Decorative Initial Attention to technique or the details of a painting is comparatively rare in Victorian art reviewing. How then did the critic proceed, and what were his criteria? As Helene Roberts has pointed out, "of 500 or so paintings amassed on the walls, reviewers would briefly notice perhaps 150 often mentioning several works by a single artist in one sentence, and concentrate their attention on 20 or 30 works." Occasionally critics employed the kind of scurrilous invective with which Eagles greeted Turner's later works, but in general they contented themselves with a brief description of the painting, concentrating upon an explanation of its subject.

The 1847 Illustrated London News thus characteristically commented of Thomas Webster's "most admirable picture," A Village Choir, that the artist has "painted a church destitute of an organ; and, for the bass, has sought out all the deep solemn mouths, and, for the tenor, the loud singing mouths, of the country bumpkins. In looking at this picture one is apt to style one's ears like Hogarth's 'Enraged Musician.' Some of the faces are full of character, and there is a touching little picture in the foreground of the choir — an orphan girl singing from the fullness of her heart and voice, as if, like Sir Philip Sidney's shepherd boy, she never would grow old. One cannot comment too highly," the reviewer concludes, upon "the extreme care with which every part is painted — care well bestowed when such a picture as this is the result." [Illustrated London News, 10 (1847), 297. For this and other reviews of paintings in the Forbes Collection, I am grateful to its curator, Christopher Forbes, and his assistant, Margaret Kelly.] Aside from the writer's condescension toward the lower classes of rural England, what is most remarkable about this favorable review of Webster's painting is that it has nothing to say about it as a work of visual art. One reads of "the extreme care with which every part is painted," but one does not know precisely what this indicates. The reviewer's emphasis, as is so frequently the case throughout the century, falls upon the painting's subject. Similarly, when almost three decades later a reviewer for the same newspaper noticed Frank Holl's Her Firstborn at the 1876 exhibition, he commented only that "four girls are bearing a tiny coffin slung in a white cloth, followed by the father looking dazed with grief, and the young mother bowed forward with more poignant anguish. The colouring partakes of the mournfulness of the theme, but we have had solider painting from the young [131/132] artist" (68 [1875]: 475). When the writer for the same periodical noticed Hubert Von Herkomer's The First-Born, he remarks only that "a workman's wife, carrying her baby, [is] coming to meet her husband as he is returning home. The scene is probably laid in the neighbourhood of Bushey: and whilst the sentiment of the picture recalls Fred. Walker, the colour, strong and bright, is altogether that of Herkomer himself" (88 [188]: 608). One is perhaps surprised to discover no mention of the sweeping sky which dominates Herkomer's composition, but in fact except for the mention that his colors are bright and that Holl has painted better (by which the reviewer apparently means he has finished more highly), there is no attention paid to these elements. Painting, in other words, becomes reduced to subject.

Except when a reviewer is attacking something he takes to be a great flaw or dangerous excess, he is unlikely to say anything about what happens visually in a painting. If one wished to formulate a rule, one might state that it is generally only in hostile reviews, such as those which greeted Pre-Raphaelite painting, that one can learn what a picture looked like to its contemporary audience. Thus, when we read of John Brett's Pearly Summer that "the glassy calm of the sea has been very carefully studied, but, as so often happens, his pictures seem to have no focus & very little, if any, cadence in lights and colours" (102 [1893]: 547), we can conclude that the painter's attempt to create a new kind of sea painting, abandoning conventional points of interest and a foreground, has jarred upon the reviewer's eye. Moreover, we also learn that Brett's attempt to manipulate color and light in a particularly complex way has also struck the critic as peculiar.


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Last modified 8 December 2006