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The Victorians in Washington.

One hundred years ago one of the most spectacular processions ever seen, comprising troops from every continent, made its way though the thronged and beflagged streets of London to the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, where an assemblage of dignitaries and ecclesiastics faced the open carriage in which sat a small, elderly lady in black who had come to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of her reign as Queen not only of the United Kingdom but of the greatest, most far flung and most beneficent Empire the world had ever seen. London in 1897 was the capital of the great Imperial super-power whose wealth and culture had dominated its century, just as Washington is in 1997. Queen Victoria herself, monarch and matriarch, was a highly moral, cultivated yet strangely humble ruler. It would be difficult to find a more exact opposite figure than the shifty and scandal-ridden President who currently presides in Washington. Yet Washington, a city that exudes power and Victorian optimism, is the perfect place in which to celebrate the Victorian achievement in art.

Although Victorian literature has always been popular in America, where the novels of Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope have been widely read and studied since they first appeared, Victorian Art has been little known. That has been remedied by the Exhibition 'The Victorians' at the National Gallery in Washington. Indeed Earl A. Powell III, the Director of The National Gallery, writes in his foreword to the Exhibition catalogue that this is 'the first major survey of Victorian art to be mounted in the United States.' The Exhibition, which ran from February until May, was remarkable not for its size, but rather for its careful selection. It featured about 70 paintings by some three dozen Victorian artists.

The selection stressed the literary and didactic character of Victorian art. This, far more than most exhibitions, required a catalogue for a full enjoyment and understanding of the works. Fortunately the catalogue is a particularly fine one. Malcolm Warner's The Victorians: British Painting 1837-1901 will remain an important work for all students of the Victorian era. Happily the catalogue is published in Britain by that excellent art publisher Abrams (ISBN 0- 8109-6342-6. [pounds]34.95). The catalogue provides useful biographies and photographs of the artists, ranging from well known ones such as Turner and Burne-Jones to lesser known figures such as Henry Wallis and Benjamin Leader. Most of the paintings have come from galleries and private collections in Britain, and, to a considerably lesser extent, in America. Incidentally the fact that so many of the best paintings came from the so-called 'provincial' galleries throughout Britain underlines the point being made in our ongoing series in Contemporary Review by Donald Bruce about the amazing wealth of art to be found in Galleries outside London.

The descriptions of the paintings by Malcolm Warner, assisted by other scholars, provide a model of the way to explain the symbolism and significance of works of art in a detailed but easily understood manner. Thus we are given a two-page essay on Holman Hunt's painting The Awakening Conscience (normally at the Tate in London) which shows how Hunt used the Thomas Moore Poem 'Oft in the Stilly Night' in this painting. We see a' fallen woman - a favourite Victorian theme - suddenly struck by a pang of conscience as her wealthy lover sings that Moore song. In a skilful manner Malcolm Warner shows all the intricate symbolism in the painting ranging from the dropped soiled kid glove forecasting the woman's ultimate fate to the few pieces of yarn on the floor suggesting the ravelled state of her soul.

Almost all the great themes that inspired Victorian life and art were present in this splendid Washington exhibition. Religion, which was the bedrock of Victorian culture, was well represented by Millais's Christ in the Carpenter's Shop (from the Tate Gallery). The practical application of the Christian Gospel is best reflected in Ford Madox Brown's painting Work (normally on display at that marvellous Victorian museum, the Manchester City Art Gallery). Here again is a painting that requires careful study and a good guide. A quick glance will only show a group of ditch diggers, while on one side are some fashionable society ladies and on the other two rather idle looking gentlemen. In fact the two men are Thomas Carlyle and the Revd. F. D. Maurice, both well known for their concern about the great social question of the time 'the Condition of England', that is the social divide between workers and the comfortable classes. (Maurice, the Founder of 'Christian Socialism' had founded the Working Men's College where Brown taught.) Carlyle was the subject of another painting shown in the Exhibition by Whistler (normally seen in Glasgow). Whistler's superb portrait of Carlyle, which well depicts the gloomy Victorian sage, is actually the second of his 'Arrangements in Grey and Black', the first of which is his well known, and often parodied, portrait of his own mother.

In general, the Exhibition did not give enough emphasis to portrait painting: in the Victorian period, as in earlier centuries, this was the dominant genre of British art. However it did display Winterhalter's marvellous The First of May, 1851, one of the most evocative of Victorian paintings. (This was lent by the Queen from her private collection.) It portrays the aged hero, the Duke of Wellington, presenting a gift to his infant godson, Prince Arthur. This is one of the most attractive portraits of Queen Victoria, who is holding the royal child and beside her stands her husband, Prince Albert gazing towards the Crystal Palace, where the 'Great Exhibition' had been opened but a few hours earlier. No other painting so well sums up the Victorians' pride in the past and confidence in the future, that happy balance that underlay so many of their great achievements. It is appropriate that Prince Albert is seen in this role for he, more than any other figure, did so much for British art and industry. He was constantly seeking ways to improve the public taste in art and to bring it to the expanding middle classes.

The Exhibitions - both that in London in 1851 and the 1997 Exhibition in Washington - reflected the taste both of the middle and upper classes. It shows them at their pleasures with such works as Tissot's Ball on Shipboard (from the Tate) or Frith's Derby Day (also from the Tate). Yet it is important to emphasise, as Frith does in his painting and the catalogue's description does as well, the way that this vast canvas portrays all the gradations of Victorian society. (One suspects that Frith was highly influenced by Thackeray's description of this event in his novel, The Newcomes, which appeared a few years earlier.)

It is a pity that the Exhibition did not include Frith's splendid portrayal of the luminaries of Victorian society ranging from Mr Gladstone to Trollope and Wilde in The Private View of the Royal Academy, 1881. The Washington Exhibition however was careful to show the problems of the Victorian poor in two moving works by Hubert von Herkomer, Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Union (from the Walker Art Gallery, in Liverpool) and Hard Times (from the Manchester City Art Galleries) and in Samuel Fildes' Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (from the collection of the Royal Holloway College). These works of 'social realism' show how the Victorians did not hide the blemishes of their society. That society, which has left such a powerful influence on what has come after, was well displayed in the Washington Exhibition and permanently encased in the sumptuous catalogue.

Dr Richard Mullen is the author of Victoria: Portrait of a Queen; Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in His World; The Penguin Companion to Trollope, and is completing a biography of William Thackeray.
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Author:Mullen, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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