Languid females, drapery, decadence. These are the standard images that first come to mind when we consider the Victorian aesthetic movement. We see it as a riot of colour which wallowed in camp and wanted to challenge the bad taste which allegedly existed before the aesthetes came on the scene, but seems to have little to say to us today. Does this exhibition have anything to make us change our view?
The material on display is overwhelming. We’re greeted with Sir Frederic Leighton’s statue of ‘The Sluggard’ (1885) showing a young man stretching sleepily with his eyes closed - indeed, he almost seems to be yawning - in a camp manner that borders on the grotesquely exaggerated: you feel he’s going to dislocate a bone at any moment. This reinforces our view of the Victorian aesthetes as essentially too, too precious. But here we are subconsciously playing the old game that’s been around since the end of the First World War of superficially judging the Victorians for indulging in artiness without having achieved anything worthy of modern-day consideration (more of that later). We have to look more closely at what’s on offer.
And that means not only taking in eye-catching material like Leighton’s painting ‘The Syracusan Bride Leading Wild Animals in Procession to the Temple of Diana’ (1865-1866) - where the swirling clothes of the reverent onlookers compete for attention with the jagged trees and sky in the background which give an almost ethereal feel to the scene – but searching for material that is also thought-provoking. Let’s look at Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting ‘Elizabeth Siddall’ (1854), where the model, poet and artist seems to be musing on life with an expression bordering on scepticism, and Frederick Sandys’ painting ‘Vivien’ (1863), where the evil enchantress of Arthurian fame has a downright sneer. Did these painters have particular reasons for portraying female discontent and, if so, what where they?
Then we have Thomas Armstrong’s painting ‘The Hay Field’ (1869), showing three women. One of them holds a baby, while the other two look at her with a seemingly quizzical hostility. When this picture was painted, the fullness of psychoanalytic theory had yet to spring fully-formed from Freud’s couch and consulting room, but it’s as if we’re being shown a text-book case here. For we can’t help wondering what the deeper meaning of the scene is: why are the two women seemingly judging the other one? What simmering resentments are lurking here, and why? And is Edward Burne-Jones’s painting ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ (1873-1874), with Merlin cowering uncertainly as he looks at Nimue with her snake-encrusted hair, a projection of male fears over the stirrings of female emancipation?
Other challenges are here too. Controversial aspects of the Victorian imperial legacy have recently become a hot topic for discussion. But James Tissot’s painting of ‘Fredrick Gustavus Burnaby’ (1870), showing him lolling on a couch whileclad in the uniform of an officer in the Royal Horse Guards and surrounded by books and maps, reminds us not only of this officer’s roles of writer and traveller, but symbolise the enthusiastic expansion of all branches of knowledge which took place in that era. Victorian furniture has a reputation for being clumpy, over-solid. But the ‘Sussex Chair’ designed by Philip Webb and William Morris about 1860 and made 1870-1890 shows the careful application of ergonomic thought with its outwardly curving arms and wide back even if its wicker seat has a suspicion of sagginess about it. It contrasts with the ‘Armchair’ by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1884-1886) which looks anything but practical. But its bulbous curviness oozes with languid sensuousness: it’s just the thing to recline on whilst reading ‘Volume One of The Yellow Book’ (1894), the magazine of literary London’s fin de siecle cutting-edge, ‘art for art’s sake’ decadence, whose cover, designed by Aubrey Beardsley and showing two masked figures - a lascivious female and a sinister, quasi-diabolic male - we see here.
So the Victorian aesthetes could produce work which combined beauty with the disturbing, the innovative. (Indeed, this exhibition could have done itself a favour if it had showed effectively just what sort of art, architecture and furniture the aesthetes were reacting against.) Having said that, we must admit that the aesthetes, with their surface preciousness, laid themselves open to attack. Gilbert and Sullivan used the term ‘Greenery Yallery, Grosvenor Gallery’ (the Grosvenor Gallery was one of the aesthetes’ chosen venues) for describing a certain type of art which was liked by a certain type of young man who devoted himself to aestheticism and who, if not homosexual, wasn’t exactly a pinnacle of virility.
The values of the aesthetes didn’t sit too well with the conventional opinions and tastes of Victorian society to be found in the Pall Mall clubs, the Pooterish suburbs and the galleries of the music halls. It may have appeared as a missionary-minded artistic denomination bossily telling people what to like rather than as a movement seeking popular acceptance for its aims. When, by the mid-1890s, the aesthetic scene had taken a walk on the Wilde side, Oscar’s downfall would enable aestheticism to be seen-off with a few easy sneers. The First World War would seal its fate: the Victorians were seen as the generation that sent its sons to be slaughtered in the trenches and anything produced by them was, accordingly, dismissed out of hand. But these are not reasons to ignore or condemn whatever the Victorian aesthetes produced. Their work offered a greater degree of visual attraction and choice than the bleak buildings and austere furnishings which Modernism – a few decades later - considered were seemly for workers’ homes (and from which the denizens escaped as soon as they could scrape a mortgage together, whilst going on to fill their new dwellings with colourful, or retro, furniture).
That being said, the Victorian working-class - arguably - benefitted more from Factory Acts and other social legislation than directly from the work of the aesthetes, although the fruits of Victorian art, architecture and aestheticism were given to the working-class by ecclesiastical and civic architecture - the Gothic Revival churches (especially those whose interiors were brightened with Oxford Movement ritualism), the town halls, libraries, schools, museums, mechanics’ institutes and public baths which foreshadowed the widening of opportunity and the coming of the welfare state.
After the First World War, Victorian art and architecture garnered a few camp followers amongst Oxford students of the Brideshead Generation, but received little serious consideration until the warriors of conservation, headed by Sir John Betjeman, launched their campaigns in the 1960s.
Perceptions change: the Victorian gothic Midland Hotel at London’s St Pancras station - nearly a victim of the wrecking ball some five decades ago - has recently been restored and re-opened to widespread acclaim. But, in the face of remaining negative attitudes about the Victorians, the case for reappraisal still needs to be made. For enquirers who are yet to be convinced of the aesthetic movement’s positive work, this exhibition is a good starting point.
Till 17 July 2011