Britain’s long reigning and beloved Queen Victoria had barely been laid to rest before the backlash began. With her randy son Edward VII on the throne and setting an example on both sides of the Atlantic, mores began to loosen, and by the end of World War I the Western world was in full revolt against the Victorian Age. The word Victorian entered the dictionary as a synonym for stuffiness and to be mid-Victorian meant to be sexually repressed, a prude.
The arts raced apace with social attitudes. In architecture and interior design, the overstuffed ornate hallmarks of Victorian gingerbread design were simplified in the face of the demands of Modernism, whose proponents insisted they were blueprinting a more open, less fussy way of life. In the visual arts a succession of Modern movements relegated Victorian painting to the attic. Even some of the most esteemed painters of the Victorian Age barely merited footnotes in the annals of 20th century art history.
There were a few holdouts working to document an era rapidly being forgotten. Graham Reynolds became fascinated by the contents in one of the world’s great repositories of Victorian art, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, when he began work there in the late 1930s. His book “Painters of the Victorian Scene” (1953) made a case for the art he loved. But the real push-back began in the 1960s and much of it emerged from a counterculture that was not interested in reviving Victorian prudery, yet rejected many aspects of the Modernism that supplanted the Victorian Age. Hippies in London and San Francisco flopped in 19th century mansions and Victorian art, with its love of nature and emotion found a new generation of fans from the most unexpected quarters.
In the 1960s most art from Victoria’s reign could be purchased for a song. According to legend, Malcolm Forbes’ son Christopher told his father that for the price of a minor Monet displayed in his office, he could assemble one of the world’s great collections of Victorian art. He soon proved himself correct. Graduates of the counterculture such as composer Andrew Lloyd Webber began amassing their own collections. The tide had turned. Everything old was valued again.
Admittedly, Victorian art is a broad term for a large subject but one can make some generalizations. Victorian art is eclectic in its sources and tends toward the romantic rather than the realistic. Unlike the art movements stirring in France during the same period, even Britain’s avant-garde, the pre-Raphaelites, looked to the past for inspiration rather than the present.
The scope of Victorian art was not confined to the British Empire. The Hudson River School was romantic British landscape painting of the period transposed to the New World. The April 4 sale at Fontaine’s Auction House, (Pittsfield, Mass.) included Hudson River School painters Samuel Coleman (1832-1920) and Alexander Helwig Wyant (1836-1892) in an estate sale of Victorian era art and antiques. Both offerings of scenic river views dramatically exceeded their reserves. The 26-inch by 19-inch oil on canvas by Coleman had an estimate of $2,000-$3,000 and sold for $32,200 (buyer’s premium included). The smaller 14-inch by 9-inch similar stylized river view by Wyant, with the same reserve as the Coleman, realized $23,575 (buyer’s premium included).
The 242-lot sale at Sotheby’s (London) in November 2008, “A Great British Collection,” featured the pictures collected by Sir David and Lady Scott. Mostly Victorian art, the highlight of the sale was an oil painting with an exceptional provenance. “La Siesta,” signed, dated and inscribed “F X Winterhalter 1844 Paris” and including the personal stamp of Queen Victoria, was owned by none other than the queen herself. Purchased directly from the artist in 1841 for 200 British pounds, Queen Victoria entered in her diary about the painting, “To-day I got from Paris a beautiful picture by Winterhalter which I had ordered. It is quite small, representing a “Siesta”, three lovely Italian girls, with one of them asleep.”
The painting hung in Victoria’s dressing room at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. As part of the Queen’s personal possessions, not the Royal Collection, the picture was hers to give away. She bequeathed it to her son, Arthur, Duke of Connaught and subsequently his daughter. Lady Victoria Patricia Ramsey placed La Siesta in auction at Christie’s (London) in 1974 where Sir David Scott purchased it for 1,260 British pounds. At the November 2008 auction it sold for 73,250 British pounds, (approximately $109,765, buyer’s premium included).
Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873), a favored artist of the Queen, became the ex officio court portraitist to the British royal family and traveled from France many summers, painting formal state compositions and personal portraits, completing more than 100 works for the Queen before his death.
The June 2008 sale of Victorian pictures at Christie’s (London) realized a record sale for artist Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893). “Jasmine,” the 26-inch by 19-inch oil on canvas sold for $3,463,858 (buyer’s premium included). The property of the Watts Gallery (Compton) since 1954, the painting, an exquisite study of a girl in repose, draped in sumptuous silks, was placed at auction to “ensure the long-term care of the Watts Gallery collection of works by and about G.F and Mary Watts.” The gallery was founded in 1904 by the widow of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) as a memorial to his work. The gallery, in its 105th year, is in need of repair to continue its tradition as a place to explore Victorian art.
The sentiment of Victorian art influenced many lesser known artists. Well-rendered paintings in the Victorian style are affordable and can be found at regional auction galleries and flea markets throughout the country. Ann Marie Ross (1859-1920) schooled in her hometown Milwaukee, painted exceptional portraits of her family and copied well-known portraits and narrative paintings of the Victorian era. Exhibiting in the Columbian Exposition of 1893 (Chicago) as well as the Exposition Universelle in Paris (1889) she never put her work up for sale. Her descendants recently placed her never-before-exhibited body of work for sale at a Midwest gallery. The paintings ranged in price from $100-$2,500. A nocturnal study of her daughter, age five, asleep with her dog on the foot of her bed, warms the viewer with the little girl’s angelic expression capturing a sweet dream in slumber. Priced at only $500, this piece of Victorian art sold for a song.
Mary Manion is the acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio, Milwaukee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.