Cover of the book under review. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]
The Victorians: Britain through the Paintings of the Age is packed with colour reproductions, but, as its title indicates, its focus is on Victorian society rather than on the art itself. Jeremy Paxman, famous as a TV interviewer, is not an art critic, and sees the paintings primarily as windows on a bygone era. Although he sometimes praises the power or scope of individual canvases, he has little time for the painterly skills they display, or their aesthetic appeal. "I know we are not supposed to like many of these paintings very much," he says in his introduction, adding with characteristic bluntness, "we might as well be frank and acknowledge that lots of them are simply not very good" (9). As an introduction to the age, this book is engaging and surprisingly comprehensive. Yet, by adopting this stance towards the paintings, Paxman and his BBC team short-change an important part of their enterprise.
Chapter 1, entitled "The Mob in the Picture Gallery," starts dramatically enough with the advent of the modern world, as reflected in canvases of bustling city streets, thronged bridges, packed railway stations and omnibuses, seaside resorts like Brighton and Ramsgate, the races, the Great Exhibition, and so on. The choice of pictures here is mostly predictable, but effective. With his famous panoramic canvases, William Frith features prominently, prompting a digression into his complicated domestic arrangements, but no comments on his formidable compositional and other merits as an artist. The Derby Day, for example, is compared to a "successful soap opera" (31). In his usual non-nonsense tone, Paxman says that no one in their right mind would consider such productions "high art" (40). Rather, he believes, they served a utilitarian purpose, helping the Victorians to "adjust to new realities" (10) and even celebrate them. The result was that art spaces themselves became magnets for the crowd, the cinemas of the day — an analogy supported by two double-page spreads showing Ford Madox Brown's dramatic and colourful sequence of murals for the Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall.
John Atkinson Grimshaw's urban mood-studies at the end of Chapter 1 prepare us for the more sombre representations of daily life that follow: Chapter 2 is entitled, "Thy Long Day's Work." Here comes Ford Madox Brown again, with a double-page spread of Work, and Luke Fildes — although, as Fildes's famous Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward suggests, it was far better to have a job of any kind than none at all. In fact, many of the reproductions in this chapter are not about work, but about the sufferings of the down-and-out. The German-born artist, Hubert von Herkomer, is shown swinging between two possible responses to these sufferings: social realism, in a grim workhouse scene for the Graphic; and a pleasanter, more commercially viable approach to the same material in his later painting, Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Union. In a strange comment, indicative of what he himself expects from Victorian art, Paxman suggests that neither approach gives "a true facsimile of life" (72), since the former accentuates the sufferings to convey a message, while the latter makes them look picturesque.
Another way to escape reality was to shut the front door on it. The next chapter deals with home, and, in deference to its presiding genius, this is entitled, "The Angel in the House." Queen Victoria —> herself takes pride of place here, with familiar depictions of the royal family by Landseer, Winterhalter and others. But, as in Chapter 2, the subject matter soon veers into murkier waters. Lurking below the surface were infidelities and their dreadful repercussions, mainly for the women involved. Like Frith, the cartoonist Linley Sambourne got away with a double life; but innocent wives like Mrs Beeton were infected with syphilis as a result of their husband's indiscretions, while erring women might end up jumping into the Thames. This is the cue for Augustus Leopold Egg's well-known Past and Present sequence, and G. F.Watts's perhaps even better-known Found Drowned. Rossetti makes a belated entrance here with Found, and of course this artist's domestic arrangements come under scrutiny too. As might be expected, children feature more fully in this chapter than in earlier ones, with a whole section entitled, "The Apple of Our Eye," in which Frith gets at least some praise for The New Frock ("Frith's little girl looks normal rather than cherubic," 142), though the gorgeous colour of the garment and its characteristically fine details still pass unnoticed. One useful aspect of this chapter is Paxton's inclusion of the talented female artist Emily Osborn, along with Emma Brownlow, who painted scenes at Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital, and Kate Greenaway, the children's book illustrator. Dorothy Tennant's wonderful painting of Street Arabs at Play appeared, rather oddly, in the earlier chapter on work, along with Emma Magnus's Won't You Buy My Pretty Flowers?
Chapter 4, entitled "A World of Wealth and Power," moves out of the home, focussing on Victorian Britain as the hub and powerhouse of empire. There is more here about the Great Exhibition, with its inauguration illustrated this time by David Roberts (Chapter 1 gave Henry Courtney Selous's version of the same event). William Bell Scott's Iron and Coal mural from Wallington, and Henry Hetherington's The Prince of Wales at Cragside, take us close to the main cradle of the shipbuilding and armaments industries on Tyneside, while Elizabeth Thompson's terrific and sensationally popular works, The Roll Call and The Battle of Balaclava, remind us of the cost of war, in particular the cost of the Crimean War. Paxman, who recently presented a TV documentary on Wilfred Owen, pauses here to give some helpful information about the artist, and to defend her against charges of imperialism. The next part of this chapter deals with "Imperial Dreams," particularly but not exclusively with India and the British response to the events of 1857, including Charles Spurgeon's call for a "holy war" against India (181). Much ground is covered rather breathlessly, with paintings by Edmund Lear, John Frederick Lewis and others contributing the right air of exoticism to the text but not getting much commentary themselves. The chapter closes with a section entitled "Rich and Poor," which rounds up various phenomena of the age, from advertising to emigration, and concludes with the Dock Strike of 1890, and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 — the best-known illustration here being Ford Madox Brown's again (The Last of England).
The fifth and final chapter, "A Land of Dreams," examines the complicated cross-currents of religious faith and its alternatives in this long era. Pugin and William Burges get their only brief mentions here, in the context of the Gothic. This is all useful, though, and less well-known than some of the earlier material about Victorian double standards. But again, the treatment of the paintings themselves is disappointing. Such puzzling works as William Dyce's Pegwell Bay and Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat, visionary scenes by artists like Watts and John Martin, and the surreal fairy panoramas of the unfortunate Richard Dadd, are not simply windows on the spiritual questionings of the age. They are expressions of the individual artists' inner lives, in which they expose their doubts, beliefs, fears or obsessions to the public gaze. They are often the true masterpieces of the period. The comments on Watts's iconic Hope give an idea of how they are served. "Watts breathed new life into the symbol in this painting," declaims Paxton, "dispensing with some traditional images, freely adapting others, and mingling divine and profane ideas in a way that symbolised the social debates of the time" (223). There is no room to support, let alone explore, such a large statement; it is followed by a couple of sentences of description, and a short quotation from the Art Journal. Dadd's The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke inspires a longer, more detailed commentary, but even here Paxman says that "we have no idea why" the nut (not an acorn) in the painting is to be split, without mentioning the usual explanation, derived from a passage in Romeo and Juliet, that it was to produce a new carriage for Queen Mab. Then, such works are described in the following paragraph as "at best dismissibly odd, at worst horribly unsettling" (243). Perhaps these are not the kind of paintings that speak to Paxman, who is as well-known for his cynicism as his bluntness.
One particular complaint in this last chapter: Edward Burne-Jones's vast The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon has been severely cropped: a painting amusingly but accurately described by Lionel Lambourne as "almost as tall and long as a bus" (459) is rendered in portrait format with important architectural elements of its composition missing, not to mention nine of its figures. Obviously, even in this age of cutting and pasting, the organisation of both text and illustrations has been a big task throughout this book, and the cropping must have been due to the exigencies of space. But it would have been easy enough to include the dimensions of the original painting in the marginal caption. Indeed, such information would have been welcome throughout: when canvases are as large as this, or as tiny as Dadd's fairy scene, it does affect our perception of them.
The Victorians: Britain through the Paintings of the Age has been issued to accompany Paxman's current 2009 BBC TV series on the Victorians. With an eye to the viewer rather than the specialist, it pulls a great deal of art history and social history together in an entertaining way. The pictures will be a major selling point, and it is to be hoped that many of them will speak for themselves. They are not "largely unappreciated" (13) or even "under-appreciated" (244) in the art world today. In the Afterword, Paxman does at last acknowledge a couple of recent reappraisals — but not this century's major London exhibitions of William Frith, Watts and John Millais. At the time of writing, another Watts exhibition is running at London's Guildhall Art Gallery. And Paxman's mention here of the recent loan of Lord Leighton's Flaming June and Burne-Jones's Last Sleep of King Arthur to Tate Britain is really too little, too late to offset what he says in his introduction. There, he used the 1963 sale of Flaming June to Puerto Rico as an example of British neglect of its Victorian heritage. Yet even then the loss was much mourned. Both these spectacular paintings were greeted with a huge fanfare when they arrived last year, and were specially featured at the Tate during their nine-month stay. Are we really "not supposed to like many of these paintings very much"?
Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London & New York: Phaidon, 1999.
Paxman, Jeremy. The Victorians: Britain through the Paintings of the Age. London: BBC Books (Ebury), 2009. 255pp. £.25.00. ISBN 978 1 846 07743 2. £25.00
Last modified 3 March 2009