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Victorian blockbusters

— January 2015

Associated media

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888 Oil on canvas The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

The Victorians lacked TV and film, but their artists provided plenty of spectacle and melodrama, as Alexander Adams finds at a current show at Leighton House

Lord Leighton’s fantastical oriental villa in Holland Park Road is the ideal setting for a collection of British Victorian paintings lent from Mexico. Mexican businessman Juan Antonio Pérez Simón has a passion for British painting from the 19th century and has sought out some of the best paintings from that period to come onto the market in recent decades. A fraction of his collection has been lent to Leighton House in Kensington, London until March 2015, where it hangs alongside some pieces from the museum’s permanent collection.

The Victorian period saw a flourishing of painters catering to the demands of the newly rich in Britain’s industrial centres and ports. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) played a major part in shaping the artistic landscape of this era and most of the artists in this display were favourably disposed towards the PRB, many of them actively taking up its themes and styles. 

This exhibition includes paintings by artists who range from the famous (Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais,  John William Waterhouse) to the less well-known (Frederick Goodall, Talbot Hughes, Edwin Long). Among the latter group is John William Godward (1861–1922), who lived for a time in Italy and rarely exhibited at the end of life. He had outlived the fashion for his type of polished mythological scenes. Godward’s Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (1912) shows a woman in profile and is exceptionally accomplished. The grace of the model and the painter’s ability to depict volume and varied surfaces makes the painting particularly pleasing. The soft pink and amber of the robes side by side, with the purple irises in the foreground, make the painting a study in complementary tertiary colours.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912) is the most prominent artist among the lent works, represented by 13 paintings out of the 52 pictures on loan, as is only fitting given his fame and influence. The paintingAn Earthly Paradise (1891) is displayed beside the replica Greek couch designed and commissioned by Alma-Tadema as a studio prop. The couch is borrowed from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The scent of roses wafts through the air conditioning in the room devoted to The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) by Alma-Tadema. Alma-Tadema’s archive is now a part of the collection of the University of Birmingham, which has  lent a number of drawings and photographs used in the preparation of the painting. It depicts the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (a.k.a. Egabalus) watching as his unsuspecting guests are crushed under a mass of flowers. The surprised guests display no alarm and no physical agitation, which undermines the dramatic truth of the narrative. (Adhering to an unwritten code of decorum meant that Victorian painters often overlooked the value of varied facial and gestural expressiveness.) If a viewer did not know the story, then he or she might assume it was a scene of delightful excess rather than cold-blooded murder.

The painting was used on the cover a recent book by Norbert Wolf, The Art of the Salon,   which makes excellent background reading for visitors. The publishers were as oblivious to the gruesome narrative as most viewers are; a confusion entirely attributable to the artist. As a spectacle The Roses of Heliogabalus is a success; as an articulate narrative it is a failure.   

Naturally, lent and permanent-collection work by Lord Leighton (1830–96) is a major part of this exhibition. The appealing Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle (1880) is one of the star attractions of the show. It features the artist’s most important model, Dorothy Dene, as a standing nude, barely covered on side of her body with a flowing gauze drape, which evokes the watery association of the subject’s origin as a Greek water spirit. 

The more one absorbs of this art, the more striking is the fact the physiognomies and complexions are overwhelmingly redolent of Victorian Britain. These figures from Greek mythology and Roman history never look like anything other than the pale-skinned daughters of the suburban shopkeepers, maids and career soldiers that they were, dressed in theatrical costumes. The Victorian painters attempted to authentically represent historical reality but could not help but create anachronistic constructions that are completely of their own era, as artists inevitably must do. This is television historical drama before television; this is blockbuster movies before cinematography.  

The large and informative catalogue will become a useful source for those researching Victorian painting, especially those interested in investigating the connections between Leighton and fellow artists. It helpfully provides information on the meanings and sources for all the paintings, as well as giving background on artists – very handy for those lesser-known artists.

The art of John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937) is likely to rise in popularity in the wake of this show. An assistant of Burne-Jones, Strudwick specialized in detailed and elegant compositions that  are not dissimilar to his masters’ and he found favour with Liverpool ship owners, who were his principal patrons. As Burne-Jones’ paintings become scarcer in the market, Strudwick will soon be seen as a very satisfactory alternative for private collectors.

The selections from the Pérez Simón collection feature historicism, orientalism and salon-style painting but not other aspects of Victorian art (namely landscape, portraiture and wildlife art). So visitors would do well to remember that this display is deliberately focused on certain aspects of Victorian art, not an overview. Specialists in Victorian painting will have a chance to study first-hand some pieces by little-known artists such as Emma Sandys and Henry Albert Payne. This exhibition provides an excellent opportunity for aesthetic re-examination in a unique setting and is an essential excursion for pleasure-seekers. 

The catalogue is published by Leighton House Museum/Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, 222pp, fully illustrated, £24.95 (pbk)


Alexander Adams
Writer and artist

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