This alone helps to account for the mournful atmosphere of the painting, although it is obviously also due the artfully sombre palettes of browns and greys. In its own way it may be Victorian chocolate box, but I felt it had more soul than most of the other paintings on display.

One-offs

Off to one side, not part of any particular topic, are a couple of monster large paintings including the beautiful landscape titled The Thames From Richmond Hill, London (1905) by Ernest Albert Waterlow. This appeared to be in the exhibition chiefly here because it has been subjected to recent restoration, which is thoroughly explained by a lengthy wall label.

Nearby was an altogether darker and morbid painting, The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue.

 The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue

The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue © Tate

La Thangue was, apparently, famous for the realism of his late-Victorian rustic scenes, mostly of workaday life. This one has an unusual symbolism about it. It’s not easy to see in this reproduction, and was hard to see in the lowered light of the gallery, but at the end of the path, on the right, is a man with a scythe, and the assumption is that the little girl in the chair has just died.

The emphasis on death and the whiteness of the girl’s dress and pillow link it with a number of European Symbolist painters of the time.

Children at school

In 1851 fewer than 50% of children in Britain attended school. In fact the provision of education was incredibly haphazard until the end of the century. Until then there was no system, instead each region had highly localised and overlapping education facilities which might include factory schools (which provided two hours a day education but only after the end of the eight-hour working day), Dame Schools run by spinster women, Ragged schools for the very poorest which taught survival-level writing and reading, private day schools with low fees and notoriously low standards, and a wide range of schools run by local charities, by the Church of England, the Quakers and so on.

Only the middle and upper classes bothered to educate their children beyond the age of 11 and were able to afford the fees for governesses or private tutors, grammar schools, preparatory and public schools. In Victorian society, the well educated were, then, in a tiny majority.

Only with the Education Act of 1870 were local authorities finally put under the obligation to provide free education for every child under 10. Only in 1880 was attendance at school between the ages of five and 13 made compulsory, and it was not until 1891 that education was provided free for all.

Fascinating stuff but, once again, the paintings which ‘illustrate’ these facts are mawkishly twee and sentimental.

  • A Dame’s School (1845) by Daniel Webster
  • Alone (1902) by Theophile Duverger
  • Two Children at Drawing Lessons (1850s) by Daniel Pasmore
  • The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster
  • The Frown (1841) by Thomas Webster

In the first of this pair of paintings the children are happily smiling and pleasing their teacher. The second shows the same row of little tinkers in various stages of frowning and looking unhappy. Aaaah. Sweet.

The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster

The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster

Children at work

Though the birth rate declined during the 19th century as a result of improvements in medicine and education, nonetheless at one point about a third of the population was under the age of 15.

Victorian England was the first developing country. In the early part of the Industrial Revolution children as young as five were sent to work in city streets, country fields, docks, factories and mines. Legislation slowly raised the age at which children could be put to work and limited their working hours, but it’s still a shock to learn how slowly this came about. In 1842 the Mines Act banned the use of boys under the age of ten down coalmines. So 11-year-olds could go, then. It wasn’t until 1878 that children under the age of 10 were forbidden to work in factories.

But regardless of legislation, city street were full of street Arabs, homeless waifs and strays scraping a living. Henry Mayhew’s astonishing multi-volumed enquiry into the lives and work and economics of street labour, London Labour and the London Poor, revealed to middle-class Victorians an astonishing proliferation of street employment and the precise demarcations and hierarchies among, for example, coster-mongers (who sold fresh fruit), mud larks (who searched for valuable scraps in the Thames mud) match girls (who sold match boxes at pitiful rates), and crossing sweepers, who swept the mud and horse poo out of the way of gentleman and ladies who wished to cross the road, for a penny a go.

The paintings on display here completely fail to capture the real misery of poverty and homelessness. Instead the painters are generally hypnotised by the sentimental notion of solitary or abandoned children, and the paintings are vehicles for tear-jerking sentiment. They may be well-intentioned but all-too-often have all the depth of a Christmas card.

  • The Crossing Sweeper (1858) by William Powell Frith
  • Shaftesbury, Lost and Found (1862) by William MacDuff
  • The General Post Office, one minute to six (1860) by George Elgar Hicks
  • A Crossing Sweeper and a Flower Girl (1884) by Augustus E. Mulready
  • Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready
Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready

Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready © Guildhall Art Gallery

Drawings and prints

Off to one side of the main two exhibition rooms is a space obviously set aside for children and school visits, with tiny tables and chair set with paper and crayons and colouring pens.

But what struck me about this space was that it didn’t have any paintings in, it had prints. And the interesting thing about the prints is that they were vastly more realistic than any of the paintings in the main exhibition. Maybe realistic isn’t exactly the word, since since several of them were the cartoon-style illustrations of George Cruickshank, who illustrated Charles Dickens’s early novels.

Field Lane Ragged School, London, c1850 by George Cruikshank

Field Lane Ragged School, London, c1850 by George Cruikshank

What I mean is that, although quite a few of the wall labels in the main exhibition described at length the awful conditions for children in the cramped, crowded, filthy squalid new cities thrown up by the Industrial Revolution, none of the paintings really show this, none of them show children working in factories, down the mines, up chimneys etc.

Presumably this is because Art, Fine Art, the Fine Art of Painting, was required by Victorian critics and theorists to show morally and spiritually and religiously uplifting scenes. Hence the glut of happy children in idyllic rural scenes and, even when a painting does show street sweepers, it’s under a melancholy moon on the empty Blackfriars bridge with a view of the romantic Thames in the background i.e. sweetened and sentimentalised.

So it was left to the illustrators and lithographers and print-makers, the cartoonists and illustrators, of Dickens and numerous other mid-Victorian novelists, to actually show what conditions were like in the crowded streets, in bare attics and crowded workhouses and schools which permanently bordered on bedlam, as in the Cruikshank illustration above.

Conclusion

In other words, it was only when I’d finished going round the exhibition a couple of times, and examined the prints in the children’s activity room a few times, that it dawned on me that paintings might not be a very good medium in which to explore the social history of children during the Victorian era.

In fact, society and critics’ and artists’ views about a) what childhood ought to be and b) what a good painting ought to be, actively prevented painting from being an accurate record of the times.

It is a good record of the (to us, largely false and sentimental) taste of the Victorians. But as to what conditions were actually like for the working poor, it may well be that the illustrators tell us more than any painter ever could.

Meditations in Monmouth Street (1839) by George Cruikshank

Meditations in Monmouth Street, 1839, by George Cruikshank

For me these prints linked directly to the acute depictions of London’s street children made by the woman artist Edith Farmiloe nearly sixty years later, and as recently featured in a fascinating exhibition at the Heath Robinson Museum. Prints and illustrations – that’s where the social historian should be looking, rather than at sickly sweet paintings.

A Make believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe

A Make-Believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe (1902)


Related links

Other guildhall reviews

Sculpture Victorious @ Tate Britain

Victorian art

I’m reading Christopher Wood’s coffee table history of Victorian painting which makes a number of obvious but important points:

The Victorian period was very long (1837 to 1901) – equivalent to three 25-year generations, so should be divided into at least three periods. It saw an unprecedented number of artists, using an array of new channels and media, to reach a larger audience than ever before. It was popular art in every sense: exhibitions were immensely well attended, the most famous paintings went on national and even international tours (I like his point that, along with much else, the Victorians invented the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition). Popular pieces were copied as engravings or lithographs which sold by the thousands, were printed in magazines and newspapers and could be bought in the new breed of art shops which opened in all the major cities.

More people than ever before could afford to buy some kind of art, or an affordable copy of art, and therefore artists were incentivised to cater to a wider range of tastes than ever before.

Which explains why the subject matter was popular and accessible: thousands of Victorian paintings tell a readily understandable story, focus on a dramatic moment or point a heavy moral – they are novels in frames or sermons in oil. Never have art and literature been closer. The ‘higher’ art might choose incidents from classical myth or medieval legend, which required a modicum of education to ‘get’; but plenty of other artists depicted scenes from ‘popular classics’, such as Goldsmith’s the Vicar of Wakefield or Don Quixote or Shakespeare, or straightforward scenes from contemporary life, typified by William Powell Frith’s astonishing panoramas Derby Day and The Railway Station, or the countless moral ‘tales’ warning of the perils of adultery or gambling.

Sculpture Victorious

The above is meant to give an indication of the sheer abundance of Victorian art, the variety of subject matter, the scope for specialisation, the widely varying levels of skill of its practitioners, and the differing audiences, from the aloofest cognoscenti to aspiring working class families who could afford a threepenny print.

This exhibition has been quite harshly criticised in some quarters for its eclecticism and incoherence (see the reviews below) but I thought it managed to reduce a huge and confusing range of output over a long period of revolutionary social and technical change and aimed at various levels of a newly stratified society, into some kind of order.

George Frampton, Dame Alice Owen (1897) © Dame Alice Owen’s School

George Frampton, Dame Alice Owen (1897) © Dame Alice Owen’s School

Introduction to Victorian sculpture

The show begins with the premise that the Victorian period was a Golden Age for British sculpture and it began at the top: Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, directly commissioned a wide array of work. Images of Victoria were set up in every city as well as in cities around the world as the British cemented control of their Empire. Sculpture was used to celebrate famous military victories, whether contemporary or from the more legendary past. And scientific developments made it easier to cast statues, to create them in new materials, and to run off multiple copies for sale and distribution. Boom times.

Room 1. The image of Victoria

More images of Queen Victoria were produced than of, probably, all the preceding British monarchs put together. From vast ceremonial statues to tiny, delicate brooches and profiles, as well as innumerable medals and coins. (I did wonder why coins and medals and brooches were featuring in an exhibition of sculpture but – as when the same question arose later, decided to just relax and enjoy the sheer variety of artefacts on display.)

This room featured an illustration of Benjamin Cheverton’s ‘reducing machine’ designed to allow a craftsman to make multiple copies of an existing sculpture – just one example of the numerous ways the means of manufacturing, copying and disseminating sculpture exploded in this period.

Room 2. The presence of history

From start to finish one massive thread running through Victorian art and sculpture was an obsession with the Middle Ages, with idealised images of Chivalry and Romance. Bolstered by the massive popularity of the novels of Sir Walter Scott (d.1832) and underpinned by the theoretical writings of art critic John Ruskin, the ideas were made flesh in the hyper-medievalism of the new Houses of Parliament (1850-60), popularised by the pre-Raphaelites (est. 1848), becoming a dominant architectural style, a pattern for countless statues, fake medieval friezes, tombs and monuments up and down the land.

Not only was the new Palace of Westminster (rebuilt 1840-70 after the previous building burned down 1834) a Gothic fantasia carried to extremes by architects Barry and Pugin, but a competition was held to fill it with medievalising statues. This led to a set of 18 statues of the Magna Carta barons, commissioned from nine contemporary artists. One of them has been brought from Westminster to feature in the show:

Characteristically of an age which combined a deeply nostalgic backward-looking art with a fascination for the latest ground breaking technology, this statue is made of zinc, electroplated with copper in a new technique, and highlighted with gilt.

The centrepiece of the room was the stunningly elaborate silver trophy, made to be awarded at a full fancy-dress medieval tournament held at Eglinton Castle, Kilwinning, North Ayrshire in 1839.

Room 3. Art and the antique

But what makes the Victorian period so confusing is that, running alongside the medieval Gothic strain was a just as powerful fascination for the classical world of the ancient Greeks and Romans and (as the century progressed) ancient Egyptians. (The difference in mood at the exhibition is signaled by the way the wall of the medieval room was painted a dark blood red, whereas the classical room was painted a lovely, light, duck-egg blue.)

All the classicists were influenced by the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon which went on display at the British Museum in 1816 and inspired successive generations of artists with their vision of human perfection (some of which can be seen up close and personal in the current exhibition of Greek sculpture at the British Museum.) However, I was struck that the musculature of the Leighton piece seemed to be harsher, more like a muscle-builder, than the Greek statues at the BM, which are smoother. For example the vein on the athlete’s neck is really standing out, and the musculature of the calves and shoulders seem more defined and developed than in a comparable Greek statue.

I felt the same about the statue which dominates the room, the Teucis of Hamo Thorneycraft, one of the superstars of Victorian sculpture. (Typically, in various interviews he mentioned a trip to the BM to see the Elgin Marbles as the moment when he decided to become a sculptor.)

As with the Leighton, I felt this had a more acute and angled feel for the male body than you’d get in the Greek original: the line of the pectoral stretching across to the bicep, the muscle above the shoulder, the small hollow above the ribcage and the archedness of the toes, all these gave it a more modern feel than the graceful smoothness of the Greeks, or of earlier Victorian nudes.

That kind of milky perfection of the human form was represented by:

Room 4. Great exhibitions

Everyone knows about the Great Exhibition of 1851, organised by Prince Albert and housed in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. It showcased Britain’s art and industry to the world, and to its own citizens, and included numerous sculptures and statues made for the occasion using a variety of up-to-the-minute techniques and materials. Usually the images of the Exhibition you see are paintings which give it a warm glow. One of the most interesting exhibits here was a normal-sized photo of the event (by Philippe Delamotte) which made it look like a lot of statues had been shoved higgledy-piggledy into a disused greenhouse.

I was slightly confused to see that most of the contents of this room weren’t from the 1851 exhibition but were made for the various other international exhibitions held in Paris or the USA later in the century. Thus one of the highlights of the show, the stunning man-high porcelain sculpture of an elephant rigged up in Indian-style ornamental howdah and trimmings, was made for the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889. It was designed by Thomas Longmore and John Hénk and manufactured by the successful porcelain manufacturer, Minton.

Thomas Longmore and John Hénk, Elephant (1889) © Thomas Goode & Co. Ltd., London

Thomas Longmore and John Hénk, Elephant (1889) © Thomas Goode & Co. Ltd., London

Is it art or is it horrible Victorian kitsch? I liked it and felt it depicted what it set out to depict with great flair and style. Unlike the just as large but revolting Peacock (1873), also made by the firm of Minton, and designed by Paul Comolera. Something about the silly hillock the bird is standing on and the twee ivy leaves and toadstools is revolting.

Typically for the age, both objects were made in numerous copies which could be not only sold to multiple buyers but were sent to be displayed at locations around the UK and abroad.

An unusually modern feel came from a large wood sculpture Partridges and Ivy by Thomas Wilkinson Wallace (1871) which uses a dilapidated wooden gate as the frame over which to drape festoons of ivy all framing dead partridges tied up by their feet. The ivy (and the tiny snail at bottom right) are done with bewitching realism, but I liked it because it felt like all the 20th century art works I love which use ‘found objects’, particularly rough, industrial or non-traditional materials.

The other dominant sculptures were a pairing of two naked women in chains. The wall label explained that Greek Slave (1844) was done by Hiram Powers, and is ostensibly about a Greek woman taken into slavery by the Turks during the former’s war of independence. In line with the Victorian means of distribution, copies of the statue were shown at venues around the UK and US and it became one of Powers’ most famous and most popular works. So much so that it inspired the suggestion that someone create a similar memorial to slaves in the southern US where slavery was, of course, still legal. Which led the sculptor John Bell (a significant contributor to the Albert Memorial) to create The American Slave (1853), which happily combined cashing in on the success of Powers’ statue and impressing everyone with its strong moral, anti-slavery purpose.

Room 5. Commemoration

The Victorians were obsessed with death which, despite all their marvellous inventions, continued to be a close presence in every large family, and they commemorated loved ones with countless mausoleums, cemeteries, gravestones, headstones, sarcophagi and funeral statues. The Albert Memorial is probably the most impressive, but the exhibition throws in a one minute video on a huge screen of a short silent piece of very early film footage of the unveiling of a huge statue of Victoria just after her death in 1901. As it happens, I recently watched City Lights by Charlie Chaplin which opens with the comprehensive ridiculing of just such a formal, ceremonial statue unveiling.

Heroes ancient and modern were celebrated by, for example, the stirring statue of Alfred the Great erected in Winchester High Street, the famous staue of Eros atop the Shaftesbury memorial in Shaftesbury Avenue, and the memorial to the Duke of Wellington which got caught up in bureaucracy and wasn’t finished until the 1920s.

Supporting the importance of the new scale of reproduction and distribution of artworks, was the fact that the lion sculpted to sit on top of Alfred Steven’s Wellington monument was advertised as being available from the Coalbrookdale Iron Company in a range of sizes and finishes. It was a thoroughly commercial age.

Room 6. Craft and art

This final room makes the unexpected jump to the end of the Victorian period and the flourishing of the Arts and Crafts movement, a reaction against the mass production of horrible tat – as railed against by William Morris in his numerous essays on art – with an emphasis on showing the hand of the maker. Thus many of the objects in this last room were signed by the artist or had detailing which was a little rough or asymmetrical, distancing itself from the complete fluency of the Leightons and Thornycrofts.

Wonderfully weird and kitschy was the St George and the Dragon Salt Cellar by Edward Onslow Ford – designed to stand on your dining room table, the salt to go in one of the dragon’s wings, the pepper in the other! There’s something to be noted about the late Victorian cult of St George which rose up, buoyed by the increasing enthusiasm of the late Empire, but also the sheer weirdness of combining such a sublime – and beautifully crafted – image with such a banal function.

Again, stretching the time period was the final artefact in the show, this huge and extraordinary sculpture of King Philip of Spain playing chess with Queen Elizabeth I of England, with chess pieces made from the galleons and barques used by both sides in the invasion attempt of the Spanish Armada. Again high, giddy English nationalism is combined with an almost surreal incongruity of purpose. And, dated 1906-11 it is quite obviously Edwardian not Victorian. But I’m glad it was there. It’s one of the coolest set of chess pieces I’ve ever seen, up there with the Lewis chessmen.

Sir William Reynolds-Stephens, A Royal Game (1906-11) © Tate

Sir William Reynolds-Stephens, A Royal Game (1906-11) © Tate

Conclusions

As with other recent shows at Tate Britain (Ruin Lust and British Folk Art) the curators have chosen a vast subject with the result that entire aspects of it are represented by one or two works, that ideas are introduced then vanish, that great leaps are made from one decade to another, from one artist to something completely different, there is rather a sense of randomness.

That said, I thought it gave a good flavour for the amazing technical achievements of Victorian sculpture and showcased breathtaking individual works of stunning grace and beauty. Taken together, though, seen en masse in a rather unrelenting sequence, they did have a rather cloying and overwhelming affect. It’s a relatively small show but I’d had enough before the end.

And it helped me realise that’s how all those Modernists on the cusp of the Great War must have felt about the Victorian period, too.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: