The Victorians in Washington

By Mullen, Richard | Contemporary Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

The Victorians in Washington


Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review


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). …

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