Victorian Art (1840-1900)
For a general guide to the evolution of
painting, sculpture and
The backdrop to Victorian fine art was the lengthy reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). During this time England was governed alternately by two great ministers, the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) and the Liberal W. E. Gladstone (1809-1898), despite internal difficulties caused by electoral problems, the Irish question, and the economic crisis of 1875. At the same time England was involved in imperialist expansion in Africa, in the Middle East and the Orient. By adroit statesmanship in internal and external affairs England maintained her material superiority and her political and social balance by accepting reforms at the right time. When the 20th century opened Britain had been for over half a century the foremost European power and the most advanced socially, despite the growing industrial power of Germany. She possessed considerable material wealth, a network of global contacts, and had unique opportunities for intellectual and cultural enrichment through the many countries of her Empire. These included the old, the new, as well as aboriginal civilizations in Africa and Australasia. The Victorian era is noted for its architecture and romantic painting, as well as its photography and crafts, while its sculpture remained somewhat lifeless and over-academic.
The leading Victorian art critics included John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Walter Pater (1839-94). Ruskin taught aesthetics at Oxford from 1870. He also attempted to relate man to the machine age and to reinstate the artist and craftsman. He greatly admired Gothic art as well as Italian Renaissance art, and wrote "The Seven Lamps of Architecture". He was a friend and champion of the pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin's influence was considerable in the United States. One of his disciples was William Morris, a poet and interior designer full of social ideas who was to play a major role in English art. Another important Victorian art critic was Walter Pater, who wrote a number of essays on Leonardo da Vinci (1869), Sandro Botticelli (1870), Michelangelo (1871) and Giorgione (1877). His book - Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) - which included the first three essays, included his inspired commentary on the Mona Lisa (1504), arguably the most famous piece of writing on any painting by a British art critic.
As a reaction to the austere Neoclassicism of John Nash, the most popular building design used in Victorian Britain was probably Gothic architecture, a Neo-Gothic style which made full use of new materials like wrought-iron. Other styles of Victorian architecture include: Jacobethan (183070) a precursor of the Queen Anne style; Renaissance Revival (184090); Romanesque Revival; Neo-Greek (184565); Second Empire (185580); Queen Anne Revival (18701910); Scots Baronial (largely confined to Scotland); British Arts and Crafts Design movement (18801910).
The new Gothic style was the one favoured by Victorian architects for official and religious buildings. The Perpendicular style, being essentially English, was at first favoured. (Note: the English Perpendicular style corresponds to Flamboyant Gothic which flourished 1280-1500.) The taste for the past was accentuated by works published on historical architecture, by Ruskin's philosophy, and by Cardinal Newman and other theologians within the Roman Catholic Church. Revivalist English Gothic architecture also suited new building techniques which made use of an iron skeleton framework. The rich bourgeoisie, however, preferred a Victorian style, practical but overladen with ornament and eclectic in the extreme - a mixture of Gothic, Palladian, Tuscan, Renaissance, Queen Anne and Romanesque.
About 1850 the Gothic revival entered a new and creative phase with the adoption of Pugin's belief that a building's ethical value was more important than its aesthetic one. Ecclesiology exercised an overwhelming influence, through the Cambridge Camden Society and its choice of the Decorated style as the finest style. (Note: the English Decorated style corresponds to Rayonnant Gothic in France.) Ruskin's publications ("The Seven Lamps of Architecture", 1849; "The Stones of Venice", 1851) endorsed the importance of ornament and popularised Italian Gothic with its polychromy of brick and stone.
The principal architects who used the Gothic style were G.G.Scott (1811-1878), W.Butterfield (1814-1900), G.E.Street (1824-1881) and A.Waterhouse (1830-1905). Scott was the most representative practitioner of High Victorian Gothic. After his early Martyrs' Memorial, Oxford (1841) he established his reputation with his prize-winning design for the St Nicholas Church, Hamburg. Other well known works included the Albert Memorial (1863-1873), a reliquary on a monumental scale in stone, bronze and mosaic, and the St Pancras Hotel, London (1865-1875) based on a rejected design for the Foreign Office. More considerable architects were Butterfield and Street. Butterfield, who had an utter ruthlessness and hatred of taste, was a keen churchman intimately associated with the revival. His masterpiece was the early Church of All Saints, Margaret Street, London (1849-1859), built for the Ecclesiological Society. Its polychromy (exterior banded in red and black; interior with marble marquetry and onyx tiling) indicated one of the hallmarks of High Victorian Gothic. G.E.Street worked under Scott for five years, advocated the use of Tuscan Gothic in his book "Brick and Marble Architecture of the Middle Ages in Italy" and in 1868 won the competition for the new law courts in London (completed 1882). A.Waterhouse had a heavy hand and an uncertain eclectic taste (Natural History Museum, London; Metropole Hotel, Brighton) but considerable ability as a planner of large, complex buildings (Manchester Town Hall, 1869). T.Deane and B.Woodward, both much influenced by Ruskin, added to Trinity College, Dublin, in a Venetian style, and built the University Museum, Oxford, and the Crown Life Office at Blackfriars. J.Prichard (1818-1886) made great use of polychromy; S.S.Teuton (1812-1873) and J.L.Pearson (1817-1897) produced a more austere style, typical of Late Victorian Gothic, which was used for Brisbane cathedral (started 1901, unfinished).
William Morris (1834-96) and Philip Webb (1831-1915) worked in Street's architectural office. Morris founded the Arts and Crafts movement which gave more attention to the private house and its decoration, which he felt should be considered functionally and in relation to its surroundings. Webb and Nesfield built the Red House near Bexley Heath, Kent (1859), for Morris. Inspired by the Queen Anne style, they designed comfortable and beautiful country houses. R.Norman Shaw (1831-1912) had great success with his large country houses, much copied in America. Sensitive to fashion rather than originality, Shaw represented the taste of his period for stylishness and refinement (Old Swan House, Chelsea). His architecture included New Scotland Yard (1887-88), the reconstruction of Regent Street, and the Piccadilly Hotel. C.F.A.Voysey (1857-1941) became interested in the Arts and Crafts movement in 1888. He designed small houses which harmonised well with the surrounding landscape, and he was also a designer of furniture and fabrics.
It was in the field of engineering rather than architecture that the new materials of metal and glass were used in England, remaining unappreciated by the general public. The Crystal Palace (destroyed by fire, 1936) was originally erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the instigation of the Prince Consort. It was designed by Joseph Paxton (1803-1865), head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire and erected with the contractors Fox and Henderson and the glass-maker Chance. It was an early example of the right use of mass-production - a completely prefabricated structure of standardised parts, covering an area of nearly twenty acres and even enclosing fully grown trees. Equally significant were the iron and glass railway station sheds, with masonry fronts juxtaposed rather than amalgamated (King's Cross, 1851-52 by Lewis Cubitt; Paddington, 1852-54 by Brunei & Wyatt).
The Reading Room at the British Museum was one of the last major monuments in cast iron. In advance of its time also was the architecture of A.H.Mackmurdo (1851-1942) and C.R.Mackintosh (1868-1928) which remained localised in Glasgow. Mackmurdo was an architect and decorator, belonging to the early years of the Art Nouveau movement, who founded the Century Guild (1882) and the review Hobby Horse. Mackintosh was one of the most brilliant precursors of 20th-century architecture and the leader of the Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain. His fundamental importance lay in his reappraisal of the role of function in building, in a style influenced by Celtic designs and Japanese traditions. In 1895 he participated in the opening exhibition of the Maison de l'Art Nouveau in Paris with posters displaying the linear symbolic style of the Glasgow School (1880-1915). In 1897 he won the competition for extending the Glasgow School of Art (1898-1909). In the Library, added in 1907-1909, straight lines dominate and the subtleties of horizontals and verticals punctuate space in a novel way. The interior of his Hill House, Helensburgh (1902-1905) combines light, colour, openwork partitions and light furniture in a manner anticipating Dutch De Stijl. After he moved to London in 1913, his activities were confined to designing furniture and fabrics.
British Museum, London (1823-57)
Gallery, London (1832-38)
Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol
Houses of Parliament, London (1839-52)
Kings Cross Railway Station (1848-52)
Crystal Palace, London (1851)
Royal Albert Hall, London (1867-71)
St Pancras Station, London (1868-74)
Natural History Museum, London (1873-80)
The Firth of Forth Railway Bridge
Victoria Building, University of
Glasgow School of Art, Renfrew Street
Fine art painting in Victorian Britain reflected all the Christian and Imperial certainties of the age. It encompassed history painting and various types of genre painting, as well as landscape painting, and of course portrait art of all kinds.
History painting is best represented by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. Other artists involved with the group include Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse, J. Collinson, the sculptor T.Woolner and the critics F.G.Stephens and W.M.Rossetti. Other artists sympathetic to P.R.B. ideals included Robert Martineau (1826-69), John Brett (1830-1902) and Arthur Hughes (1830-1915). The movement was essentially literary, the members insisting on the importance of subject matter, elaborate symbolism and fresh iconography. They sought their truth to nature not in the life around them but in microscopic detail and piecemeal forcing of vivid colour. The group initially came under attack, but in 1851 John Ruskin came to their defence and success followed. The group dissolved shortly after, Millais becoming a successful member of the Royal Academy and Rossetti founding a second movement at Oxford with Morris and Burne-Jones.
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) met Millais and Rossetti at the R.A. schools in 1844 and with them founded the P.R.B. in 1848, being the only member of the group to remain faithful the group's ideals (The Hireling Shepherd, 1851; The Awakened Conscience, 1853). He went to Egypt and the Holy Land in 1852, 1869 and 1873 where he experimented with Orientalist painting with accurate local settings and types (The Scapegoat). His "Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood", published in 1905, is the best documented memoir of the movement.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), poet and painter, the son of an Italian political refugee, worked under F.M.Brown and Hunt. His adherence to the tenets of the P.R.B. was short-lived. His subjects were drawn mostly from Dante and a medieval dream-world (Dante's Dream, 1853; Beata Beatrix, 1863). In 1857 with W. Morris and Burne-Jones he projected decorations for the Oxford Union.
John Everett Millais (1829-96) went to the Royal Academy's schools in 1840 as an infant prodigy. In 1848 he founded the P.R.B. with Hunt and Rossetti. In 1853 his friendship with Ruskin ended when he married Ruskin's former wife. He forsook his original P.R.B. ideals (The Carpenter's Shop, 1850; Ophelia, 1852; The Blind Girl, 1855) and developed into a fashionable academic painter of portraits and genre (The North- West Passage; Bubbles).
Madox Brown (1821-93) studied in Belgium, Paris and Rome where he
was influenced by Overbeck, before returning to England in 1845. Through
Rossetti, whom he taught in 1848, he came into contact with the other
Pre-Raphaelites. He never became a member but was for long influenced
by the group (The Last of England, 1845; Work, 1852-65;
decorations for Manchester town hall, 1878-93).
Two other exceptional history painters include: the classical history painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), celebrated for his melodramatic but polished historical scenes, such as The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833, National Gallery, London); and Daniel Maclise (1806-70), an Irish artist of outstanding ability who was best known for his historical themes like The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher and The Death of Nelson. He also used Shakespearean subjects drawn from Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream and other plays, while his drawings of eminent men of his time merit comparison with J.A.D.Ingres.
Romanticism was another important strand of 19th century British art. The greatest Romantic artist of the early Victorian period is J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851), famous for masterpieces such as Hannibal Crossing the Alps (1812, Tate, London), The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835, Philadelphia Museum of Art), Interior at Petworth (1837, Tate Collection), The Fighting Temeraire (1838-9, National Gallery, London), and Snowstorm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842, Tate, London). Other Victorian Romantic artists include (in chronological order): John Martin (1789-1854), noted for his apocalyptic landscapes like The Great Day of his Wrath (1853, Tate, London), and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), best known for his masterpiece The Lady of Shalott (1888, Tate). The highly popular animal paintings of the Victorian portraitist Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73) are another excellent example of 19th century English romanticism.
Academic art retained a dominant position in Victorian Britain. The style was embodied by artists like Frederick Leighton (1830-1896), Edward Poynter (1836-1919) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) all of whom were exceptional draughtsmen. Painters who satisfied the public's taste for anecdote and everyday scenes included Luke Fildes (1844-1927), Hubert Herkomer (1849-1914), Frank Holl (1845-1888) and William Powell Frith (1819-1909), whose narrative genre paintings included Derby Day and The Railway Station. The late Victorian artist Albert Chevallier Tayler (1862-1925) was also known for his quiet and reassuring genre works - the most noteworthy being Breakfast, 1909; The Quiet Hour, 1913; and The Grey Drawing Room, 1917.
The American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) settled in England in 1859. He brought Impressionism with him from his time in Paris, as did the society portraitist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Britain's only celebrated home-grown Impressionist was Walter Sickert (1860-1942), a disciple of both Whistler and Degas, who became the leading member of the Camden Town Group (1911-13). W.MacTaggart (1835-1910) (The Storm), James Guthrie (1859-1930) (A Hind's Daughter, 1883, National Gallery of Scotland) and John Lavery (1856-1941) added their own Impressionistic brand of naturalist painting.
The greatest Victorian Impressionists, however, were the Australian artists belonging to the Heidelberg School around Melbourne. Indeed, Australian Impressionism (which was as naturalist in style as Dutch Post-Impressionism) is surely one of the most inspirational schools of the nineteenth century. The top four Victorian Impressionists in Australia were Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), Charles Conder (1868-1909) and Fred McCubbin (1855-1917).
In addition to John Singer Sargent, two of the finest Victorian portrait artists - neither of whom were associated with any contemporary art movements - were Alfred Stevens and George Frederick Watts (see also Sculpture, below). Stevens (1817-1875) was already a competent portraitist by 1833. In Italy (1833-42) he studied under Thorvaldsen in Rome, 1840-42. After working as an industrial designer for the firm of Hoole in Sheffield he carried out decorations in Dorchester House (1852-62; destroyed) and mosaics in St Paul's cathedral (1862-64). He painted occasional portraits (Mrs Coleman; Mrs Young Mitchell), but his principal surviving works are drawings, chiefly in sanguine, imbued with the spirit of the Italian Renaissance. G.F.Watts (1817-1904) studied under the sculptor Behnes before winning a prize in the competition for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament, 1843. In 1887 he began his series of famous men (Walter Crane; William Morris) in which he strove to portray character and personality as well as appearance. His large allegories express high-minded generalities in trite, literary symbolism (Mammon; Life's Illusions; Love and Death; Hope). He attempted, without a true understanding of the medium, to revive fresco painting (Justice, Lincoln's Inn, 1853-59).
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) was an illustrator whose highly wrought, stylised black and white drawings embody a fin de siecle atmosphere and are a perfect expression of the Art Nouveau style, of which they were an important part. One of the great talents of illustration, his best works include his drawings for The Yellow Book (1894), Wilde's Salome, Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur and Pope's The Rape of the Lock.
Sculpture remained very academic throughout the 19th century. George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) was a slave to the forms of Greek sculpture; Alfred Stevens (1817-75), who studied under Bertel Thorwaldsen (1868-1944), had his first success in 1856 with the commission for the Wellington monument in St Paul's cathedral (models and drawings in the Tate Gallery), although the equestrian statue of the Duke was not erected until 1920. Lord Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) produced highly skilled but somewhat lifeless work; A.Gilbert raised numerous commemorative monuments; Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925) and F.W.Pomeroy came under the influence of the French master Jules Dalou (1838-1902) when he came to London in 1871; T.Woolner, the creator of the enormous Moses at Manchester, was the only pre-Raphaelite sculptor. Victorian sculptors did produce a number of fine portrait busts, as well as a variety of interesting ceramic art. Overall, however, the dominant idiom of Victorian plastic art was a sterile academic realism, exemplified by the the Albert Memorial (see also Irish Sculpture and John Henry Foley), which represented the triumph of technique over artistic vitality.
Wellington Memorial, St. Paul's
Bust of Mary Seacole (1859) marble,
J Paul Getty Museum, LA.
Prince Albert Memorial, Hyde Park,
Equestrian statue of Hugh Lupus,
1st Earl of Chester (1870-83)
Teucer (1881) bronze, Royal Academy
of Arts, London.
Cymon (1884) bronze, Royal Academy
The Sluggard (1885) bronze, Royal
Academy of Arts.
Bust of G.F. Watts (1889) plaster,
Royal Academy of Arts.
Bust of Lord Frederic Leighton (1892)
bronze, Royal Academy of Arts.
Sketch Model for Eros (1893) bronze,
Royal Academy of Arts.
Bust of Sir John Everett Millais
(1895) bronze, Royal Academy of Arts.
The Spirit of the Night (1898) bronze,
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Physical Energy (1904) plaster,
hemp, Watts Gallery, Guildford, UK.
The middle of the 19th century saw The Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World's Fair, which showcased the greatest innovations of the century. The emergence of photography, showcased at the Great Exhibition, resulted in significant changes in Victorian art with Queen Victoria being the first British monarch to be photographed. (See: the History of Photography, 1800-1900.) The painter John Everett Millais was influenced by photography (notably in his portrait of Ruskin) as were other Pre-Raphaelite artists. It later became associated with the Impressionist and Social Realist techniques that would dominate the later years of the period, in the work of artists such as Walter Sickert and Frank Holl. Documentary photography and, later, Pictorialism were two of the most popular photographic genres of the period. Among the most interesting camera artists of Victorian Britain, were: William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) the inventor of photography on paper, the great portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), the topographical photographer Francis Bedford (1816-94), the explorer and documentary photographer John Thomson (1837-1921), the landscape photographer Francis Frith (1822-1898) and the close-up portrait specialist David Wilkie Wynfield (1837-1887). For more, see: 19th-Century Photographers.
Victorian art was overladen with heavy and ostentatious decoration and with an accumulation of knick-knacks and curios of every kind. (See: Japonism, 1854-1900.) John Ruskin fought against mass-production and bad taste with a firm belief in the superiority of the craftsman over the machine. In 1861 William Morris founded Morris & Co. to produce a wide range of wallpapers, furniture, tapestry art, carpets, stained glass, furnishing materials and other types of decorative art, in a style fundamentally different from contemporary Victorian in its approach to design and its lack of ostentatious decoration. Morris's anti-industrialist theories for the regeneration of men through handicraft led to the foundation of the Arts and Crafts movement in 1886. His Kelmscott Press, founded in 1890, did much to raise the standards of book design and printing. In Scotland Mackintosh, his wife Margaret Macdonald, her sister Frances and the latter's husband, the architect Herbert McNair, formed the group "The Four". They aimed at a simplification of the whole interior setting, which Mackintosh carried into effect when commissioned in 1897 to design the furniture and decorations for Miss Cranston's chain of tea rooms in Glasgow. In the Buchanan Street tea room (1897-98), known on the Continent through illustrations, and the Ingram Street tea room (1907-11) the accent is on austerity, slenderness and light tones.
For more details about Victorian art, see the following articles:
For the best figure and portrait painters, see: English Figurative Painting.
For scenic painters, see: English Landscape Painting.
For colourism in Britain, see: Scottish Colourists (c.1904-30).
See also the relevant section in: Irish Painting: History, Movements.
For more about arts and crafts during the reign of Queen Victoria, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY