Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Promotion of the Visual Arts in Britain, 1835-1860

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Promotion of the Visual Arts in Britain, 1835-1860

Article excerpt


IN BRITAIN, 1835-1860(1)

In his response to the government vote of 1832 to allocate funds for the erection of a new National Gallery, Robert Peel voiced the political anxieties which fuelled an intense exploitation of the fine arts during much of the Victorian era.

In the present times of political excitement, the exacerbation

of angry and unsocial feelings might be much softened by the

effects which the fine arts have ever produced upon the

minds of men.(2)

The value of the visual arts,(3) so long the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy, as a humanizing influence upon the subordinate classes and an aid to industry was examined by Royal Commissions, initiated under Peel's administration, beginning in 1835 and continuing until the successful Great Exhibition was mounted in Hyde Park in 1851.

However, interest in the arts and their presumed effect upon people was not confined to the government. With the success of industrialism came a rapidly burgeoning class of wealthy manufacturers who, in keeping with their rise to prominence in financial realms, turned to some of the traditional trappings of the aristocracy to establish their place in polite society. The fine mansions of these industrial magnates were decorated with art purchased from a new class of entrepreneurs, the art dealers, who sold them prestige and power in the guise of paintings.(4) In addition, certain members of the upper and upper-middle classes who espoused philosophical radicalism were moved to establish societies for the propagation of the arts among a broader spectrum of society than was usually involved in their appreciation and purchase. Common to all three of these groupings was the desire to promote the appreciation and use of art throughout society, a grand goal with interesting motives and results.

The purpose of this essay is to examine, by means of a Marxian analysis, the intentions and methods which characterized each group's interest in the extension of the arts to the populace during the period stretching from 1835 to about 1860. Some work has already been produced on this subject, notably John Seed's very helpful article on the development of an "art world" in Manchester, and Adrian Rifkin's extensive critique of the government-instituted Schools of Design in the mid-nineteenth century.(5) However, to my knowledge, no analysis of this sort has been applied to the Art Union of London in particular, nor to the overall promotion of art in Victorian Britain. I have chosen a Marxian approach for its utility, not for ideological reasons. The subversion of art to the status of a commodity for mass consumption by the elites of a highly stratified society invites the application of a class-sensitive critique. Marx's observations on the nature of the social classes, their composition and relative status, and the desire to preserve class interests which motivates the actions of their members, offer considerable insight into the operation of Victorian society. Particularly relevant to the exploitation of art is the statement by Marx and Engels that

the bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation

hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has

converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet [the

artist], the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.(6)

The Marxian concepts used here are derived from the Manifesto of the Communist Party which was initially published in London in the year of the revolutions, 1848.

Before entering into the central features of this discussion, it is necessary to understand the aesthetic underpinnings of the drive to inculcate an appreciation of the arts throughout society. The Utilitarians and the Evangelicals, who set the moral and intellectual tone of Victoria's reign, generally eschewed all but the most didactic art in an effort to establish a prudent, rational society out of the ashes of the debauched Regency. …

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