Pre-Raphaelites in The City: The Usual Suspects: Reviewing the Reviews of A Victorian Obsession

Dinah Roe

The Usual Suspects: Reviewing the Reviews of A Victorian Obsession The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum

Victorian Obsession, the new exhibition at Leighton House, has once again turned modern critics into Victorian ones. As I have banged on about elsewhere, (HERE and HERE) today’s critics uncannily (and perhaps unconsciously) echo the opinions of their nineteenth-century Royal-Academy-loving forebears in expressing their distaste for the childishness, vulgarity and escapism which they see as characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite artists and their followers.

Featuring the work of Frederic Lord Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John William Waterhouse alongside that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais, the exhibition clearly illustrates the influence of the latter on the former, and it is fascinating to trace the line from say, Rossetti’s subversive Venus Verticordia (1867-68)

to Leighton’s coy Crenaia, Nymph of the Dargle (1880)

and to consider the ways in which, in a relatively short period, the Pre-Raphaelites radically changed the nineteenth-century art scene.

The exhibition also inspires thoughts on the shortcomings and dangers of Aestheticism, nowhere better exemplified than in its star piece, Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus, where Roman revelers are smothered to death beneath a hail of rose-petals. [see the lead image of this post for a study of this work]. The irony here is as heavy and overpowering as the specially-concocted Jo Malone rose fragrance which accompanies the painting.

Leighton’s house itself, a high Victorian hodgepodge of architectural styles, interior designs, materials and moods, is the perfect setting for artworks which strain after timelessness while being very much of their period. Displayed without labels, the paintings (and the curator) trust the viewer to interpret the works for themselves. This hang also recreates a salon feel, cultivating the intimate yet formal effect Leighton was after in creating his house / museum in the first place.

Rather than reviewing the exhibition in detail here myself, I have decided to present a selection of recent reviews of Victorian Obsession which accuse the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetes of the following familiar-sounding infractions:

Not being French
Chastising c19th British artists for failing to be French Impressionists (other than being silly) violates one of John Updike’s fine rules for criticism. Updike advocates understanding what the artist ‘wished to do’ rather than ‘blaming him for not achieving what he did not attempt’. There is not much Leighton can do about not being Manet, but that doesn’t stop critics resenting him for this.

But while Manet was ushering in the impressionist revolution, in 1871, Leighton was imagining four Greek nymphs on a beach gathering pebbles in their floatiest robes. (Sunday Times)

While the Impressionists were depicting modern Parisian life in a modern, optically challenging style, Brits were retreating to far-distant times and places. (Telegraph)

Attracting patrons from the ‘wrong’ class
This line of criticism borders on the unpleasant. Why merchants and industrialists should be derided for ‘questionable tastes’ any more than the aristocratic buyers they superseded in the nineteenth-century is not clear.

Leighton’s rise and rise was backed by the class that used to be known as the nouveau riche: people who made their money in soap or cod-liver oil or railway construction. I remember them here because I see their descendants are at it again, spending ridiculous amounts of money on contemporary art whose price is guaranteed to drop like a stone in the next value cycle. (Sunday Times)

Perhaps they were simply responding to the questionable tastes of all the new-monied industrialists, in provincial cities like Liverpool and Birmingham, who lapped this sort of stuff up (and were the first buyers of many of Pérez Simón’s paintings). (Telegraph)

Attracting non-British buyers
Snootery about class mobility is often accompanied by a whiff of xenophobia when discussing contemporary buyers.

If I were a nouveau riche Russian with a Kensington house full of stuff bought at Frieze, I would instruct my chauffeur to take me immediately to Christie’s, where I would start selling as if there were no tomorrow. (Sunday Times)

Mexico’s richest lover of droopy damsels in distress and muscular Greek nymphettes playing ball games on the beach has certainly been busy.
(Sunday Times)

Juan Antonio Pérez Simón has built up a huge collection of Victorian art in Mexico, of all places, and he’s lent 52 works back to the UK. (Evening Standard) [emphasis mine]

Not being ‘real’
I’ve checked the small print, and nowhere in the Rules for Creating Art does it say that subject matter or treatment must be realist, realistic, socially realist or ‘relevant’ to contemporary concerns. Hang on, there are no Rules for Creating Art …

Artists consistently turned away from the complex realities of Victorian Britain, preferring to roam in an exotic otherworld.(Telegraph)

as Britain forged on into a modern industrial world, the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers retreated into Arthurian legend and ancient myth. (Evening Standard)

This is art divorced so dramatically from the reality of its times that it belongs in a parallel universe (Sunday Times)

Art for Art’s Sake (as a bad thing)
The accusation of sacrificing substance to style is usually founded on oversimplifications about the concept of ‘art for art’s sake’. The nuances of this idea (not to mention its rich historical context which includes subversive politics) are often ignored.

The Aestheticists were firm believers in Art for Art’s sake – advocating a rich, visual abundance, to hell with moral or message. (Telegraph)

Style surpasses substance once again. (Telegraph)

To find out more about the origins of ‘art for art’s sake’, it’s worth reading one of the foundational texts of Aestheticism, Algernon Charles Swinburne’s essay on William Blake. HERE

Swinburne argues that excellence in art is not predicated on its ‘moral’ message, but on its aesthetic qualities, which communicate their own truths about the human experience, allowing more freedom for interpretation and enjoyment. ‘Good’ art is not particular, but universal. Here are some choice extracts:

You may extract out of Titian’s work or Shakespeare’s any moral or immoral inference you please; it is none of their business to see after that. ‘Good painting or writing, on any terms, is a thing quite sufficiently in accordance with fact and reality for them.

Art for art’s sake first of all, and afterwards we may suppose all the rest shall be added to her … but from the man who falls to artistic work with a moral purpose, shall be taken away even that which he has—whatever of capacity for doing well in either way he may have at starting.

Once let art humble herself, plead excuses, try at any compromise with the Puritan principle of doing good, and she is worse than dead. Once let her turn apologetic, and promise or imply that she really will now be “loyal to fact” and useful to men in general (say, by furthering their moral work or improving their moral nature), she is no longer of any human use or value. The one fact for her which is worth taking account of is simply mere excellence of verse or colour, which involves all manner of truth and loyalty necessary to her well-being.

let us hear no more of the moral mission of earnest art; let us no longer be pestered with the frantic and flatulent assumptions of quasi-secular clericalism willing to think the best of all sides, and ready even, with consecrating hand, to lend meritorious art and poetry a timely pat or shove. Philistia had far better … crush art at once, hang or burn it out of the way, than think of plucking out its eyes and setting it to grind moral corn in the Philistine mills; which it is certain not to do at all well.

So what do you think? Are the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetes simply self-indulgent fantasists with little to communicate to the modern viewer? Should we worry that we, like the guests in The Roses of Heliogabalus, might drown in beauty if we visit Leighton House?

I for one could think of worse ways to start the New Year.


Links to reviews of Victorian Obsession

The Sunday Times

The Telegraph

Evening Standard

Financial Times


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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.