'Life, Legend, Landscape: Victorian Drawings & Watercolours'

Article excerpt

'Life, Legend, Landscape: Victorian Drawings & Watercolours'

The Courtauld Gallery 17 February-5 May 2011

This exhibition, according to the introductory essay in the book that accompanied it, could have been summed up as 'a raiscellany'. This, while true as far as it went, ought not to be misunderstood as suggesting that there was anything remotely haphazard or inconclusive about the selection made by Joanna Selborne from the Courtauld's large collection of works on paper. The student of Victorian drawings, as Elizabeth Prettejohn, the author of the essay, went on to say, 'need never be bored' and the uncomplicated truth of this statement, at least, was araply borne out by the exhibition.

The exhibition didn't attempt anything as inelegant as a summary (that would have required a larger, stodgier show) but described, with remarkable economy, a tremendous narrative arc. William Etty's Female Nude with a Cast of the Venus de' Medici was made in about 1835 (just before the beginning of Victoria's reign, when Somerset House was still home to the Royal Academy) only a few yards from the room at the Courtauld in which it was shown. It depicts a subject arranged by JMW Turner when he was a 'visitor' at the Academy Schools. Turner was himself represented in the exhibition by two of his own watercolours, but it was this mischievous challenge to represent the inanimate perfection of the plaster cast beside the fleshy particularity of the living model (and who better to rise to such a challenge than Etty, that master-craftsman of the pink, wobbly, graspable body?) that got the show off to such a lively, flying start. It implied things about the discipline (drawing from the antique, etc) to which art-students during the Victorian period were subjected, but did so in a work by one of the great mavericks of British art-history. There was a story here, implicit throughout the exhibition, of the limits of conformity being tested by irrepressible, individualist creativity. In a concluding essay, Caroline Arscott vividly described 'the energizing diversity of life leaking out' from behind the constraints of a still lively but no longer absolutely dominant classical tradition, like pent-up water from behind a slowly disintegrating dam.

This was marvellously exemplified in the juxtaposition of drawings by Edward Poynter and Frederic Leighton, two artists with many ostensible points of similarity (training on the continent, 'classical' subject matter, Presidency of the RA), but in reality as different as chalk and cheese. Poynter, for all his skill, is an artist I find it very hard to get excited about. Leighton is a different matter. He was represented here by a characteristically lovely nude study (c1877-84) in black and white chalk on brown paper for And the Sea gave up the Dead which were in it. Whenever I look at his work, I think of Henry James's uncanny tale The Private Life, and of Lord Mellifont, the character in it inspired by Leighton, 'first--extraordinarily first' as he is described, with his 'remarkable tact' and his 'delicate harmonies of necktie and subtle laxities of shirt'. I think too of those other Victorian stories of psychological doubleness, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and about Leighton's austere, cell-like room with its narrow iron bedstead in his otherwise-palatial house on the edge of Holland Park. Something, I can never help but feel--another artist, a wilder art--is struggling to get out from behind the urbanity. Even in Leighton's smoothest performances there is an exciting tension that I do not find in Poynter.

Next to these were drawings by artists from outside the academy: Rossetti, the art-college drop-out (a study for Venus Verticordia, 'the turner of hearts', with the head of the original model, a hefty cook, rather than that of the actress Alexa Wdding that was substituted in the final painting); Burne-Jones (a delicious study of a draped figure for a stained-glass window); and GF Watts, who insisted that he 'learned in no school save that of Pheidias'. …