Victorian Visions

June 13, 2010
Richard Redgrave, The sempstress, 1846 oil on canvas, 63.9 x 76.9cm
Richard Redgrave, The sempstress, 1846 oil on canvas, 63.9 x 76.9cm

In the early 1960s Lord Leighton’s masterpiece, Flaming June (1895) was put up for auction but failed to sell for its reserve price of US$140 – roughly US$840 in today’s money. In 1963, the London dealer, Jeremy Maas, managed to dispose of the picture for the equivalent of US$10,000, to a politician from Puerto Rico who was putting together a collection for the Ponce Museum of Art. This was considered an astonishing price for a piece of old-fashioned Victoriana that nobody else wanted.

That sale no longer seems such a fabulous coup. One hesitates to imagine how many millions Flaming June would fetch if she found herself back on the auctioneer’s block in these days of art market hyper-inflation. The Puerto Ricans recently allowed the painting to be shown at Tate Britain, if only to generate feelings of hubris in British breasts. It is, self-evidently, one of the great works of the era: a fabulous confection that forms a bridge between the Victorian Olympians and the Aesthetic movement. A small study for the painting is included in Victorian Visions: Nineteenth Century Art from the John Schaeffer Collection, at the Art Gallery of NSW.

In 1976 the AGNSW was lucky to be able to acquire another Leighton masterwork, Cimon and Iphigenia (1884). The boom in Victorian paintings did not get underway until the Thatcher years, which began in 1979 and lasted until 1990. During that decade the poisonous doctrine of “economic rationalism” allowed the gap between rich and poor to become a chasm. Auction houses stopped being genteel institutions and turned into corporate monsters. The new rich hastened to acquire all the trappings of wealth, and grand Victorian paintings were once again on the menu.

The crucial turning point was the Tate Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelites exhibition of 1984. This was also the event that turned John Schaeffer on to Victorian art. In the decades that followed, notwithstanding a few a financial and personal upheavals, Schaeffer has continued to pursue his passion. Along with Andrew Lloyd Webber, he is recognized as one of the world’s foremost collectors of the Pre-Raphaelites and Olympians. Circumstances permitting, he has also been a generous patron to the AGNSW. The exhibition Victorian Visions is a way of saying thanks while encouraging further benefactions.

This makes it slightly surprising that there is so little about Schaeffer and his collection in the catalogue, which concentrates on the 45 works included in this exhibition. The curator, Richard Beresford, writes fluently on the Victorian period, but it would have been nice to hear Schaeffer’s own account of the way the collection has developed, for there can be no doubt that the acquisition of these works has been a labour of love.

From its earliest days, the AGNSW has pursued its own love affair with Victorian art. It purchased Ford Madox Brown’s Chaucer at the Court of Edward III (1847-51) in 1876, and Edward Poynter’s The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1881-90) in 1892. These paintings are among the artists’ finest works, and remain favourites with local audiences.

The gallery has also held regular exhibitions of Victorian work, the most recent being Love and Death: Art in the age of Queen Victoria, in 2002. The appeal of the period is so obvious it seems unbelievable that the Victorians could have ever been radically out of vogue. This is partly because the great adventure of Modernism was still unfolding, with successive waves of abstract art, minimalism and conceptualism giving the pleasing impression that art was still in progress towards some unknown, utopian end-point.

Victorian art, with its heavy reliance on narrative and moral instruction, was anathema to those who felt a work of art should represent nothing but itself. At the same time, we had a cliché-ridden view of the Victorian era as an age of rigid morality and pious sentimentality. That view has been taken apart by latter-day historians, who have shown that the period was more complex, more filled with surprises and contradictions, than we ever imagined. In his book, Inventing the Victorians (2001), Matthew Sweet takes delight in systematically overhauling every popular preconception.

Those contradictions are on display in the works from the Schaeffer collection. Richard Redgrave’s The sempstress (1846), was a piece of proto-social realism, designed to expose the conditions under which poor seamstresses laboured. Sitting in a garret working by candle-light, while the time on a nearby clock approaches 2.30 in the morning, the exhausted piece worker looks to the heavens with swollen, teary eyes. Yet the picture was acquired by the wealthy collector of Old Masters, Lord Northwick.

This taste for ornamental poverty was one of the strange quirks of the Victorians. Although there were plenty of active reform movements, there was also an ingrained belief that the poor fell into two categories: deserving and undeserving. For the latter there was no hope of redemption, but the deserving poor were figures of tragedy, worthy of pity and charity. Social Darwinism suggested that it was only natural that some should be rich and others poor, (an argument that Deng Xiaoping had to restage in China in the early 1980s), while organized religion recommended stoic forbearance. The deserving poor would have their reward in heaven.

For Victorian audiences there was a certain frisson to be had from paintings such as Thomas Faed’s Worn out (1868), which depicts a poor tradesman who has fallen asleep while watching over a sick child. Every tiny detail contributes to telling the story, which unfolds like a piece of theatre. Before the invention of the mass medium of the cinema, narrative paintings encouraged audiences to feel all the emotions we now seek in the silver screen. Paintings might be tear-jerkers, high-minded allegories or comic vignettes.

As this exhibition proves, we are still happy to relate to paintings in a literal – or literary – way. There is something thrilling about these vast, ambitious canvases, so rich in detail. There is also the satisfaction of being able to decode a message, as in Edmund Blair Leighton’s Till death us do part (1878-79), where a young bride walks down the aisle of a church on the arm of her elderly groom. To the left we see her disappointed suitor looking on with undisguised misery. The expressions on other faces are equally sombre, while the bride avoids the eyes of the guests. The picture may be as corny as a Barbara Cartland novel, but it is a brilliant piece of popular art, comprehensible to each and every viewer.

Contemporary audiences may take no less pleasure than the Victorians in being able to discern a clear narrative or moral in a picture, but we tend to approach these images with a less innocent eye. There are many paintings and sculptures that seem imbued with sexual overtones. The most hilarious is probably Lord Leighton’s Athlete struggling with a python (orig. 1874-77), in both bronze and marble versions. This would be appropriately sited out the front of one of those American clinics where Hollywood stars – and the occasional golfer – go to cure their sex addiction.

The Victorians were obsessed with the past, viewing the mighty British empire in light of the lost glories of Greece and Rome. They also celebrated the heritage of medieval Britain, which was seen as a time of innocence, before the squalor and social turbulence inflicted by the Industrial Revolution. Frank Dicksee’s Chivalry (1885) is the most conspicuous piece of medieval make-believe on this show, with its knight-in-shining-armor rescuing a damsel in distress.

Despite their often fantastic subject matter, Victorian paintings reflected the dominant values of their times. Artists were industrious, conscientious, often high-minded in their attitude towards art and culture. A large, elaborate history painting, such as J.W.Waterhouse’s Mariamne (1887), was praised for the accuracy of its historical reconstruction, as well as its psychological acuity. By the time Solomon J. Solomon was completing his Eve (c.1908), advanced taste had become more flamboyant, more sensual, decorative and abstract. This was typical of the Edwardian era, when the certainties of Queen Victoria’s reign had started to disintegrate. From this point on, the word “Victorian” took on increasingly unhappy overtones. The Edwardian era was a time of excess, whereas the Victorians had practiced a rigorous economy. Nowadays, in another decadent age, we might still learn a few lessons from these much-maligned ancestors.

 

Victorian Visions: Nineteenth Century Art from the John Schaeffer Collection

Art Gallery of NSW, May 20th-August 29th, 2010

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald,  June 13, 2010