Every Picture Tells A Story

Victorian Art from Australasian Collections


Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria, an exhibition mounted last summer in Adelaide and now showing at the Auckland Art Gallery, presents the crème de la crème of Victorian art from a wide range of Australasian public and private collections. The art in question is exclusively painting and ranges from mid- century Pre-Raphaelitism to turn-of-the-century Symbolism, with a decided emphasis on larger pieces from the later decades of the era. This is understandable, for the final quarter of the century was the precise period in which the newly formed Australasian art galleries commenced their collecting - the so-called 'national' galleries of Victoria (founded 1869), New South Wales (1876) and South Australia (1881), and New Zealand's nascent civic collections including the Auckland Art Gallery (1888), all of which were committed to collecting British art. The most dazzling group of works in the show comes from a private source, the recently formed Sydney collection of John and Julie Schaeffer, which has already been displayed to considerable advantage in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.(1) At the heart of the exhibition is a panoramic show-stopper from the Schaeffer collection: Frederic Leighton's The Syracusan Bride Leading Wild Beasts to the Temple of Diana (1865- 66). Representative of a genre long considered to represent the nadir of Victorian art, this wide-angled escapist fantasy - the only 'processional' work by Leighton in the southern hemisphere - anticipates the historical spectacles of twentieth-century cinema.

Cleopatra 1877
Oil on canvas, 190 x 267 mm,
frame 450 x 460 mm.
(Mackelvie Trust Collection,
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki)

Adelaide curator Angus Trumble is the self-styled 'exhibition undertaker', and his laying-out has revealed the 'greater British' collections of Victorian art to be a very rich cache indeed. The Art Gallery of South Australia appropriately contributes a raft of key works including J. W. Waterhouse's iconic Circe lnvidiosa of 1892, in which the sorceress stands pouring a toxic cocktail over her hated rival. Circe lnvidiosa is reputedly the most popular European painting in Adelaide's jewel-box of an art gallery, which (following Sydney's earlier lead) has become renowned for the dense 'Salon' style of the permanent collection displays. I was struck by the presence in Adelaide's permanent galleries, in which their Victorian masterpieces usually hang, of yet further works that could easily have found a place in Love & Death.(2)

Adelaide's presentation of Love & Death was visually stunning. Displayed on historically appropriate red and green walls, the brilliantly spot-lit paintings glowed as never before. The only casualty of this high-tech lighting was the adjacent information, offered in dark type on red or green backgrounds, which lurked in deepest shadow as a provocation to the intellectually curious. Strategically placed in the gloom were comfortable leather sofas that allowed a relaxed consideration of the paintings, which in turn proved admirably capable of telling their stories of majestic ritual, fatal attraction, calamity, boredom and death. It is precisely these narrative qualities that not only explain the enduring popular appeal of Victorian art, but also its critical fall from grace as twentieth- century modernists roundly condemned the saccharine cargo of a by-gone age. Relegation to the storeroom was one strategy; another was elimination, and many Australasian galleries quietly jettisoned canvases that would now be highly prized.(3) Such behaviour was encouraged by the ritualised anathemas accorded the dreary local collections by returning expatriates and newly arrived European authorities.

Circe lnvidiosa 1892
Oil on canvas, 1807 x 874 mm.
(Collection of the Art Gallery
of South Australia, Adelaide)

The international revival of interest in Victorian art began around 1960 with re-evaluation of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Art Gallery of New South Wales took a significant lead with their touring exhibition Pre- Raphaelite Art, curated in 1962 by Daniel Thomas.(4) In the following decade New South Wales mounted two further ambitious exhibitions, Victorian Olympians (1975) and Victorian Social Conscience (1976), both curated by Renee Free.(5) This pair of exhibitions divided Victorian art into two strands - nice versus nasty, opulent against sordid - and only the first seemed compelling enough to put on tour. Many galleries 'rediscovered' their Victorian holdings, mounting special exhibitions such as Adelaide's festival contribution of 1984, From the Sublime to the Ridiculous.

The Victorian era was inordinately fond of historical subjects set in Egyptian, Trojan, Greek, Roman, medieval and post-Renaissance times - especially if they included fatal queens such as Cleopatra or Zenobia. It is a truism that every age re- invents the past in its own image, and the Victorian artists' imperialist venture involved colonising vast swathes of history, particularly those that had been uncovered by nineteenth-century archaeology. Edward Poynter's Helen (1881), from the Sydney collection, depicts the ancient adulteress of Troy with the burning city behind her. Fashionable London nevertheless recognised the portrait of their own adulterous 'professional beauty', Lillie Langtry, the woman addressed by Oscar Wilde as 'Helen, formerly of Troy, now of London'. Another work ostensibly set in ancient Troy is Solomon J. Solomon's Ajax and Cassandra of 1886 (Ballarat Fine Art Gallery), depicting a rape perpetrated by an athletic male on an extremely curvaceous female victim. As the British scholar Elizabeth Prettejohn points out, Solomon's painting would 50 years ago have been regarded as a joke, and more recently as little more than a textbook image of patriarchal misogyny.(6) While it is hopelessly inaccurate in archeological terms (as compared, say, with Alma-Tadema's heavily researched realism) Ajax and Cassandra interestingly undermines classical propriety by presenting the Greeks as brutal oppressors. Leighton's compositions of draped figures also had mythological or historical pretexts, but his ancient worlds derived more from a fertile imagination than from precise classical or archaeological sources.

The First Cloud 1887
Oil on canvas, 1348 x 1937 mm.
(Collection of the National
Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)

Alongside the depiction of ancient queens and mythological sirens, the 'modem' subject was increasing in importance. This might include a dramatic episode from recent history, such as William Strutt's Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 painted in London in 1887 and previously seen solely in the context of Australian painting. Upper-class domestic dramas were popular, as in William Quiller Orchardson's The First Cloud, purchased by Melbourne directly from the Royal Academy in 1887.(7) Orchardson interposes an opulent but empty space between his unhappy protagonists, whose disagreements are apparently just beginning. Yet another brand of modem subject involved social realism, or bad things happening to poor people. Blandford Fletcher's Evicted of 1887 (acquired for Queensland in 1896) is a masterpiece of the social tragedy genre, but it is fair to say that hard-hitting social critique was not a favoured category in colonial collecting.(8) Frank Bramley's 'For of Such is the Kingdom of Heaven', shown at the Royal Academy in 1891 and acquired for Auckland's Mackelvie Collection in 1913, is not only daring in compositional terms, carrying infant mortality directly on to centre-stage, but in its bravura paint handling represents a fascinating meeting between social realism and British impressionism. This work is the British equivalent, by a friend of John Singer Sargent, of the large-scale scenes of modem life pioneered by the French impressionists.

'For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven' 1891
Oil on canvas, 1800 x 2560 mm.
(Mackelvie Trust Collection,
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki)

Arguments will undoubtedly rage over Trumble's choice of works for this magnificent grab-bag of an exhibition. Where, for example, was Queen Victoria's favourite animal painter, Edwin Landseer, whose Titania and Bottom (1848-51) could have been borrowed from Melbourne? And why not include Arthur Hughes's Fair Rosamund (1854), also in the Melbourne collection?(9) This depicts Rosamund, luckless mistress of Henry II, about to be dealt to by the murderous Queen Eleanor, and is probably the best example in Australasia of the hallucinatory intensity of Pre-Raphaelite colouration.(10) Another example of the microscopic approach to landscape, which also incorporates a threatening narrative, is Richard Redgrave's The Lost Path of 1852 from the Schaeffer collection, but not included in this exhibition.(11) There were two small works by W. P. Frith, but why not Pope Makes Love to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1852), an episode of unrequited passion set in the eighteenth century and a favourite of visitors to the Auckland Art Gallery? And given the inclusion of a solitary work by a female artist (Elizabeth Thompson's singularly un-feminine battle scene), it seemed a pity that Sophie Anderson's After the Earthquake - an 1884 depiction of a grief-stricken woman mourning over the ruins of her home - was not borrowed from Auckland.

By the same token, there was a number of works in Love & Death that seemed decidedly out of place. How, for example, did the landscape by John Linnell fit the themes of love and death? Thomas Creswick's massive England (1847), borrowed from Auckland, may well illustrate a nostalgic love of that 'traditional' landscape so celebrated by his mentor Constable, but by addressing this type of 'love' the exhibition was surely diluting rather than strengthening its admirably raw themes, the primal and the terminal, love and death.

An exhibition usually looks very different at each of its venues. Not only does each institution make its own contribution to design and installation, but frequently each will modify the actual contents of the exhibition. In the case of Love & Death, the exhibition has differed in every venue as works were withdrawn or added. The Art Gallery of New South Wales was the sole venue to show Ford Madox Brown's Chaucer at the Court of Edward III (1847-51), Edward Poynter's Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1883-90), and J. W. Waterhouse's Diogenes (1882), all present in the catalogue as three of the most significant Victorian paintings in Australia but whose mobility was limited by size, condition or value.(12) Auckland Art Gallery has added a considerable range of works from its collection, including Waterhouse's Lamia, Alma- Tadema's Egypt Three Thousand Years Ago (1863) and two enormous Burne-Jones compositions, together with several pieces of sculpture. Sydney could easily have incorporated sculpture with the paintings, but chose to leave the group of small-scale bronzes by Frederic Leighton and Alfred Gilbert (on loan from the Schaeffer collection) in its seriously depleted upstairs gallery. In the Victorians' own time, high art displays routinely associated painting and sculpture - just as Sydney and Adelaide still do within their collection displays.

Evicted 1887
Oil on canvas, 1231 x 1853 mm.
(Collection of the Queensland
Art Gallery, Brisbane)

Others may query the restricted focus on paintings. Scholarship has increasingly revealed the importance of the entire range of Victorian art production - including popular media such as book illustration and especially photography, a medium invented and developed throughout the Victorian era. I'm not sure whether any Australian gallery owns examples of Lewis Carroll's photographs, redolent of unrequited paedophile longing, but the National Gallery of Australia holds work by the legendary Julia Margaret Cameron that is equally intense.(13) Book illustration was arguably the most popular of art forms in this era of exploding literacy, especially in the form of illustrated periodicals such as The Graphic, and this is where we encounter the most socially charged work of the period. Renee Free's Victorian Social Conscience notably incorporated a loan of such work from Amsterdam's Vincent van Gogh Museum, but local libraries could equally contribute volumes for display in glass cases. Large-scale exhibition watercolours were also popular in the Victorian era, and avidly collected by Australasian galleries. A pertinent example from the Melbourne collection is Ford Madox Brown's superb The Finding of Don Juan by Haidee (1869), with its dead male nude washed up on a fantastic shore.(14) By remaining firmly within the boundaries of 'British Painting', as catalogued by Anne Kirker and Peter Tomory, the exhibition missed an opportunity to widen its critical scope.

The Widower 1876
Oil on canvas, 1181 x 768 mm.
(Collection of the Art Gallery
of New South Wales, Sydney)

The sumptuously illustrated catalogue for Love & Death has been sponsored by the Schaeffers. It opens with Trumble's impassioned introduction to the thematic structure of the exhibition, in which he proposes a life-cycle of Victorian desire and death. A range of Victorian specialists offer individual essays, the outstanding example being Alison Inglis' discussion of Lillie Langtry and the Victorian ideal of beauty. The bulk of the catalogue consists of good-sized colour plates of each painting alongside essays with a detailed bibliography and provenance. It is the reproductions, together with this mass of historical data, that makes this an indispensable volume on Victorian art in Australasian collections. Unfortunately, a number (jf important paintings used to illustrate Trumble's essay (including 'For of Such is the Kingdom of Heaven') have had their bibliographical and provenance data summarily eliminated. The catalogue's outstanding defect, one that seriously undermines its usefulness as a research tool, is the lack of any kind of index or even a list of works illustrated. Lengthy biographical notes are all very well, and may occasionally be consulted, but a list of illustrations is essential in any art book. Endless flicking through the book revealed the flimsiness of the binding, as the spine parted company from the cover-another serious problem on the reference shelf.

Love and Life 1884
Oil on canvas, 2225 x 1235 mm.
(John & Julie Schaeffer

Near the end of the exhibition comes the pairing of G. F. Watts' Love and Death (1901) from the Adelaide collection with Watts's Love and Life (1884). Perhaps nothing is more telling of the fortunes of Victorian art than the history of this latter painting and its roller-coaster trajectory of masterpiece, to flotsam, to marketplace rarity. Considered by the artist and many of his contemporaries to be one of his greatest works, Watts presented the painting to the American people following its exhibition at Chicago in 1893. Despite objections by the Women's Temperance Union concerning the nudity, it was accepted by the United States Congress in 1894 and installed in the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt. A later president consigned it to the Smithsonian Institution, which eventually sold it in 1987. This is how President Roosevelt's favourite painting has come to be owned by the Schaeffers in Sydney. Yet unlike many of the works in their collection, which inspire gasps of admiration from modem audiences, this singularly repellent image of a sickly young woman and an ambiguous winged male firmly resists aesthetic redemption. It's nice when parts of the past can remain a foreign country.

'Blow, blow thou winter wind' 1892
Oil on canvas, 1080 x 1550 mm.
(Collection of Auckland Art
Gallery Toi o Tamaki)

Every picture tells a story, as does every exhibition. Love & Death unleashes a breathtaking array of Victorian imagery, but one that is inflected with an antipodean accent. We learn quite a bit about how (and tangentially why) such marvellous things came to be found in this part of the world. Sometimes this meant top-dollar price tags, as when Melbourne parted with £2750 for their Orchardson. Auckland's magnificent Bramley, on the other hand, was purchased for a song near the end of the artist's life - as an unsold piece from a career that had never really taken off.(15) Supporting the expert metropolitan advice (Frederic Leighton and Edward Poynter both assisted Adelaide in their purchases) was the colonial conservatism that ensured the preservation of these collections. Angus Trumble's ambitious anthology of Victorian Art Down Under is both a celebration of colonial collecting and a gift from the southern hemisphere, helping to restore a neglected heritage of nineteenth-century British art.

1. Richard Beresford, Pre-Raphaelites and Olympians: Selected Works of Victorian Art from the John and Julie Schaeffer and the Art Gallery of New South Wales Collections, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2001.
2. One was John Collier's Priestess of Delphi of 1891, a gift from the Earl of Kintore in 1893; another was the recently purchased full-scale replica of Alfred Gilbert's famous sculpture, Eros.
3. One example: T. B. Kennington's Serena, Spencer's Faerie Queen, acquired by the Auckland Art Gallery from the 1906-07 New Zealand International Exhibition, was exchanged in 1954 for a student copy executed in Paris by Charles F. Goldie. The more usual method was to consign works for sale by auction.
4. The exhibition toured to Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. Thomas is now an emeritus director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, and his famous editorial eye has passed over the catalogue of Love & Death.
5. Victorian Olympians was shown in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide; Victorian Social Conscience was shown solely in Sydney.
6. 'Images of the past in Victorian painting' , in Angus Trumble, Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 2001, p. 85. Despite its prominence on the cover of the catalogue, Ajax and Cassandra was unfortunately not permitted to cross the Tasman.
7. A subsequent smaller version is in the collection of Tate Britain.
8. Victorian Social Conscience presented a range of depictions of the homeless and hungry, including Stanhope Forbes' Their Ever Shifting Home (1887), purchased by Sydney in 1890. One of the most poignant was a superb watercolour, George John Pinwell's A seat in St James's Park, London (1869), acquired by Sydney in 1886.
9. It should be remembered that no exhibition ever contains every work on the curator's wish-list; it is possible that the Hughes and other desiderata were unavailable for loan.
10. Reproduced in colour in Anne Kirker and Peter Tomory, British Painting 1800-1990 in Australian and New Zealand Public Collections, The Beagle Press, Sydney 1997, p. 15. This summary catalogue of British paintings in Australasian galleries reveals the wealth of the deposits from which the current exhibition has been mined.
11. See Beresford, op. cit., p.ll.
12. Chaucer performed an arduous tour with Pre-Raphaelite Art in 1962, as did The Queen of Sheba with Victorian Olympians in 1975. See Love & Death p. 200 for details of an alarming 1890s rail trip made by a Waterhouse painting across the Australian desert.
13. English Flowers c.1865 is reproduced in James Mollison and Laura Murray, Australian National Gallery: An Introduction, Canberra, 1982, p. 124.
14. Ann Galbally, The collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1987, p.182.
15. Bramley has finally received a retrospective (Usher Gallery, Lincoln, 1999), but his masterpiece in Auckland was overlooked.