Wednesday, 30 January 2013

All human life... the glory of Victorian paintings

William Buss's The Crowd always cheers me up. It's the insane delight on the chimney-sweep's face that does it - that and the horrified expressions of the fat bloke and the lady in the dress, outraged at the threat little chapposes to their fine clothes. The occasion is Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840 (the painting was exhibited the following year). There's so much vulgar, teeming exuberance here, it's as if all the energy of Pickwick Papers has been crammed onto one canvas. 

I'm thoroughly enjoying Mary Cowling's Victorian Figurative Painting at the moment, and, for no particular reason, thought I'd share with you some of the paintings featured in that excellent book.

Another favourite is Edward John Gregory's  highly original Boulter's Lock, Sunday Afternoon, which got him get elected to the Royal Academicy in 1898. Gregory, the son of a Southampton engineer, can be seen lolling in the boat on the right, taking in the scene as a variety of boats hurry to get out of the way of a steam launch. Again, the dynamism is extraordinary - the very water itself seems alive. 

Henry O'Neil's Eastward Ho! August 1857 (painted the following year) shows British troops in Gravesend heading off to quell the Indian Mutiny, but concentrates on those left behind. We're always being invited to sneer at Victorian sentimentality, but I see little of it in this magnificent work. No wonder people flocked to see these pictures when they were first exhibited - and no wonder reproductions sold like hot-cakes. They must have had as big a role in shaping the public's attitude to current events as films did in the 20th century.

When Sir Joseph Noel Paton first painted In Memoriam, a scene from the Cawnpore Massacre of 1857, there was no rescue party involved: everyone in the picture was doomed, and the matriarchal figure in the centre was already focussing on the next life. But the nation could take no more horrors, and, after it was first exhibited, Sir Noel painted in the rescuing Highlanders (which earned the approval of the Queen herself). 

Some quieter pictures now. I've always loved the balance, the colours and the peaceful atmosphere of Augustus Leopold Egg's The Travelling Companions. I'm generally a big Egg fan.

In William Snape's The Cottage Home (1891) we're presented with a scene of quiet, decent, orderly domesticity as a working-class villager reads aloud to his grand-daughter. The white ceiling rafters, the sunlight through the windows, the warm, honey colour of the walls to which texts are attached (including the Churchman's Almanac) suggest education, morality and self-improvement (the Education Act had been introduced in 1870). Probably a bit preachy for some tastes, but I find it touching. 

I'll end with Albert Chevallier Tayler's delicate The Yellow Ribbon (1889)one of my favourite Victorian paintings. There's something Vermeerish about it - but the girl is more real, more specific, than most of Vermeer's subjects: we really do feel she might glance up at us at any moment. If I had to choose any of the pictures in this post to hang on the wall, it's this one. 


  1. Thanks for this lovely post.

    1. You're welcome, southern man - glad you enjoyed it.

  2. You're right about the popularity of these works at the time.The opening exhibition of'Derby Day' by William Frith must indeed have been like the premier of a film today.The Crowds at The Royal Academy in 1858 had to be held back by a swiftly erected rail surrounding this majestic painting.

  3. An interesting and instructive post.

    My inability to distinguish a good painting from a Shetland pony does not prevent me from adding my two bits. My favourite Victorian paintings are by Elizabeth Thompson - "Scotland for Ever" [1881, the charge of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo] and "The Remnants of an Army" [1879, the arrival of Dr. Bryden at Jalabad in 1842 after the slaughter of the Kabul garrison of 16,500 in the Khyber pass]. In the film "Waterloo" Bondarchuck has a number of frames based accurately on the former and there is about to be a strong contemporary resonance struck by the latter.

    JMW Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up" [1839, the Queen had her coronation in 1838 so it it technically a "Victorian" painting] always strikes an emotional chord [the passing of sail to steam and the final days of a great man o'war from Trafalgar].

    And finally, Francis Cruikshank's portrait of Viscount Palmerston [1855-59] in which the great man bears an uncanny resemblance to Harry Redknapp which is unsettling.

    1. I'd forgotten both the paintings you mentioned - magnificent.

      "The Fighting Temeraire" was voted the nation's favourite painting in a BBC poll in 2005. This cheered me up enormously, as it suggested the nation wasn't in the least ashamed of its glorious military past, despite decades of liberal self-flagellation.

      I wonder if Palmerston ever used a press conference to complain about the opposition benches "c*nting off" a member of his front-bench team, as Harry Redknapp once did.

  4. We're always being invited to sneer at Victorian sentimentality, but I see little of it in this magnificent work ...

    They must have had as big a role in shaping the public's attitude to current events as films did in the 20th century ...

    Agreed without quibble.

    And then my mind wanders ... Fade ... Dissolve to Tate Britain ... night time and snow ... brass monkeys ...

    A few Fridays back, the wife and I sidled into the last night of the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate and waded for hours through the very swamp of sentimentality for which the Victorians are famous.

    There was poor old Ophelia, her beautiful face, her sumptuous clothes, floating dead in a silvery pool in a secluded clearing. Yuk.

    When No.1 daughter was doing her English A-level, one of the set texts was a Christina Rossetti poem written to her lover, promising that even if she died she;d be watching him and that she'd take steps from beyond the grave to make sure he still did her bidding. Let's hope he took the hint and legged it.

    And there was a Browning love poem written to his sweetheart as she sat close to him and he examined her virtues in minute detail, only it turned out she was dead and what's more that he'd strangled her with her very own long blond hair. What was it with these people?

    There was a painting at the Tate, probably a Burne-Jones, crumbling ruins of a stone abbey in the background, a monk in front, standing in a field surrounded by beautifully painted wild flowers. A mischievous curator had noted that it was "sketched in Ewell", the acme today of outer-suburban life.

    Contemporary critics apparently disliked the Pre-Raphaelites' near-photographic accuracy.

    Photography was in its infancy and the exhibition featured a couple of late 1830s Daguerrotypes.

    When Miss Marple, or whatever she was called, died in her nineties about 10 years ago, the wife and I got the keys off the agents and went to take a look round her house. Pure nosiness, we couldn't possibly afford it.

    A huge house on a huge plot up the road from us, there was the old tennis court in the garden, great slabs of concrete heaving out of the ground, like waves on a rough sea, as nature reasserted herself.

    Inside, the sitting room was trapezium-shaped, designed presumably to abide by the trees outside which gave the house its name, "Red Chestnuts". There was a grand piano at the fat end and, at the thin end, the roots were reminding us of their presence, you could see through the cracks in the wall.

    Upstairs in the old girl's room, strewn heartlessly all over the floor, hundreds of Daguerrotypes, healthy young men with tennis rackets, and I'm such a bloody boy scout I didn't even pocket one.

    The new owners pulled the trees down, squared off the sitting room and flattened the copse on the other wing of the house to make a hard standing for their fleet of Humvees.

    There was an illustrated book at the exhibition, an example of Pre-Raphaelite art getting everywhere, a book of medieval Italian poetry, not just illustrated by ex-KCS man Dante Gabriel Rossetti but, according to the flyleaf, translated by him. Good for him!

    And there were a few paintings by Millais. Always gives me a start. I went to his house once, one of those palatial jobs up by Hyde Park, parti-coloured light streaming through the stained glass windows onto the marble floor, and a great sweeping staircase up to heaven, and an IBM System/360 computer in the basement – it was the London office of the Canadian Bank of Imperial Commerce, and I was there to do a Post-Raphaelite computer audit, 1979.

    They were Victorian, too. The Pre-Raphaelites. As much as Mr Frith. They saw the same things. They just saw them differently. Like the Tate. A temple to culture? Maybe now, but when the Pre-Raphaelites looked at the site across the river, they'd have seen Millbank Prison.

    1. I recited Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” at a poetry gathering last year – a genuine frisson ran through the room at the lines:

      “…all her hair
      In one long yellow string I wound
      Three times her little throat around,
      And strangled her.”

      Even by Victorian standards, it’s a weird one.

      As for what it was with these people, I don’t know. I’ve even heard long-term lead poisoning mentioned in this context. More likely part of the flight from the severe rationalism of the Enlightenment, the loss of God and offspring and partners dying young, Romanticism’s increasing obsession with the supernatural and the grotesque (Colin Wilson’s good on this) and… well, it’s quite a big subject.

      I used to be a great fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but I’m not sure I know what I think of them now. I used to have reproductions of four or five of their paintings in my college rooms, but then my philosophy supervisor came round for a visit one day, took one look and sneered “Oh, I didn’t think of you as a poster person”. I knew it was my choice of paintings he was objecting to. Not wanting to be aesthetically bullied, I’ve tried to remain loyal, but over the years I’ve become much more appreciative of other British Victorian painters and less enamoured of super-realism, which I can imagine discomfiting critics at the time.

      The one Pre-Raphaelite I really never took to was Rossetti, so sorry to hear he went to KCS. (Mind you, the comedian Jimmy Edwards went there as well, and I was never that keen on him).

    2. As you say, "it’s quite a big subject".

      For latter-day Brownings who would like to keep the dead always with them, here's a 21st century approach,

  5. "...Albert Chevallier Tayler's delicate The Yellow Ribbon.." .... what a delightful work.
    I particularly like the drawing in it and the subtley in the "whites"..wonderful composition, too.

    1. I was so enthused by it that I looked for books about Tayler on Amazon, but could only find one with the title: "The Empire's Cricketers: Famous Players In Their Characteristic Attitudes Executed In Crayon From Drawings By Chevalier Tayler". Not what I was expecting! Apparently he was an enthusiastic cricketer. He was a member of Cornwall's Newlyn School for 11 years, which fits the style of this painting, but he then went on to enjoy success in Lodnon, doing more monumental stuff, which looks very well-executed (at least, on Google Images) but not nearly appealing as The Yellow Ribbon.