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October 21, 2010

If we are to regain the respectable virtues that we retained until 1955 then we must first abandon all artistic subtlety, argues Christie Davies: Victoria and Albert: Art In Love at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Posted by Christie Davies

Victoria and Albert: Art In Love
The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace
19 March - 5 December 2010
Daily 10am - 5.30pm (last admission 4.30pm)

Art and Love is a tribute to the true affection and strong passion Victoria and Albert held for each other and yet also a reminder of how awful early Victorian art was. Victoria bought or commissioned pictures for Albert that matched his taste not her own and vice versa, which shows the mutual insight and consideration that characterised their relationship. By the tastes of later generations their choices were unfortunate but the curators assure us that they differed in the kinds of badness they preferred.

In Victoria's case her bad taste was that of her own devoted people, who were particularly happy to buy reproductions of her favourite paintings of the royal family. Albert, though, had studied works of art in Italy before his marriage and possessed works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted for his Saxon ancestors. Advised by Herr Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Heinrich Ludwig Gruner, Albert also collected early Italian Renaissance and in particular Sienese paintings.

Yet what we mainly see in the exhibition is the heavy thud of the royal couple's joint favourites - Winterhalter, Landseer and Leighton - sentimentality, story telling and a fussy obsession with detail. It is the artistic equivalent of the tedious tales of Tony Trollope or those dreadful historical novels that stretched from Sir Walter to Sir Nigel. The self-consciously modern and highbrow visitor will love this exhibition, for there is so much to sneer at, including the other visitors.

Perhaps pride of place goes to Franz Xaver Winterhalter's The First of May, 1851. The title refers not to a parade of the militant great unwashed or to comely maidens dancing to welcome spring but to the opening day of the Great Exhibition where, under Albert's tutelage, heavy British engineering shook hands with heavy British design. In the picture the Duke of Wellington, whose 82nd birthday it was, presents a casket to his godson the baby Prince Arthur, Victoria's sixth, who was enjoying his first birthday. Victoria dandles Arthur, her favourite child, while he blasphemously holds out a fistful of flowers towards the Duke. The Queen looks down at the Duke's gift as if she were a Madonna critically inspecting a gift from one of the three kings. Albert looks into the distance with detached dignity and there to the side is the holy dome of the Crystal Palace lit up by sunbeams from heaven. Vielen Danke, Winterhalter.

For overdone emotion and sentiment, though, the prize must go to Sir Edwin Landseer's Victoria Princess Royal with Eos, 1843. Albert's beloved Saxon greyhound Eos places his faithful nose between the toes of the rosy-fingered baby Princess. The baby lies in a bergere chair which has a dove perched on its arm. Fidelity and innocence united. As virtues they are admirable and so is the love of dogs and babies but the picture is sucrose on syrup on saccharine. How Charles Lutwidge Dodgson must have loved that picture and sought to emulate it with his camera. Elsewhere Landseer has Eos standing guard over Albert's topper, gloves and stick, patiently waiting for his master's voice and return.

For obsessive detail, though, the winner is William Powell Frith's Ramsgate Sands, Life at the Seaside, 1851-4. The bourgeoisie in their finery (or were the plebs much richer than Friedrich Engels thought?) have come down to the new resort by that wonder of speed the railway and are splashed across the beach, leaving hardly a patch of sand free. The women manage to keep out of the sun and stay pallid white with the help of parasols and bonnets but how did they keep the sand and the mud off their all-enveloping fine clothes as they crowded down to the sea?

Further back from the tide, entertainers have emerged to tempt pennies out of purses, including a politically incorrect band of what the Victorians called nigger minstrels. Everywhere, as in Frith's other panoramas Derby Day, 1858, or The Railway Station, 1863, there are little stories and when it was first exhibited viewers crowded round it to peer at the details.

Victoria liked this picture of Ramsgate because she had once stayed in a room high up in one of the towering boarding houses above the beach. The problem with Frith and indeed many other of his fellow Victorians is that he didn't know when to leave things out. Indeed often the unimportant is as clearly delineated as the important and the background is as detailed as the foreground, so that a picture is all distraction and no focus.

Victoria had by choice attached herself to the two most grossly sentimental nations in Europe, Albert's Germans and Balmoral's Scots. Where would the English language be without Heimat and Gemütlichkeit, bothie and kailyard? Queen Victoria was herself taught to paint by Winterhalter and in 1852 portrayed in oil on canvas her six eldest children performing A scene from der Hahnenschlag, August von Kotzebue's comedy.

Hahnenschlag literally means "cock blow" but is in fact an innocent children's game in which hefty cudgels are thrown at a rooster, ( i.e. a cockshy), as distinct from a Huhnenschlag which is a scandalous blow to the Liberal Democrats for whom das Leben ist wie eine Hühnerleiter, kurz und beschissen.

Queen Victoria's painting is quite the opposite of the Liberal Democrats; the younger two children in the foreground are in green hosen and red folk-skirt of the utmost Germanic propriety and cleanliness. The demure little girl wears a straw hat and the little boy carries a garland of flowers on a rake across his shoulder. Schmaltz, kitsch and boompsidaisy!

The same Teutocaledonian qualities are to be found in Carl Haag's Evening at Balmoral Castle: the stags brought home, 1853-4, commissioned by Victoria as a present for Albert.

The Saxon artist Haag shows the Saxon hunter Albert in a huge seal-skin sporran and bright red kilt presenting to Queen Victoria the stags he has slaughtered during the day. The entire scene is lit by huge torches held high by dull kilted ghillies, one of whom is John Brown. Inside Balmoral castle there were German chairs and sofas made entirely of stag's horns. There are also Landseer candelabras of faithful kilted Scots retainers holding up hunting trophies, while they in turn are looked up to by faithful dogs. It is strange to look back a hundred and fifty years from the twenty first century to a time when the Scots and Germans were much respected in England and indeed regarded with affection. They were the very incarnation of Protestant duty, industry, frugality and earnestness.

Albert was so enamoured of the Scots that he compelled all visitors to Balmoral to dress up in kilts. One wonders what the Mendelssohn tartan of Felix Mendelssohn, who gave Victoria music lessons and wrote a "Scottish symphony", looked like. The garment of the wild hielan' deils who had surged south, looting and rustling, in the fifteen and the forty-five to overthrow the Hanoverians had become the expensive garb of the royal family.

The curators claim that contrary to popular belief Queen Victoria was not opposed to nudity in painting as seen from William Edward Frost's The Disarming of Cupid, 1849-50 in which bare breasted nymphs steal Cupid's arrows while he sleeps (what a gift to the Freudians).

Yet there is not even a hint of wantonness about this naughty scene. Cupid's is the sleep of innocence and the nippled nymphs are merely playful and decorous. They would not elicit a single "phooar" from an illiterate reader of the Sun and the Victorian paterfamilias could have taken his daughters to inspect the Frost without the slightest blush being raised in the most virginal of cheeks. Poor Ruskin.

Likewise all the male statues are clad in fig leafs. The strange thing about these Victorian fig leafs is how greatly they differ in size; there is a PhD thesis there for a female or gay student of art history with a prurient mind. As with the kilt they can ask what, if anything, lies beneath or whether there were fashions in figleafery or whether its size reflected the personal endowment of the artist.

A similar point may be made about caricature and the disappearance of the lewd and libellous eighteenth century of Gillray, Rowlandson, and Cruickshank. In 1820 George IV paid Cruickshank £100 "not to caricature his majesty in any immoral situation". By Victoria's time Cruickshank was the teetotal illustrator of Charles Dickens' novels.

Prince Albert bought The Disturber Detected, 1850 by the new respectable Cruickshank. An embarrassed small boy has dropped a heavy top onto a medieval brass in the church floor during a solemn and interminable Victorian Anglican service, a boring occasion without a trace of enthusiasm. A Mr Bumble-clad beadle looks on in horror and an entire family peer back over the top of their box pew. Two women of a certain age pretend nothing has happened but their eyes reveal their thoughts. Society had come a long way since the time of, as Brian Sewell puts it,

Rowlandson's contemptuous embodiment of a corrupt and hypocritical Church of England as a fat clerk in Holy Orders being masturbated by a laundry-made over a tub of soapsuds.
Laundry maids had given way to choir boys and Dr Syntax to the Reverend Dr Charles John Vaughan, Headmaster of Harrow, rudely disturbed from his closet in 1859 by the father of John Addington Symonds.

The moral of the exhibition is that art and respectability do not mix. Respectability led to the tasteless idealisation of innocent children, large families and faithful dogs and Scotsmen. It caused the cluttering of paintings as well as drawing rooms. The detailed realism was an implicit repudiation of Wilde's later anti-Victorian aphorism that "the truth is rarely pure and never simple". If we are to regain the respectable virtues that we retained until 1955 then we must first abandon all artistic subtlety.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.

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A number of thoughts here. If V & A had paid more attention to Wales rather than Caledonia, they might have read more into the picture Victoria Princess Royal with Eos. Hound and child makes one think of Gelert, as follows:


In the 13th century, Llewellyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert “the faithful hound” who was unaccountably absent. On Llewellyn’s return, the truant stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince alarmed hastened to find his son, and saw the infant’s cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. The frantic father plunged the sword into the hound’s side thinking it had killed his heir. The dog’s dying yell was answered by a child’s cry. Llywelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed but near by lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain, the prince filled with remorse is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here. The spot is called Beddgelert.
See: Picture of Memorial.

I agree that here, respectability has stifled art. The images I have looked at do not cause even the slightest flutter in my soul. But I think that today, art has been stuffed by excessive prurience.

I wonder if y Proffeswr dysgedig has read The Victorian Age in Literature? (Online or from Amazon)

Posted by: Robert H Olley at October 27, 2010 07:29 PM
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