Painting with Light

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Alvin Langdon Coburn, Woman in a Kimono with Sunflower (1908, RPS)

There are only a few days left for you to visit the Tate’s autumn show, Painting with Light. If you haven’t yet been, it may well be down to the various reviews you’ve read and I am afraid this one is unlikely to rouse your interest.

The FT writes: ‘Tate has treated Victorian painting (Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, 2012) and photography (Salt and Silver, 2015) expertly in recent exhibitions, but the melange here, over-curated yet under-selected, diminishes both.’[1] The Telegraph describes the show as ‘steadfastly cautious and academic’ concluding, for ‘a show about photography, there surely should have been more flash’.[2] The Guardian didn’t seem to bother reviewing the exhibition at all, merely regurgitating the press release, and it is really only The Evening Standard who is more positive, claiming the show ‘manages to never be in the slightest bit boring’.[3]

So what is it about this show which meant that there were only two other people in there when I visited, one of them being the steward, one Thursday?

Firstly, there have been many other impressive exhibitions to attend this year.  Secondly, there is the cost. And thirdly, there is the title. It is possible you have over-indulged in Pre-Raphaelitism this year, after all there has been an impressive series of Victorian exhibitions including: Edward Robert Hughes (BMAG), Marie Spartali Stillman exhibition (Watts Gallery), Beauty and Rebellion (Walker Gallery), Pre-Raphaelites on Paper (Leighton House) and now the just opened Victorians Decoded (Guildhall).

It would seem this is the year of Pre-Raphaelitism, and yet ticket prices are creeping up. Compare the costs of standard entry for the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ shows of 2016:

£7 for Edward Robert Hughes

£9.50 Marie Spartali Stillman

£7 for Beauty and Rebellion

£10 for Pre-Raphaelites on Paper

FREE for Victorians Decoded

£18 for Painting with Light

So, when you can pay nothing to see a wonderfully intelligent exhibition like Victorians Decoded, will you freely part with £18 (without donation £16.30) to see Painting with Light? Is it worth it?

The short answer is no, and the reason why? Well, many (no, not all) of the works are regularly displayed in the Tate’s general collection.

So, before reflecting upon the exhibition let us consider the final issue, the title: Painting with Light – Art and Photography, from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age. ‘Painting with Light’ is a poetic, charming title which in itself suggests an exploration into the processes and uses of light (within photography and painting) but the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ appendage firmly asserts in the visitor an expectation they will see Millais, Hunt, Rossetti etc. The Tate blurb reinforces this message:

‘Spanning 75 years across the Victorian and Edwardian ages, the exhibition showcases the experimental beginnings of photography right through to its flowering as an independent international art form. These are displayed alongside the paintings which they inspired and which inspired them.

This is the first time works by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, J.A.M. Whistler, John Singer Sargent and others will be shown alongside photographs by pivotal early photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Alvin Langdon Coburn’.

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Rossetti, detail from Proserpine (1874, Tate)

So, the expectations are set. The visitor assumes there will be an indulgence of Pre-Raphaelitism, from Rossetti to Cameron. The exhibition guide (a rather brief, paltry affair) even shows Rossetti’s Proserpine (1874, Tate) alongside Zaida Ben-Yusuf’s The Odour of Pomegranates (1899, Tate) – note the Tate owns both of these works. So the Tate has encouraged our approach to the work as being rooted in Pre-Raphaelitism, albeit with the caveat of the show exploring photography up ‘to the Modern Age’.

So if you arrive with this invited expectation, you will spend the entire first room wondering why you are stood facing one of the most dreadful pieces of documentary painting, David Octavius Hill, Disruption Portrait (The First Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland signing the Act of Separation and the Deed of Demission on 23rd May, 1843 (1843 – 1866, Free Church of Scotland).

The Telegraph’s ‘steadfastly cautious and academic’ accusation is perfectly exemplified here.  The Disruption Portrait is an enormous (almost twelve foot long) painting which defies all subtleties in its effort to capture each individual’s features. The sheer stalwart effort it took to complete this work (twenty three years) is no doubt part of the awkwardness of the resulting work. Some of the figures look out of place and some look as if they have been stuck on, and the resulting effect is a rather distasteful landscape of faces, none of which we can engage with due to the blinding full focus approach. Hill was no Jacques Louis David.

The work is significant in its documentation of the four hundred and fifty odd faces, and the democratization of the Free Church is amplified by the sea of faces, whose individual statuses range from members of the Scottish aristocracy to Newhaven fishermen. Free Church of Scotland curator Colin Morrison remarks upon the timely display of the Tate’s inclusion of this piece, it being the 150th anniversary of its completion.

Morrison says of the painting: “It features many people of note from the Victorian era, from the well-known Free Church ministers such as Thomas Chalmers and Thomas Guthrie; influential missionaries like Alexander Duff and ‘Rabbi’ Duncan; and many other important figures such as Sir James Young Simpson (discovered the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic), Hugh Miller (geologist and writer) and Henry Duncan (founder of the first savings bank). There is also the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a nephew of Robert Burns, and the inventor of the kaleidoscope!”

Why do you need to know this, why should you even care, is this even of interest to the general visitor? Maybe. The academic thinking behind the inclusion of the Disruption Portrait is brave and strong, but does it work? Yes, academically.

The history within the painting feels as impenetrable as the painting itself. One notable figure Robert Adamson, who established a photographic studio where David Octavius Hill took more than two thousand photographs, can be seen in the centre of the Disruption Portrait, surrounded by his equipment.

It is the process of photography being placed within the act of painting that the curators have attempted to bring out in this first room, with some of Hill’s studio photographs being displayed alongside the painting. These are of more interest than the painting itself, although that response seems to be an unfortunate simplification of the curatorial intention.

Underpinning the selection of the Disruption Portrait and topological images of Edinburgh which are displayed alongside two Turners (a watercolour and an engraving) is the point that the invention of photography in 1839 contributed to a period of change throughout the visual arts in Britain. Art and photography became a partnership of sorts, both permitting a revisiting and a re-looking at the world around and at the new conversations available within an evolving visual language. Carol Jacobi, curator of Painting with Light, says the show “offers new insights into Britain’s most popular artists and reveals just how vital painting and photography were to one another. Their conversations were at the heart of the artistic achievements of the Victorian and Edwardian era”.[4]

Atkinson Grimshaw ‘Bowder Stone, Borrowdale’, c.1863–8

Atkinson Grimshaw, Border Stone, Borrowdale (1863, Tate)

The mid-nineteenth century photographic innovations became part of a debate about ‘truth’ and meaning. Cue Ruskin (after all, we have already had Turner) and some of his ‘photographic’ drawings of St. Marks, Venice from the Ashmolean. Also cue the display of another Tate owned work, Atkinson Grimshaw’s Bowder Stone, Borrowdale (1863, Tate). This work is beautiful and quite rightly exemplifies Ruskin’s diktat ‘go to Nature … rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing’.[5] The Borrowdale watercolour is mirrored in the wonderful photograph Bowder Stone, Borrowdale (circa 1863-1868, Tate) which is displayed nearby. Ruskin and Grimshaw knew each other and it is in the display of this work that the exhibition’s Pre-Raphaelite hand begins to be shown.

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Bowder Stone, Borrowdale (circa 1863-1868, Tate)

The fine Pre-Raphaelite eye, which explored the tiny details of the landscape, are further explored in the inclusion of Millais’ The Woodman’s Daughter (1850 – 1851, Guildhall). This work is actually a glorious piece of Pre-Raphaelitism, awkward in its overtly Catholic styled-line (see here). The Woodman’s Daughter is one of several paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites that explores thwarted love and social class, such as John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Thoughts of the Past (1853, Tate). The painting is drawn from the 1844 poem of the same title by Coventry Patmore which tells the story of Maud and her decline. Maud falls in love (seduced?), by a wealthy squire’s son, who we see in Millais’ painting dressed in bright red.  Maud and the Squire’s son have a child, but because of their couple’s class difference, they can never marry. Maud drowns their illegitimate child and goes mad.

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Millais, The Woodman’s Daughter (1850 – 1851, Guildhall)

Millais’ interpretation is fascinating, for he depicts the two figures in their childhood, before the seduction, which is only foreshadowed by the handful of strawberries. Strawberries connote purity, passion and healing, but there will be no healing for Maud. She stands here, innocently holding her hands out to accept the strawberries which take on a bold, heightened symbolism of her own downfall. Maud becomes both victim and participant. The Squire’s son foreshadows his own role as seducer, as destroyer of the innocence of Maud. The poem recalls us to the scene in Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1897) where Tess is fed strawberries by her seductress, Alec. There is nearly fifty years between the two texts but one cannot help wonder if Millais’ pastoral vision was a catalyst for Hardy’s scene.

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Film still from Polanski’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1979)

Millais’ image is striking, the bright gaudy red of the Squire’s son instantly sets him at odds with the forest they stand in. Millais presumably chose the colour red for its contrast with the green, which dominates the scene, but also for its replication of the strawberries, and its obvious display of wealth. The painting is photographic in its detail, and demands immersion in each leaf, each sapling, and each branch. The painting is bright, it is ‘painted with light’, full light, glaring, bright, white light. It is a wonderful choice, and as the Victorian Web points it is displayed ‘perhaps just in time to perk up Pre-Raphaelite fans’.[6]

Another work that defies all reproductions is Brett’s The Glacier at Rosenlaui (1856, – yes, you’ve guessed it, another Tate collection piece). Stand up close and revel in its Ruskinian detail: behold the hand of the grand designer. This painting is displayed alongside Friedrich von Marten’s photograph of The Glacier at Rosenlaui (c. 1858, Alpine Club Photo Library, London) and these couplings are where the exhibition really shines.

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Brett, The Glacier at Rosenlaui (1856, Tate)

Other comparisons include William Holman Hunt’s paintings of Nazareth and photographs which evidently acted as an aide memoire. I thoroughly agree with this statement from Jacqueline Banerjee: ‘The pairings are not simple “compare and contrast” exercises. They show just how complex, dynamic and incredibly fruitful the relationship between art and photography could be’.[7] Immersion, looking, seeing are so integral to this exhibition that one has to take time to engage with the smaller details within each work, it is also important to note that aside from the jaw dropping proportions of the Disruption Portrait, many of the works on display are rather small, often tiny.

Be warned about immersing yourself too closely when using the stereoscopes provided though, for the Tate stewards are Pitball-like in their guarding of the works throughout this exhibition. One lady was told she should sit down if she needed to use her phone to check her email, when she was actually looking at google maps to fully understand the panoramas of Edinburgh on display. Whilst the panic displayed was no doubt related to photography and copyright concerns, there really needs to be some sort of consensus about what is expected / permitted in galleries. Or what is expected / permitted within the same gallery: go into other rooms of the Tate and you are invited to use tablets to engage with the paintings! Some galleries embrace photography whilst some do not, but I have noticed that visitors are become increasingly confused at the inconsistent messages they are receiving.

Stereographs sold for a few shillings and people of all classes collected. In 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes’s essay ‘The Stereoscope and the Stereograph’ celebrated their invention:

The two eyes see different pictures of the same thing, for the obvious reason that they look from points two or three inches apart. By means of these two different views of an object, the mind, as it were, feels round it and gets an idea of its solidity. We clasp an object with our eyes, as with our arms, or with our hands.

However, the stereoscopes are not particularly effective but I suspect this is in part due to our over-refined, over-pixelated expectations – an aspect that could have been at least an addendum exploration to this exhibition. I fear some of these inconsistencies and over-worked messages are again what The Telegraph review was referring to:

But, by prosecuting its argument via a series of neat, compare-and-contrast juxtapositions, the exhibition feels too much like a lecture, and not enough like, well, an exhibition. At points, it is even amusing to read some of the excitable contemporary reactions to early photographs, which were compared, rhapsodically, to Old Master paintings. The truth is that what seemed marvellous and novel in, say, the 1850s can now appear wraithlike.[8]

‘In the Studio’ and ‘Tableaux’ rooms attempt to focus the visitor on the changing landscape of the visual arts, and introduce big names like James Elliot (of Fry and Elliot fame), Roger Fenton, a pioneering photographer whose reputation has been somewhat unfairly overshadowed by the more showbiz (as in ‘Pre-Raphaelite’) Julia Margaret Cameron, who is also on display here.

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Fenton, The Water Carrier (1858, Wilson Centre for Photography)

Fenton’s The Water Carrier (1858, Wilson Centre for Photography) is a beautiful piece of photography, and although it would please the Western Imperial eye to think this was a snapshot of exotic beauty, it is in fact a choreographed scene as evidenced by the wires holding the ewer in place. Fenton posed his models in his London studio, dressing them in exotic costumes, using Asian props such as coffee pots and water pipes to add the desired ‘Oriental’ / exotic look. This particular model appears in many of his Orientalist photographs.

Despite the evocative nature of many of Fenton’s prints, he was not very commercially successful. Having avoided commercial photography for many years, partly due to snobbery, partly due to the High / Low art debate, and partly due to the ideals of the RPS, Fenton met with an unwelcome decision by the organising committee for the International Exhibition in London, 1862. The exhibition took a decisive yet pejorative action by placing photography alongside tradesmens’ crafts, e.g. machinery and tools. Photography’s status was publicly diminished (Fenton sold his equipment and returned to law). The exhibition doesn’t pursue the status of photography, and one could easily be left with the view that photography was coupled with, or at least closely related to art, as in the High Arts. I presume this is in the emphasis upon photography’s effect upon art rather than an exploration of responses to the technology more broadly speaking. Fortunately reception is dealt with aesthetically here which makes for a more pleasurable exhibition, after all the title is ‘Painting with Light’. The debate about photography’s status relentlessly clouds readings and discussions about Cameron.

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Stone, Two’s Company, Three’s None (1860 – 1892, Manchester)

The exhibition does illuminate Royal interest in photography and the wonderful photograph of Princesses Alexandra and Victoria is a self-conscious pastiche of Marcus Stone’s painting Two’s Company, Three’s None (1860 – 1892, Manchester). This comparison is a wonderful addition to the show and the photograph is displayed underneath the painting in a Royal album not previously exhibited.

Princesses Alexandra and Victoria

Once photographs started to be taken of paintings, copyright instantly became problematic. The Death of Chatterton (1856, Tate) is the Jacobi’s chosen example. Having seen Wallis’ painting in Dublin, James Robinson conceived a stereographic series of Chatterton’s life. Within days of Robinson’s publication of ‘his’ The Death of Chatterton, legal proceedings began. Wallis’ printmaker claimed the picture threatened his income from producing copyrighted engravings. Robinson lost the case, and this is now referred to as the first real copyright case.

Robinson’s The Death of Chatterton (1859, Collection of Dr. Brian May) is a fascinating piece, the colour eerily tints the narrative elements of the piece. The stereoscope colouring ‘illustrates the way this uncanny quality distinguishes the stereograph from even the immaculate Pre-Raphaelite style of Wallis’s painting of the same subject…The backdrop was painted, but the chest, discarded coat and candle were real. Again, the light and colour appear crude in comparison with the painting but the stereoscope records ‘every stick, straw, scratch’ in a manner that the painting cannot. The torn paper pieces, animated by their three-dimensionality, trace the poet’s recent agitation, while the candle smoke, representing his extinguished life, is different in each photograph due to their being taken at separate moments. The haphazard creases of the bed sheet are more suggestive of restless movement, now stilled, than Wallis’s elegant drapery. Even the individuality of the boy adds potency to his death.[9]

Robinson, after Wallis, The Death of Chatterton (1859, Collection of Dr. Brian May)

This room is less about potency than middle-class tableaux, as illustrated by Walter Crane’s cloying ‘pictorial photography’ shows. The next room, the ‘Whisper of the Muse’, is likely where you will devote most of your time, having probably concluded the first room could have been entirely cut out of the exhibition and forgiven it as being ‘a deceptively low-key beginning’.[10] It is here that all the Pre-Raphaelite names promised and anticipated can be found, and one finally gains confidence in the curators having something to say.

The Rossetti curated photograph of Jane Morris by John Robert Parson (1865, V&A) is displayed alongside Rossetti’s Mariana (1870, Aberdeen). Mariana really is a joy to behold, as the attendant angel in the picture seems to suggest, and it is a pleasure to see the two works together. It seems visitors are asked to consider the limitations of photography, or at least compare them to the mythologising capabilities of the imagination, of the lover, of the painter. Rossetti inevitably wins this argument, but we must acknowledge his hand is felt in both the painting and the photograph, and the now lasting image of Jane.

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Rossetti, Mariana (1870, Aberdeen).

But just as one is started to luxuriate in the pace of the exhibition, you are drawn back again, into an entirely different manner of painting and photography. The ‘Life and Landscape’ room transports you into the 1880s amongst photographs, some of which herald from private collections, of labourers and fishermen alongside paintings by Thomas Goodall and George Clausen. Clausen’s Winter Work (1883, Tate) is a wonderfully moving piece, reminding one of the hard winter months when Hardy’s Tess worked for pittance in the fields. Stylistically you are transported away from the whispering muse of the previous room, into stark French realism. I accept the point but perhaps the order of display makes one lose much needed momentum, in what is a surprisingly large exhibition, albeit of predominantly smaller works.


Peter Henry Emerson, Setting the Bow-Net, in ‘Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1885, published 1887, Private Collection)

Without a shadow of a doubt, the most impressive landscape is Millais’ Dew Drenched Furze (1889, Tate). The painting is large and the colours soft and hazy, the painting instantly transports you, like a photo, to its scene. One can imagine the dew on the tips of one’s fingers, or on the skin of your ankle if you were to brush against the furze.

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Millais, Dew Drenched Furze (1889, Tate)

Between 1870 and 1890, Millais painted twenty one large atmospheric landscapes during his time spent in the Highlands. These works were based upon the local Scottish scenery near his home in Bowerswell, Perthshire and the estate at Murthly that Millais rented from 1881 for the purposes of recreational shooting and fishing – Millais being the consummate Victorian fellow. Dew Drenched Furze has an elegiac quality worthy of Swinburne, and surprising in Millais. This section of the room features numerous photographs of sublimely arranged landscapes, e.g. Francis Gresley’s At Winterdyne (1864, Wilson Centre for Photography) but they are drowned out by the sweet elegy of Millais. Because of this, the images of fishermen are more engaging than the landscape photographs.

At this stage of the exhibition, and possibly this review, you may well be running out of steam. There are nine rooms in this exhibition, not that quantity justifies cost as far as ticket price goes. You may well be fatigued by the time you enter the last stages of the exhibition, but no doubt Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose (1886 – 1886, Tate) will lift your spirits and if it doesn’t you can always come back after this exhibition finishes and see it on general display in the Tate anyway.

The Telegraph describes the general trajectory of the exhibition as being ‘from accuracy to poetry’ and I agree it is evident which is likelier to deliver a strong exhibition.[11] The Whistler Nocturnes on display are a pleasure as ever, e.g. Three Figures: Pink and Grey (1868- 1878, Tate) but one of the most delightful pieces is Arthur Hacker’s Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus (1910, Royal Academy). It is a dreamy, creamy, languid rainy scene full of golden light and carriages and recalls the painted photographs by Grimshaw, also on display.

A Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus

Arthur Hacker, Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus (1910, Royal Academy)

The work is juxtaposed with Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Leicester Square (The Old Empire Theatre) (1908, Wilson Cente). But by this stage of the exhibition, the contrasts and comparisons become rather unconvincing. It is not enough to merely draw comparisons and although I would not for a moment doubt the academia behind them, it doesn’t translate to the audience. Why are these visual patterns being replicated through the different mediums, what does it tell us about the conversations between the visual arts? Is this a latent thing or a self-conscious behaviour on the part of the artist or the photographer? These answers don’t seem to be offered clearly enough.

And this is the problem with the exhibition. One knows, because one is a veteran exhibition visitor, that these curators are intelligently minded, but at the end of these nine rooms there was a sense of dissatisfication. It is not for the lack of thought, or the lack of selection, but it is perhaps because of the lack of poetry. The rooms feel disconnected, and although there are some remarkable photographs on display, merely correlating them as pairs leaves the visitor unconvinced. A smaller, more succinct exhibition may well have benefited both the Tate and the viewer, for I don’t believe the ticket price warranted the experience, although I readily acknowledge it warranted the academic input and thought behind the exhibition, and the catalogue which is worth examining.

Coburn insisted photography ‘achieve victory by virtue of its own merits — by the unique subtlety of its tonal range and its capacity to explore the infinite gradations of luminosity, rather than by imitating the technique of the draughtsman’ and although I remain unconvinced the exhibition achieved communicating that, some of the more subtle images in the final room do. The are a few pieces which were definitely worth spending time on though:

John Cimon Warburg’s The Japanese Parasol (c.1906, RPS) and his Peggy in the Garden (1906, RPS)

Clementina Hawarden, Stereograph of Isabella Grace on the terrace (c.1861-1862)

Minna Keene, Decorative Study No. 1, Pomegranates (1906, RPS) and

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Woman in a Kimono with Sunflower (1908, RPS)

Painting with Light is on until 25th September at Tate Britain. The gallery is open every day from 10am-6pm. Tickets are £18 for adults (£16 for concessions) and under 12s are free.

'The Japanese Parasol', c 1909.

Coburn, The Japanese Parasol ( c 1906, RPS)

[1] Accessed 11:06 22/09/16

[2]  Accessed 11:11 22/09/16

[3] Accessed 11:15 22/09/16

[4] Accessed 13:19 22/09/16

[5] John Ruskin, E.T.Cook and A.Wedderburn eds., The Works of John Ruskin, III, pp.623-4

[6] Accessed 13:51 22/09/16

[7] As above.

[8]  Accessed 11:11 22/09/16

[9] Accessed 17:48 22/09/16

[10] Accessed 13:51 22/09/16

[11] Accessed 11:11 22/09/16

Lemoyne’s Annunciation: Reading and responding to Christian Context

For viewers to continue having meaningful relationships with pictures, the works have to continue evolving in meaning. The ability for a piece of art to continue to speak throughout all ages is the mark of a good painting.  A curator has to understand what is valuable for a contemporary audience if they are to create a successful exhibition and create a space for a painting to shine.

One’s experiences of gallery visiting is dependent upon so many things: how the works are presented, what information is given, foot fall, foot flow, personal faith (or lack of), and any number of personal factors which may surreptitiously alter one’s interpretation. Inevitably a curator / gallery can only control or effect some of these factors but understanding the process of looking is a valuable means of creating a space where pictures can offer new meanings and contemporary experiences.

These issues are nowhere more pressing than in the display and curation of religious artworks and objects. Understanding the climate of religious feeling, of how people use or read religious texts is vital for a meaningful display of any such objects. The complex issues of meaning coalesce around context: Christian communities inevitably seek to commune spiritually with religious artefacts but another visitor may be equally interested in the item but have no private faith. Christians (or any other faith, but I elect to write from the view of a Christian viewpoint in this article due to the subject matter in hand) have the right and the capability to engage with the Christian context of a work and in turn, galleries have an obligation and a duty to embrace and acknowledge the inherent qualities of a work for such a visitor.

But of course, any Christian visitor is different from another, some may be practicing, others occasional, some culturally affiliated or nationally situated. A museum’s remit is not to account for detail or reasons of importance but to enable interpretations and acknowledge the likely often inherent interpretations of a work. In short the museum or gallery has an authority to interpret, and a duty to encourage engagement with the content of a piece of work.

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Lorenzo de Monaco, The Coronation of the Virgin (1407 – 1409, National Gallery)

Lorenzo de Monaco’s The Coronation of the Virgin (1407 – 1409, National Gallery) is a Christian work belonging to a larger altarpiece series. The altarpiece comes from the Camaldolese monastery (now destroyed) of San Benedetto fuori della Porta Pinti, Florence. It is a smaller version of one painted in 1414 for the main church of the order in Florence, where Lorenzo Monaco was a monk.[1]

Six paintings are individually owned by the gallery but each piece is a separate narrative, a separate piece of art, and a separate artefact. For a Christian the works are religious and spiritual, and one could argue, should be within a church, not a museum, and reunited as a set piece. However, they are in a gallery having been acquired in 1902 and the gallery has to be sensitive to such attitudes when they display the work. The Sainsbury Wing of the gallery is a very respectfully designed space for what is mostly a collection of religious artefacts. Roughly one third of the paintings in the National Gallery’s collection of Western European art are of religious subjects and nearly all of these are Christian.[2]

The Coronation of the Virgin is the centre panel of the San Benedetto altarpiece. It shows the Virgin Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven by her son Jesus Christ, witnessed by saints and celebrated by choirs of angels with musical instruments. In order to understand this work, one has to not only recognise the text (scripture) but the meaning of complex symbols, e.g the winged beings (the angels).

Meanings emerge through knowledge of and responses to the text, in this case the Bible, but there is a risk this can result in eisegesis which can lead to pluralism and unintentionally undermine any static meanings. Good paintings don’t only have one meaning though: inevitably they can have multiple dependent on whether the viewer is original or current. Anagogical meanings, typical in medieval times, automatically create multiple readings. Who then arbitrates? The reader? The gallery? The curator? The viewer? The artist? Is it even possible to have arbitrator?

The National Gallery proclaims:

The Gallery has long been, and continues to be, active in a variety of research projects grounded in the relationship between art and religion; from exhibitions and catalogue entries to films, podcasts and interactive webpages designed to address how and why these sacred works of art were made, to explore what they might have meant to their original viewers and to discover what they mean to beholders today.[3]

Art’s physicality is, if you imagine a triangle with these words on each point: Place, Person, Picture.

Referring to these issues during a talk at Ripon College’s Art and Theology conference, April 2016, Chloë Reddaway analysed François Lemoyne’s The Annunciation (1727, National Gallery). Below are some reflections on this angelic painting. The painting is on loan from Winchester College, and resides in Room 33 of the National Gallery.

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François Lemoyne, The Annunciation (1727, National Gallery)

Room 33 is entitled ‘France 1700 – 1800’ and includes works by Jean-Antoine Watteau, Siméon Chardin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Jacques-Louis David. The room is Parisian in nature, showcasing the sophisticated and technically accomplished brushwork of David against the softer, gentler style of Watteau’s Rococco. The paintings in this room lean toward the intimate and the private, with only a few works illustrating more mythical or ‘grander’ scenes, e.g. Subleyras’ Diana and Endymion (1740, NG) or the cloudy frills of Fragonard’s Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid (1753, NG).

Some of the paintings in Room 33 are theatrical and suggestive, erotic even. David’s Portrait of Jacobus Blauw (1795, NG) is a strikingly accurate representation which suggests a mild reciprocity between sitter and artist. The portrait records Blauw’s success and earnestness in public service: the work is serious but sincere, grand only through David’s extreme talent. A strange companion for Lemoyne’s Annunciation though.

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Room 33: showing Lemoyne and David’s works hang next to each other

Lemoyne’s painting is the only religious image in the room, and at 208 x 127 cm it is and is a large work, one both signed and dated by Lemoyne. 1727 was the year Lemoyne was awarded a prize for history painting by Louis XV, and the work may have been commissioned by the then headmaster of Winchester College where it was installed in 1729. If you observe, the top of the painting is rounded at each corner, suggesting an arched frame was originally intended. The frame in Winchester was arched where its currently frame is rectangular, with some mouldings. The oil paint is in good condition.

The work depicts the scene of the annunciation according to St. Luke’s Gospel. The archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin that she will give birth to a son, Jesus (Luke 1:26-38, extract below)

26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,

27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.

31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.

There aren’t any other religious paintings in the room because people in Britain were, generally speaking, not interested in buying up religious French art. Winchester had Jacobite and Catholic sympathies so it may explain why it ended up there. There are photographs of the work in Winchester where it hung on the altar, until 1864 .

Now look at the painting. Imagine you are below it though, for you would not be meeting this work face on. You would be beneath it, prostrate, penitent, humble. Your head would lift and your eyes would gaze up toward the Virgin’s robed knee, then up the line of the Virgin’s nose, following right up through to the finger of Gabriel who points upwards toward heaven.

The angel and the Virgin do not face each other, although the angel has a slightly open mouth the Virgin does not turn her head. They do not appear to be really communicating, Despite the animation inherent within the story, the painting is largely a quiet, still work. The angel is airborne, hovering above where the Virgin appears to have been praying. The angel’s robes are wrapped around his strong limbs, and appear to be subject to the wind of his wings and yet he seems frozen. The wings are strong and powerful, and at both times make him earthly and tangible, and yet immaterial and celestial. The majesty Lemoyne creates is humble and quiet, despite its narrative drama. The scene is bathed in a golden light and the face of the Virgin is illuminated from the Holy Spirit which falls down upon her from just off-centre at the top right of the painting.

The majesty Lemoyne creates is humble and quiet, despite its narrative drama. The scene is bathed in a golden light and the face of the Virgin is illuminated from the Holy Spirit which falls down upon her from just off-centre at the top right of the painting. The Virgin’s experience is interior, private even. But are we sure which moment we are looking at, is she about to be disturbed by the archangel, or is she absorbing his message? It seems likely that she is absorbing, for Gabriel is pointing to heaven, foretelling of Mary’s future ascension. And yet, her manner is entirely undisturbed, there is no trauma, no fear, and no shock, instead Mary personifies grace and humility.

As already mentioned, God’s presence is indicated by the light in the work. The cherubs are also indicative of divinity, and they in turn are a peek into the heavenly world that exists behind the celestial cloud: clouds acts as witnesses within the Bible (Hebrews 12:1) and it is therefore likely Lemoyne is using the clouds to be symbolically representative of a myriad of angels, a myriad of messengers like Gabriel. The swirling clouds also have the feel of incense used in a Catholic service, and can just as easily be interpreted as an offering, mirroring the offering of the Virgin’s body.

The veiling and unveiling of the Christian mystery is a vital element of this work, for every moment we are faced with something ethereal, there is another where we meet something man-made. Note the tiled floor and the wall, and even the basket.

Walls or pillars often act as a means of segregation, a way of artistically separating us from the now mystery world of the divine we are looking at. Many artists use this technique: Botticelli, Titian, Veneziano etc. Look at Veneziano’s, The Annunciation (1445, Fitzwillliam). The tiles halt our gaze and the wall and pillars act as a door, we can only see so far into the narrative. We are stopped short of witnessing the conception, the ‘door’ remains closed, the Virgin remains virginal, and we are all spared our blushes. This altarpiece is considered to be one of the defining works of religious art in the first half of the fifteenth century, and is exemplar in both colour, sensitivity, and humility.

Veneziano, The Annunciation (1445, Fitzwillliam).

The use of the wall is interesting as it both venerates and protects the Virgin, from us the grubby peasants. Ruskin writes about the ‘cornerstone’ of Christian faith when analysing Tintoretto’s The Annunciation (1582-7, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice). Ruskin was ‘startled by the rush’ of angel wings, despite the architectural features and the tiled floor. In both Tintoretto’s work and Lemoyne’s the tiles are part of a gritty material reality, whereas the cloud filled air is God Incarnate.

The basket is not just a well-observed still life, it is imbued with symbolism. It references the Flight of Egypt, the manger Christ will soon be born into. The white cloth is a blank page, it is awaiting Christ’s arrival, awaiting Logos, and yet it simultaneously foreshadows Christ’s death, and the shroud which will bury him. Mary is oblivious to these details, they are for us penitent observant Christians to hear. Mary is almost a Virgin of Humility, her face adoring and light filled, just as it will be when she first casts her eye upon her son. She does not look at the text on the lectern, some of which falls to the floor, and even if she were, the angel casts a shadow over the text. The scrolls are being superseded because Scripture is enacted: the word of the Lord is being written before our eyes and the vision on the canvas is Logos.

This is what Lemoyne attempts to deliver. Sit beneath it and feel the Christian faith, and ask yourself if this work can be understood separated from a Christian setting? Ask yourself how successfully the gallery have been in allowing a visitor to extract the paintings many subtleties by placing it within a secular room and hanging it beside a secular portrait. Is this the lot of religious paintings now, consigned to the material, the secular, the rational, the ‘inclusive’?

I am uncertain how it is best to achieve or maintain pluralistic readings and critical engagement with religious paintings, but I am fearful that our ability to identify nuances and symbols within such paintings as Lemoyne’s Annunciation are forever becoming clouded. Will our clouds cease to be witnesses? Perhaps these paintings will lose favour entirely and they will be consigned to the basement cellar (if only one could ask Benjamin West how he feels about his work being in the Tate’s cellar)?

Displaying religious paintings continues to be a point of critical excitement and friction, but we should never shy away from doing so. It should not matter if you believe the story being presented before you, but it does matter that you understand it. Perhaps seeing such paintings may inspire someone’s faith, perhaps it marks the end of someone else’s. We cannot judge, but we are guardians of these paintings and their meanings. I strongly feel that it is our responsibility to maintain visitors’ engagement with the paintings, and the stories behind them.

And if we can’t easily communicate or draw visitors into ethereal paintings? Then, in this instance, we only have to refer to Lemoyne’s biography to entice viewers.

François Lemoyne (1688 – 4th June, 1737) was a French Rococco painter, born in Paris. In 1701, when he was just thirteen years old, he entered the Académie de peinture et de sculpture where he studied under Louis Galloche. In 1711, Lemoyne won the Prix de Rome and by 1718 he had been accepted as a member of the Académie where he was elected as a professor in 1733.

He became Premier peintre du Roi in Versailles where he spent much time and where he earned the nickname ‘new Le Brun’. Lemoyne was fiercely ambitious and had many rivals. He seems to have worked relentlessly and produced major pieces such as the ceiling painting L’apothéose d’Hercule (1737), in the Salon d’Hercule in the Grand appartement du roi at Versailles. The achievement is no doubt Lemoyne’s magnus opus, although it seems to have accelerated his depression and paranoia. When his wife died, Lemoyne’s mental health further declined. His health suffered so severly that Lemoyne stabbed himself multiple times, thereby taking his own life in Paris in 1737 at the age of 49.

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Lemoyne, L’apothéose d’Hercule (1736, Versailles)

[1] Accessed 12:03 23/09/16

[2] Accessed 12:41 23/09/16

[3] Accessed 12:41 23/09/16

BAVS 2016 Conference Reflections

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As many of you will know, the BAVS 2016 conference theme this year was ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’. It was three days of intense academia, spread out through the Postgraduate Teaching Centre at Cardiff University, with occasional forays into the city centre for a museum trip, a castle visit, a tour round the arcades, or some of the many pubs, and, for the many having travelled to the venue, the nights were spent collapsed (with tiredness) in various student halls across town.


A conference of this scale has to be organised like some military operation, and one should at least mention the cake, the Borders biscuits, and the lovely lemon infused halloumi and courgette salad (no soggy sandwiches here, thank you very much). The catering staff were courteous and did amazingly well to remain calm at all times despite being faced with hundreds of hungry people. After all, sometimes organising academics is like herding cats (and I know, as I have one. Note one cat, not three hundred and thirty cats).

It is these organisational details which I think made the conference a success. After all, one can have amazing papers, but if there are no people to help you, or there are room confusions, technical faults, poor food etc., everyone gets pretty cross. But to my knowledge, everything went tickety boo, and this meant, we were all able to concentrate on the matter in hand: Consuming (the) Victorians.

The programme was relentless but well structured, and from the conversations I was privy to, I gather the selection criteria for papers was essentially quality. Indeed, there were many high quality papers and the keynotes were fabulous. In the main, the organisational committee selected and paired papers well: although there were a handful which didn’t particularly compliment each other, if that meant quality papers were heard rather than not heard, then we are the better for those arrangements.

The itinerary covered all the names you would expect, e.g. Dickens, Caroll, Eliot, Wilde, Gaskell, and Hardy, and the themes ranged from the medicinal to the sickly, from the religious to the theatrical, and from global empires to village life. The conference was interdisciplinary and as such there were many cultural and social historians present, which helped to create a rounded discussion about consumption.

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Thomas Dixons’ talk on ‘Dickens, Wilde and the History of Emotions’ – churned and oozed us’ through his intellectual emotions (although I must say, I prefer Dixon’s alternative title ‘How to Cry like a Victorian’). Dixon unravelled what we think is sentimental and asked us to consider what was “good or bad crying” in the nineteenth century.

Dixon also made his audience laugh, and this was one aspect of #BAVS2016 which was rather refreshing. Laughter. Ask yourself how many conferences you have attended where you have learned loads and been thoroughly interested in the content, but come away crying like a Victorian (cue black gown for fifty years). Not so in #BAVS2016: think of Patricia Duncker’s keynote for example.

If you are not blessed with beauty it is a good idea to be ruthlessly intelligent.

I actually laughed out loud during Duncker’s keynote. I laughed properly, and slightly louder than I expected, but it was a genuine laugh. I confess it was Melvyn Bragg related, but then everyone has their ‘consuming’ passion, don’t they? Duncker’s keynote was personal, intellectual, funny, and novel (in all senses). Duncker spoke in her self-proclaimed “boomy voice” about her novel Sophie and the Sibyl (2015) and the process of writing, researching and re-imagining Victorian lives, in this instance George Eliot. This form of Neo-Victorian writing illuminated a theme that recurred throughout the conference: how do we re-imagine the Victorians, and perhaps more importantly, why.

This question was also taken up by the plenary panel: Professor Valerie Sanders asked us to consider why we seem to delight in making the Victorians more like us. Sanders questioned our collective engagement with popular dramas (whether that be via literature or television) and paused to consider whether it was helpful or not. Inevitably this question is a perpetual one for the historian, what is history and how and what should we record about the past?

Interestingly, the post-grad workshops had set the tone with both the theme of popular engagement and reflection upon the Victorian (literary) landscape, and also an academic’s ability to speak publically.  Professor Damian Walford Davies discussed gritty Neo-Victorian literature, from Anthony Horowitz to his own poetry, and the group discussed an author’s need for research in order to create an authoritative voice the reader could trust.

I also heard many people actively revising their planned presentation format after the ‘Presenting Your Research – It Really Is a Performance’ PGR workshop. I couldn’t agree more with considering your time delivering your paper as being tantamount to being on stage – if you want people to engage with your research and to immerse yourself in the community, then talk to them, make them listen, and you will then receive constructive feedback. Why wouldn’t you want that?

The theatre was another theme which wove its way into the conference, and both papers and keynotes variously approached ‘chorus (girls) in late Victorian operetta’ (Sonja Jüschke), Edwardian soprano’s (Rachel Landgren) and the ‘violin craze’ (Christina Bashford).

Bashford’s keynote was centred upon the violin, and considered how the idea of the violin taps into people’s private and deeply rooted hopes for their own lives. Bashford suggested the violin became an ideologically laden consumer good, which replaced the piano as symbol of female accomplishment. Marie Hall (1884 – 1956) playing Mendelssohn’s 3rd movement in 1905, being one such example.

The Blind Fiddler, 1880s, Bethnal Green

Whilst social improvement not always guaranteed (if all else failed there was always busking e.g. The Blind Fiddler, 1880s) learning an instrument improved life opportunities for many. The craze was such that by 1909, 400,000 boys and girls had learnt to play thanks to the widespread teaching in state schools. Like Duncker, Bashford revealed small personal details such as her grandmother’s reluctance to let her learn to play. Now an accomplished violinist, Bashford recalled the response to her request to learn the cello:

“The cello?” said grandma. “Oh no, no, no. Young ladies don’t play the cello”.

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Inevitably some people took mild liberties with the term ‘consuming’ but in the main there were strong imaginative interpretations and analysis of how the Victorians consumed, whether as a temporal consumption of their own past or present, or as corporeal, bodily form of consumption (alcohol, food, disease etc). The conference felt slightly weighted towards literature, and it would have been nice for more art historians to have made their mark, although I wouldn’t like to speculate on the reasons art historians are not more present at BAVS. I particularly enjoyed the art historical papers I heard.

‘A spectacularly impractical white dress’: Millais, detail from The Northwest Passage (1874, Tate)

I particularly warmed to Camille Adeane’s analysis of the cringeworthy criticism levied at Millais and analysis of his over consumption of Victorian sweetness. Her reading of white-on-white, in Millais’ The Northwest Passage (1874, Tate) as part of pushing the narrative form to its limits of interiority was particularly intelligent.

And although, I disagreed with Serena Trowbridge’s chosen spelling of Siddall (a minor point perhaps but see why here) her paper was insightful. Using Jan Marsh as a springboard, Trowbridge asked us to consider how Siddal / Siddall has been represented over the years, how she is ‘like a soft clay pot constantly shaped and reshaped and filled with new meanings’. Siddal was a commodity of male desire (then) and is representative of Pre-Raphaelite commodities (then and now). She remains remote and, as part of this reading, I would also add that Siddal is consumed as both angel and saint, as part of a continual replication of the consumption she is subjected to.

For Siddal, there are two possible doors of freedom: the cross or the window. Metaphorically, Siddal chose the window. More’s the pity.

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Siddal, St. Agnes Eve (1850, NT Wightwick)

So, whether you were interested in how Victorians consumed the poisoned apple (Joanna Crosby), the queer consumption of the dead child body (Jen Baker), or the authenticity of the Muppet’s rendition of Dickens (Holly Eckersley) there was plenty to think about and discuss over champagne at the conference reception in the city’s Impressionist Galleries. Hard life isn’t it?

I would never forgive myself if I didn’t at least mention Thomas Hardy who, aside from the interesting paper Leonard Driscoll gave, didn’t feature as much as he should have. So, in recognition of his magnum opus and a sublime example of modern consumption of the Victorian novel I leave you with this image of Tess of the d’Urbervilles lying on the ancient heartbeat of Britain.   

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Still from Roman Polanski’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1979)

If you weren’t able to attend the conference, then perhaps you can get a flavour of things from the many #BAVS2016 tweets.

Best advice of the conference: don’t use dynamite.

Best word of the conference: swashbuckling.

Best phrase: floridly psychotic.

Best trip: The Arcades

Victorians Decoded

This review has been written by special invitation of The Guildhall Art Gallery

The Guildhall’s current exhibition is a collaboration with the Courtauld Institute and King’s College London. The motivations behind the exhibition are rooted in a celebration of telegraphy, which began one hundred and fifty years ago. The Press had a sneak preview on the 16th September before the official opening on the 20th September. The exhibition, which is free to enter, will be in situ until the 22nd January.


Telegraphy, which essentially means to write at a distance, is the long-distance transmission of textual or symbolic (as opposed to verbal or audio) messages without the physical exchange of an object bearing the message: no carrier pigeons here.

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Speckled Jim

A ‘telegraph’ is a device for transmitting and receiving such messages over long distances, and generally refers to an electrical telegraph. Telegraphy relies upon any chosen message encoding is known and understood by both sender and receiver. Pavel Schilling invented one of the earliest electrical telegraphs in 1832, although Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame) independently invented and patented the electrical telegraph in the United States in 1837.

Major innovations such as the successful laying of cable along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean meant that exchanges which would typically have taken weeks by ship, were possible within a single day. These innovations were down to the understanding and resultant harnessing of electricity, and consequentially they forever altered the way people lived and communicated. These advances were the beginnings of the world we now inhabit, where email and the internet is always at hand and fast becoming an individual’s ‘right’ to have. Recent Government policy has been designed to provide ‘superfast broadband (speeds of 24Mbps or more) for at least 95% of UK premises and universal access to basic broadband (speeds of at least 2Mbps)’ by 2017.

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Our view that today’s technologies are both essential and our ‘right’ relates back to the nineteenth century’s revolutionary changes in the communication landscape and their creating a world that was ‘connected’ – a word we overuse today. Victorian innovations have now become accepted as a standard way of life, and the ‘Victorians Decoded’ exhibition has been conceived in order that viewers can explore our own relationship with technology and the impact telegraphy had on the world during the nineteenth century. The exhibition does this through the lens of the artistic imagination and well-known names such as Edwin Landseer, James Tissot and Edward John Poynter, as well as lesser known artists: James Clarke Hook, William Logsdail and William Lionel Wyllie. The curators, Professor Caroline Arscott, Professor Clare Pettitt, and Vicky Carroll have clearly posed questions like: how did telegraphy contribute to the Victorians understanding of their place in time, how did changing perceptions of distance alter social expectations and artistic imaginations, and how did the Victorians respond to coding and decoding?

Telegraphy codes for the one, two, and five-needle telegraphs

Arscott’s own research has become increasingly scientific over the last few years, and her hand can be felt in much of the display, although one should not underestimate the involvement of the wider community of researchers and curators, e.g. Cassie Newland (who has been working on the ongoing project Scrambled Messages) and the Guildhall Curator, Katty Pearce.

There is a weighted scientific side to this exhibition, as personified in the display of personal notes and papers of telegraph pioneer Sir Charles Wheatstone, as well as examples of his first machines, code books, communication devices, and samples of the transatlantic telegraph cables. There is also a wonderful example of a wooden telegraph machine made by Wheatstone, which mirrors the fretwork of the wooden accordion placed next to it in the cabinet. Whilst this seems typical of Victorian indulgence, as soon as one discovers Wheatstone was an accordion maker by trade, the detailing soon becomes categorised as a practical and sound decision.

The fretwork matches that of the accordion and, in an inspired move, it also matches ‘The Great Grammatizor’ which is a specially-designed messaging machine allowing the public to create a coded message of their very own. ‘The Great Grammatizor’ will no doubt be a hit with children (and adults) visiting this exhibition and I fear the fruit-machine-like handle may be subjected to some months of overwork.

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The hubbub of a Telegraph Office

In order to create a narrative about telegraphy the exhibition has been arranged into four themed rooms: Distance, Resistance, Transmission and Coding.

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The ‘Distance’ room helps illustrates the monumental achievements the Victorians had in laying cables across the Atlantic Ocean floor, from Valentina Island in Ireland to a tiny fishing village called Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, Canada. The cables were a ‘girdle around the earth’ whose technology would bring ‘all the nations of the globe within speaking distance of each other’. The Victorians were optimistic. The cables weighed more than one imperial ton per kilometre and it took nine years, four attempts and the world’s (then) largest ship, Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, to complete this political and imperially energising job. The scale of insight, invention and commitment to this accomplishment was phenomenal and it revolutionised the world. The room’s display of battery cells and the like seeks to underline this revolution, e.g. the Battery of Daniell Cells (1840 – 1860, King’s College Archives, London).

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SS Great Eastern, 1866

The cables, a small section of which are on display in this room, enabled same-day messaging across the continents for the very first time and with that, they introduced new business and marketing opportunities into both sides of the Atlantic. It is fair to say, the telegraph introduced the suggestion of the twenty-first century, of a world which relies upon international markets and communications. Speed was and still is the key for maintaining these relationships and enables one to quickly recognise why the Military and Government were the first to embrace telegraphy. It took approximately one minute for eight words to be transmitted. These technological innovations offered artists new insights and opportunities for representing conversations being had in a never before seen manner, in a new visual way.

Royalty endorsed this exciting new world of communication, and the first ‘official’ transatlantic telegraph was sent by Queen Victoria to the American President, James Buchanan, on 16th August, 1858.

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In this room there are numerous beautiful paintings, not least being William Ayerst Ingram’s Evening (1898, Guildhall), This Whisterlesque piece is testament to several themes in the room, the sense of space, time and distance being the most obvious. Ingram’s soup like sea is untouchable and insurmountable, it dwarves the small boat on the horizon which our eye has to seek to find. No doubt the boat would be extremely sizeable if nearer, and yet it disappears before our eyes, almost turning into a wisp of a cloud as it is carried far, far away from the terra very firma our feet inhabit.


William Ayerst Ingram, detail of Evening (presented in 1898, Guildhall)

But the knowing viewer of this work, is content because he knows man’s ability to rule the seas, to overcome the impossible, to be both here and there. The tiny boat on this vast seascape signifies man’s ability to defy the natural world, to defy the natural order of things. The light within this work cannot be comprehended until stood before it.


William Ayerst Ingram, Evening (presented in 1898, Guildhall)

Another painting brings the reality, the noise and fuss of the busy seas to our attention: William Lionel Wyllie’s Commerce and Sea Power (1898, Guildhall). The rolling brown sea does not offer a poetic insight into man’s visionary technologies as Ingram does, instead we are greeted by the noise and bustle, we are looking at the smell and sound of commerce and international markets which Wyllie has been transported for us onto the windy seas. This work feels more of an observation than a judgement or vision, it is a type of reportage, permitting us to glimpse into the busy world of a once unchartered water.

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William Lionel Wyllie, Commerce and Sea Power (1898, Guildhall)

Man’s relationship to the natural world has and always will remain integral to the way we view the world around us, whether it be in a Romantic ‘Wanderer above the Clouds’ manner or the brutal image by Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864, Royal Holloway). Landseer’s work never ceases to impress and it is a delight the Guildhall saw fit to include it in the ‘Resistance’ room. This room seeks to show a world that still had to overcome difficulties: technology could be conquered but could the natural world?


Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864, Royal Holloway)

Man Proposes, God Disposes is a translation of the Latin phrase Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit from Book I, Chapter 19, of The Imitation of Christ by the German cleric Thomas à Kempis. Whilst the painting probably does little to abate unfounded fears about the predatory nature of Polar bears, it is in itself a wonderful piece of imaginative fiction, inspired by the search for Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition which disappeared in the Arctic. Ironically, Franklin’s lost ‘ghost ship’ has just been discovered in the days to the exhibition opening.

The scene depicts the scattered wreckage of Franklin’s expedition: one can identify a telescope, a mast with the tattered remains of a red ensign and a sail hanging from it, two polar bears, and human bones. The polar bears aggressively gnawing and gnashing their teeth among the ensign and the bones, and we as viewers are terrifyingly reminded of our fate should we endeavour to endeavour. Man is always destined to be defeated, to be overcome by the natural order of God’s grand design. Civilisation and imperialism has been defeated by ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ and the bones are pure pathos. William Michael Rossetti described the bones as ‘the saddest of membra disjecta’ (scattered remains). Landseer’s post-Romantic sublimity is extremely powerful, and recalls Caspar Friedrich’s Das Eismeer (1823, Hamburg).

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Caspar Friedrich, Das Eismeer (1823, Kunsthalle Hamburg)

Reception of the work was generally positive, The Art Journal described its ‘poetry, pathos, and terror’ and recognised its ‘tragic grandeur’, and the Saturday Review praised its ‘sublimity of sentiment’. It is right that Victorians Decoded asks us to consider our place in the world, just as the Victorians did during this period of innovation, and remind us too that we are but temporal beings, with both limited power and time.

Peter Graham, Ribbed and Paled by Rocks Unscalable and Roaring Waters (1885, Guildhall)

When the painting was exhibited at the 1864 Royal Academy summer exhibition, Lady Franklin refused to attend to the painting, calling it ‘offensive’. No doubt thinking of one’s husband dying at the other ends of the world was too much, but as a metaphor and cautionary warning, Landseer’s piece is a marvel. It is important we resist it though, and we should remind ourselves it is a fiction, but it also provokes us to consider the consequences of man’s place within the world, and the inevitable failure of man’s technological innovations: Man’s resistance belies God’s resistance (to man’s advances) (in the context of the Victorian mode of thinking about the world).

Damage to vessels during the Atlantic cabling project hindered completion and transmission, and there were also other issues for the resistance in the 2,754 km of copper cables was so new that engineers barely understood it, making the passing of signals very difficult. Although the Queen’s telegraph had been successful, the cables needed to be repaired within a few weeks and technological teething problems were part of the process (one we recognise more generally in our world of regular software updates and releases).

Two never-before-seen paintings will be on display, Thomas Hope McLachan, The Isles of the Sea (1894, Guildhall) which evokes a similar sublime feel to Landseers work, only without the humanity and pathos, and Peter Graham, Ribbed and Paled by Rocks Unscalable and Roaring Waters (1885, Guildhall).

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Thomas Hope McLachan, The Isles of the Sea (1894, Guildhall)

The Isles of the Sea has been in conservation for the last year and despite the nicotine yellow varnish looking images on the internet, the colour of the painting is decidedly more subtle. The work is also more detailed and in the bottom left there are three birds battling the strong winds as they attempt to leave the canvas. The work is thick with impasto and the light is surprisingly effective. The conservation and cleaning has certainly paid off and the painting really offers a Turneresque sublimity to the room.


Topham, detail from Rescued from the Plague 1665 (Guildhall)

A particularly exciting work is Frank William Warwick Topham’s Rescued from the Plague 1665 (Guildhall) which presents a naked being delivered from a building to a man and young woman (possibly child) in order to escape the plague. The child is deliberately naked to escape the death which hangs about those within her own household (more likely his really). A young woman stands below with new clothes ready to cloak this young Christ’s body. The Christian message is confusing here, the Mary Magdalene and Mother Mary figures are both dead and alive, the roles and certainties of these messages are unclear. One woman slumps against the doorway which has a red cross daubed across it, whilst the other stands penitent ready to clothe and protect the young ‘Christ’ descending the cross. The infection, as a form of ‘message’, is denied by the removal of the naked ‘Christ’. Instead the message of rebirth, of a life affirming Christianity comes through strongly, and so with bodily health being preserved, the child’s life may continue. The (Christian) message lives on. This work is a wonderful way of examining ‘transmission’ messages and yet the label information is reluctant to celebrate or is perhaps deaf to the Christian message of this work in any depth: I fear this is curatorial practice more generally (we must keep the labels secular, accessible, open etc.)

Customers desired speedy telegrams as did businesses, and telegraph companies sought to expedite communication although lines needed to clear between signals. In order to speed things up smaller signals were sent although this required ever more sensitive detectors and illustrates the increasing refinement of the technology. ‘Thousands of miles of cable laid beneath the ocean sped up communication in a way that few people – not least, artists – could have ever imagined, forcing them to re-evaluate distance and time. There is no doubt that telegraphy transformed people’s lives’ writes Carroll.

James Hook 'Word from the missing', Hook (1877)

James Clarke Hook, Word from the Missing (1877, Guildhall)

The paintings in this section of the exhibition explore the progressive ways of transmitting messages old and new, and asks the viewer to consider the clarity of messages. Images such as James Clarke Hook’s Word from the Missing (1877) and William Logsdail, The Ninth of November, 1888 (1890) lend themselves to understanding the various means of indirect transmission, whether that be via generations or through political distance, or even light, and whether the messages are thwarted or enhanced through close contact or enforced physical separation.

The lovely Word from the Missing shows a woman and two children on the beach. The woman holds a large square wicker basket with one hand, and she bends down picking up bits of driftwood with the other hand. The rose colour of the woman’s top is highlighted by the darkness of her hair and the basket.


The two children are blonde and they stand barefoot in the shallow ebb and flow of the sea. The young boy, we presume her son, holds aloft a glass bottle with a message inside it, for the little girl to see. She bends with her hands on her knees as she looks intently at the piece of paper inside. The naivety and innocence of the children is charming, as is their excitement at the discovery of this seaweed covered treasure. Is this family awaiting a message? We can perhaps read that the family await news for the head of the household to return from the sea, just like the bottle, but news of him seems never likely to come. Does the woman wait patiently hoping the sea will spit out her husband just as it did the bottle in some Conradian way? It is a bitter message for us, the viewer, to ponder. This message-in-a-bottle form of communication is a world now past: the children’s world of innocent timeless pleasures is as liable to be smashed as the glass bottle is against the rocks in the background, as perhaps their father was. This hopeful indeterminate message-in-a-bottle symbolises a world superseded by the high-tech advances of telegraphy. But for this family, there is no ‘word from the missing’, there is no personal message, and there will be no telegram.

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The correlation between news, personal or otherwise, and speed is an important message within this exhibition. Modern communications could offer solace but they could also offer protection: one of the first indications the new telegraphy technology would offer social assistance was evidenced by a telegraph which reported a murder. One John Tawell was arrested and subsequently hanged due to a telegraph which identified which train he had got on after his heinous crime. It would have been interesting for something like this to be included in the exhibition as well, after all, the curators seem keen to make visitors think about social issues.

The other painting of note in this section is The Ninth of November, 1888 which is a staggering piece of realism. It shows the Procession of Sir James Whitehead, Lord Mayor 1888-1889, passing the Royal Exchange which was has been destroyed by fire twice. The present building was designed by William Tite in the 1840s and was home to the Lloyd’s insurance market for nearly 150 years.

The Ninth of November, 1888

William Logsdail, The Ninth of November, 1888 (1890)

Logsdail’s painting is a busy, large image showing the arterial cable of the Lord Mayor’s parade. But this message is a weak one, being run on a small budget with only three footman, and thin scrawny ones at that. The parade is known as being the shortest one ever, and so, this cable of communication was cut short. The recipients are busy stealing, chatting and ignoring the formal message: look at the child on the left, stealing some fruit, or the one on the right, pinching the hat. This traditional scene of pomp and circumstance has been redirected into a sorry crackling message. It really has rained upon this parade.

One message that is not brought out in this example, is one of inheritance. I ask you to compare Frank Cadogan Cowper’s An aristocrat answering to the summons to execution, Paris, 1792 (1904). The uniform and the off-centre aslant pose and costume is surely reminiscent? Let us not forget that artistic messages often outlive their own contemporary attempts at communicating things of note.

In this final section of the exhibition, coding is tackled. Having established the technology sufficiently to create and transmit clear messages, secrets were denied and anybody could read the communications being sent: privacy then became an issue for the Victorians. Gradually and yet inevitably, people began to develop their own methods of coding their messages and in this room transatlantic code books are on display alongside paintings that reflect the concept of coding within human interaction.


Coding cabinet

In order to shorten personal messages and hide content from the handling telegraph clerks, people resorted to code books and ciphers. Police code books and private codes are included in display cabinets, such as the Police code ‘FELONY FENCEFUL FETLOCK’ which translates as ‘the suspect has two teeth, out in front, a slightly turned up nose and is a smooth talker’. Presumably this was a regularly transmitted message, worthy of a code.

As part of this section, the Great Grammatizer is featured. As already mentioned, this machine allows each visitor to scramble and code their own messages, and may even turn them into eccentric poems. This bizarre steampunk machine is the result of a competition won by Alexandra Bridarolli and was inspired by ‘The Great Automatic Grammatizator’ a story by Roald Dahl from his collection Someone Like You (1953). It is a delightful albeit smaller than expected addition to the exhibition.

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Tissot, The Last Evening (1873, Guildhall)

In this final section you will find James Tissot, The Last Evening (1873, Guildhall) and Solomon Joseph Solomon, A Conversation Piece (1884, Leighton House Museum) side by side. The Guildhall describes Tissot’s scene as ambiguous, saying it is a scene which takes place the night before the boat sets sail. The relationship between the characters is unclear, one man leans practically over a young female, who gentle rocks backwards on a wicker chair. The man wears a wedding ring whilst the woman does not. Two men look on, perhaps one is her father, and they seem to be discussing this potential union. Are we to assume the match is, in the first instance, considered possible? Have these two men misunderstood the young man’s intentions, or do they know it only too well? Perhaps the girl misunderstands the young man? None of the characters seem to be engaging fully with each other and their communication is without eye contact, the messages are becoming depersonalised in this painting. The ‘new’ form of communications are disconnected and each individual is at risk of remaining just that, individual, separated from meaning. After all, the wires of communication are so busy and liable to confusion and misdirection, and Tissot makes sure we understand this by replicating the many variants of meaning, telegraphic or otherwise, in the messy tangled ships masts in the background. The heavy patterned fabrics also seem to reiterate this knotted message.


Tissot, detail from The Last Evening (1873, Guildhall)

Perhaps this interpretation is too negative though, and the work is suggesting that due to the rise of the telegraph a young woman’s future could offer her greater opportunities? Are we to consider that the very young girl on the left hand side of the painting, the one who both surveys the scene whilst listening to the two older gentleman, may perhaps have a different future from one which results in a woman being saddled with a man who may accost other women when out of sight? It seems the painting does encourage one to ask about space and people’s relation to space. The young man has yet to learn that only he is an ocean apart from his wife, that he remains connected to both worlds in a way that has yet to become apparent to him. The painting also asks one to ponder the future, and if we return to Landseer for a moment, do we see man as continuing to propose – to propose to go against the natural order?

Solomon Joseph Solomon, A Conversation Piece (1884, Leighton House Museum)

Solomon’s A Conversation Piece is perhaps also in this vein: each person looking away rather than making direct eye contact with the other characters within the scene. The detail in this work is worthy of Tissot himself, and recalls his Hide and Seek (1877, NGA). The luscious interior is delightfully Victorian and permits the viewer a moment of well-earned reverie at the end of this thought provoking exhibition.

A well-known and visitor attracting piece is Leighton’s Music Lesson (1877, Guildhall). Music Lesson is a beautiful work which will no doubt please visitors but does the theme of ‘Coding’ become a little diluted at this point in the exhibition: how far is the metaphor being stretched? Is the inclusion of the work for the team’s benefit, for the visitors or for general celebratory consumption? After all, visitors will inevitably be expecting some big names in an exhibition which mentions the ‘Victorians’. Leighton suitably and quietly obliges, despite being consistently written out of any modern historicisation of the nineteenth century – Leighton, for all his glory and panache, is never ‘edgy’. It is evident why Arscott has included this work (and I believe it is Arscott’s choosing as she writes about this work elsewhere): Leighton ‘transmits’ information in this painting, he transmits knowledge, sound and aesthetics. It is a sublime piece of synaesthesia but it feels a little awkward here, a little too easy a choice.


Leighton, detail from Music Lesson (1877, Guildhall)

One piece within this room that seems to stretch the exhibition too far is De Morgan’s Moonbeams Dipping into the Sea (1900, De Morgan Foundation). The painting is exceptional and a delight to discover in the exhibition, but one can’t help wondering how far the curatorial mind wandered. Yes, De Morgan did have apprehensions and beliefs about sequential spirit messages being received on earth via light sources, but Arscott’s interpretation that light may also ‘additionally stand for the transmission of spirit messages’ seems, whilst apt in other contexts, to have asked too much of a visitor that has just been looking at code books and battery cells. I suspect most visitors will appreciate the beautiful reprieve when enjoying this work, but I am not convinced many of them will buy its intrusion upon an exhibition that is for the most part exceptionally well considered.


De Morgan, detail from Moonbeams Dipping into the Sea (1900, De Morgan Foundation)

The Guildhall certainly houses a fine display and at no cost one can leisurely re-visit and decode the Victorian mind as often as one likes over the next couple of months: I will certainly be doing this. This exhibition is, as Arscott puts it, evidence of ‘Art itself….[being] transformed as telegraphic systems were established’ and as one wanders through the exhibition space, you will find yourself gentle prompted into thinking about the nineteenth century, whether that is through examination of Victorian interiors, seascapes, or shipwrecks. The questions or connections asked of visitors are sometimes a bit over-stretched, but I suspect that is unsurprising of a team that meet once a fortnight to discuss their ideas about the same subject. Nonetheless, I can’t think of a more worthy way to spend my time. This exhibition is free. FREE. The Guildhall’s message about accessibility is NOT to be missed. Compare this free exhibition with any of the other major London galleries exhibitions on at present and ask what message those places are presenting about the arts. Ask yourself what those places think of your place as a visitor and as an educated commentator upon public collections. Then ask yourself about the purpose of this exhibition and you will see how it tries to emblematise democracy from start to finish, from the moment you walk in until the moment you grammatize. If you leave this exhibition with music in your ears and moonbeams in your eyes, then the messages sent have certainly been clearly transmitted.

Special curator talks about the exhibition will take place on 29th September 2016, 27th October 2016, 24th November 2016, 15th December 2016 and 19th January 2017.

There is a wider programme of research being undertaken which commemorates 150 years and further information on events can be found on Scrambled Messages. To coincide with the exhibition, Scrambled Messages is running a photography competition for GCSE and A-level students.


The Great Grammatizor and its creators


Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings

This blog post has been written by special invitation of The Courtauld.

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Georgiana Houghton

Georgiana Houghton is, no doubt, an unfamiliar name to most gallery visitors; a name more likely known to experts in Victorian Spiritualism. Houghtom’s work is remarkable: it is organic, oceanic, ephemeral, religious, spiritual and anachronistic. Houghton has been described as an eccentric and worse, as an amateur, and this summer presents us with a chance to decide for ourselves.

Born in 1814 in Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria, Houghton later made London her home. It was in London, at the New British Gallery in Bond Street, that she made a brave and yet ultimately unfortunate decision; in 1871, Houghton decided to exhibit one hundred and fifty five of her spiritualist drawings at her own expense, using an inheritance of £300 (about £30,000 today). She nearly bankrupted herself in the process. The works on display at The Courtauld this summer have not been exhibited in Britain since that time, not since the nineteenth century.

The ‘Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings’ exhibition, at a cost of £9 to the average visitor, has been a resounding success. The press have discussed it quite intently, and floridly too, awarding it five stars and using words like ‘awe-inspiring (The Guardian) and claiming The Courtauld is ‘rewriting art history’ (Sunday Times). Likewise, Twitter has appeared kind and engaged with Houghton’s works, surprised by them even. During my own visit I went from being extremely disappointed that not more people were there enjoying the exhibition to smiling that quite a crowd had arrived by the time I left.

The Courtauld’s objectives are clear, and the curators (Simon Grant, Lars Bang Larsen and Marco Pasi) are intent on positioning Houghton as ‘a fascinating precursor of twentieth century abstract art’. I am sure she is and should and can be discussed in these terms, but isn’t that rather typical and perhaps even rather lazy thinking and criticism? What is this desire to position Victorian art as firmly related to Modernism? Why is it only acceptable to us in the twenty-first century, if we can see Victorian Art (and literature too) as belonging to us somehow? Why does the nineteenth century need to be related to our own for us to accept what came out of it, or to even bother to stop and look at objects from that time?

A cynic may say this is canny marketing and perhaps it is, although I think the PR desire to make history appeal and be accessible to us all, is driven by our desire for the Victorians to be like us, or at least seem to be like us. We desire to consume them, but in doing so have to first make them familiar and consumable.

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O’Keeffe, Music Pink and Blue II (1918)

If we view Houghton’s works through the lens of say someone like Georgia O’Keeffe (cue the big expo on at the Tate this autumn) she feels a little more like us, and a little less like, well, herself, or rather less like the Victorian spiritualist she was. But such an approach does Houghton an injustice doesn’t it? She certainly wasn’t like us in any way, and approaching her work as purely a precursor to abstract art misses and indeed negates the very heart of what drove Houghton’s work. It is hard to imagine a woman so belligerently dedicated to her work that she nearly bankrupted herself would relish our engagement with her work as being largely a form of early abstract art (however flattering we see that accomplishment as being). How would Houghton feel at our lack of engagement with (read blatant overlooking or at our most polite, a mere diminishing of) the hand of Titian, St. Luke, or the Lord Christ himself, for these were the people Houghton claimed she channelled through the production of her art.

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Hilma af Klint in her studio, Hamngatan, Stockholm

The Courtauld ‘Summer Showcase’ brief mentions Barnaby Wright’s view that Kandinsky and his predecessor, Hilma af Klint are part of Houghton’s lineage (Wright being The Courtauld’s Twentieth Century curator). “I think Houghton does count as being among the first abstract artists,” said Wright. “She is obviously earlier than Klint. If one is playing that race then she steals a march.”

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Biggest, No 2 1907

Klint, The Ten Biggest, No 2 (1907, Tate)

Of course, these hints to the modern day audience are essential to pitch a corpus of work which has been hidden from British eyes in the last hundred and fifty years, and one should not deny their accuracy. One can hardly blame The Courtauld for such posturing; it is this very repositioning of Houghton which the Sunday Times refers to as the ‘rewriting of art history’ and remains the dictate of The Courtauld’s ongoing and commendable Summer Showcase programme.

Some fifty paintings of Houghton’s are known to exist: thirty five of which have been in the care of the Victorian Spiritualist Union (VSU) of Melbourne, Australia since 1910, with an album of eight further works held by the College of Psychic Studies in London (this album is included in the exhibition). It is not known how many works she produced but in the 1871 exhibition, Houghton exhibited 155 works so there may well be many more out there in private collections or languishing in dusty draws somewhere. There are twenty one on display at The Courtauld.


Houghton, The Risen Lord (29th June, 1864, VSU)

Unlike the 2016 show, the 1871 exhibit was met with confusion by perplexed critics. The Era pronounced it to be ‘The most astonishing exhibition in London at the present moment’. The Daily News likened the works to ‘tangled threads of coloured wool’…that deserved ‘to be seen as the most extraordinary and instructive example of artistic aberration’. One critic wrote how ‘a visitor to the exhibition is alternatively occupied by sad and ludicrous images during the whole of his stay in this gallery of painful absurdities’, while another wrote of ‘the strange hallucinations of which the human mind may be capable… If we were to sum up the characteristics of the exhibition in a single phrase, we should pronounce it symbolism gone mad.’


Verso script

During the three month exhibition, which The Courtauld mirrors in time frame, Houghton would spend time discussing her works with visitors. Her attention to detail was important to her, down even to the date she produced each drawing and to their display: she hammered ‘in every nail with my own hands’ and had boys walk the streets with placards to advertise the show. She placed notices in specialist newspapers and printed a special catalogue for Queen Victoria, in pink satin and white calf, as well as the standard version in pink tinted paper and a brown cloth cover, a copy of which is in The Courtauld show.


‘Guiding’ was seemingly an intrinsic part of Houghton’s art practice, for both justification and production. Houghton described her brightly coloured watercolours as having been produced by the ‘guiding’ hand of spirit friends. These were no run of the mill spirits though, for they ranged from Titian to Correggio and the aforementioned St. Luke (the artist’s saint of choice) and Christ. But do not let that sway you, for Houghton was a serious woman, who sought to be taken seriously.

Houghton was formally trained as an artist, likely in France, and recorded herself as an artist in census records. She submitted works to the RA and to the Dudley Museum and Art Gallery, but her work was presumably too anachronistic for the palate of the day. At this time, viewers had only just adjusted to the likes of the Pre-Raphaelites, and were still in the process of accepting J.A.M Whistler and Claude Monet.


Houghton, Flower of Zilla Warren (31st August, 1861, VSU)

Houghton’s works were not about telling narratives, she intended them to ‘show what the Lord hath done for my soul’. Christianity was life affirming and art inspiring for Houghton, who embraced spiritualism after the loss of younger sister, Zilla, herself an artist (Houghton lost four of her nine siblings in total).

It was as a forty-five year old spinster that Houghton attended her first séance, in 1859, at the home of the medium Mrs Marshall, who was described in the press as ‘a short, fat woman with small eyes’. The séance reportedly went well, with Houghton hearing a sequence of knocks, as well as communication from Zilla on a subject about which no one else in the room could have known. It left her ‘filled with astonishment’ and set her on a journey, one encouraged by her mother, to become a medium.

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Spirit Photographs

Houghton began with table-tipping, where participants hold the table and wait for it to jerk suddenly, much like the séances Dante Gabriel Rossetti, J.A.M Whistler, and William Holman Hunt had also attended. Houghton then progressed to the planchette, which is a heart-shaped piece of wood, mounted on two wheels and with a hole for a pen, designed specifically for written contact with the spirits.

Spiritualism actually began with the Fox Sisters in New York in 1848, and although an American born movement, it arrived in Britain in 1852. Its primary claim was that the living could make contact with the dead, or vice versa. Many American mediums came across the Atlantic to set up shop in Britain and made their money by causing a stir and in some cases taking advantage of the bereaved (one could argue that in the case of Rossetti). Both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had participated in séances and been visited by psychics and mediums whilst he was still alive, and, George VI is said to have found a detailed record of a John Brown led séance in which Victoria attempted to contact Prince Albert, many years later (this was mentioned to his speech therapist, Lionel Logue).

Spirit photograph by Frederick Hudson (c.1872) depicting Georgiana Houghton, child and spirit

Hudson, Georgiana Houghton, child and spirit (c.1872, London College of Psychic Studies)

Spirit photographs, séances and excitable table-tipping stories all created a stir in London, and Houghton was part of the scene, for better or worse. After the financial damage caused by her exhibition, Houghton became associated with the fraudulent spirit photographer Frederick Hudson and sold reproductions of his photographs. In 1882, Houghton published Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye which included spirit and medium photographs from Hudson and others, although the images were criticised and considered easily rendered by fraudulent methods. Disregarding the well documented fraudsters, Houghton’s motives seem to have been honest (at least until her post-exhibition financial crisis) and she wrote in her autobiography that she believed her work with Hudson had been genuine (she appears in the background of two hundred and fifty odd photographic works of his).


Houghton, The Eye of the Lord (22nd September, 1866?, year partially obscured, VSU)

Houghton’s motives seem to have been intrinsically bound up within her own sincere Christianity. Her pursuit of spirit drawings came about after learning that one medium, Mrs. Wilkinson, produced drawings whilst in a trance. A mere two years after attending her first séance, Houghton, in 1861, produced the first of probably several hundred drawings which she described as being ‘without parallel in the world’. One only has to look at the works at The Courtauld, specifically the verso where possible, to get a feeling of Houghton’s sincerity.  In The Spectator, Simon Grant writes that ‘her Christian faith sustained her belief, not just in herself, but in her art’.


Houghton, The Eye of God (also The Eye of the Lord) (22nd September, 1866?, year partially obscured, VSU)

Houghton’s titles are often religious in form, e.g. The Eye of God (also The Eye of the Lord) (22nd September, 1866?, year partially obscured, VSU), The Sheltering Wing of the Most High (2nd October,1862, VSU) or Houghton, The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ (8th December, 1862, VSU) (the only figurative work in the display). The Eye of God (1st September, 1870, VSU) is a particularly interesting work which succinctly conveys Houghton’s belief, and art practice. On verso, seven archangels are listed as having contributed to the production of this pen and ink work. An inscription on the lower left identifies them as the ‘8th’ of Houghton’s believed hierarchy of ten angels (typically angels are ranked in three sets of three – from Cherubim to Angels).


Houghton, The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ (8th December, 1862, VSU)

Houghton considered her drawings a form of religious art and works like The Risen Lord (29th June, 1864) were specifically centred around the sufferings of Christ’s time here on earth (guided art pieces as they were). Despite the innate religiosity of the drawings, The Glory of the Lord (4th January, 1864, VSU) was described during the 1871 exhibition, as being reminiscent of Turner, a man whose relationship was at best rooted in a natural rather than spiritual theology. The News of the World described the work ‘as a canvas of Turner’s, over which troops of fairies have been meandering, dropping jewels as they went’. This beautiful description does justice to Houghton’s colours and forms but not to her religiosity. There were no fairies trooping, only angels and saints. It is comforting that The Courtauld displays the verso of some works, so that viewers can at least confront this intrinsically Christian aspect. How does one resolve her list of angels though?


Houghton, verso script listing angel names who were ‘guided’ Houghton during the production of The Eye of God (also The Eye of the Lord) (22nd September, 1866?, year partially obscured, VSU)

The angel names provided are obscure, and do not generally correspond to scripture: Misrael is presumably from the derivative of Michael, meaning ‘who is like God?’ but the other names and origins are not obvious. It is telling that these details were a deliberate means of Houghton authenticating her art production and practice. Angels traditionally inhabit the role of the ‘unveiler’, the messenger, so by choosing angels as her spirit guides Houghton immediately distances herself from her output and places it in the hands of the celestial spirit world. It is the message of the angels which Houghton conducts. Her annotations and the arrangement of her images with her automatic script are very much part of the sincerity of the works. It is also interesting to note, that despite The Courtauld attempting to focus visitors attention on modernist styles and forms, they presumably deliberately create a space where one must approach the ones in such a manner that one recalls the altar.


The Courtauld Display

Scripture by virtue of its medium is narrative, but one curious complexity of Houghton’s spirit drawings is their refusal to be narrative. They do not recall scripture in the same manner as didactic Ruskinian lectures, instead they summon light and dark and bodily and spiritual emotions. Houghton’s paintings are a quest which moves beyond the figurative, the allegorical or the narrative of much Victorian art, and in doing so demands and expects much more from its viewers.


Houghton, detail from The Risen Lord (29th June, 1864, VSU)

The tangled mess of the works is often jellyfish like, spongey, ethereal and liable to change with every look one casts in their direction. The forms morph and twist before your eyes and although at first you may see nothing but swirls and colours, you soon start to disappear into your own deeply personal, nay spiritual, reverie and harmony. The works are emotional because they communicate not with the dead, but beyond life and people: they are otherworldly, they are drawn from the angels, they are celestial. These paintings are not for the common mind, they are for the mind that is open, that is able to abstract and to think beyond this earthly sphere. Houghton’s art practice was clearly ‘different’ (who are we to judge it to have been ‘eccentric’?) from the typical art school type, but then, it wasn’t merely about art was it, it was about theology, religion, spiritualism, life, and death. The other name of death is, as Ruskin wrote, ‘separation’ and Houghton sought to close that gap of separation between this world and the next by opening new channels of thinking and communicating.

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Houghton, The Flower of Victoria Princess Royal of England (22nd April, 1864, VSU)

As well as producing monograms, there are also works which were described by Houghton as being ‘spirit flowers’. Her sister Zilla has a fine example in Flower of Zilla Warren (31st August, 1861, VSU) – note the date in relation to Houghton’s taking up of spiritualism, and the daughter of Queen Victoria as represented in The Flower of Victoria Princess Royal of England (22nd April, 1864, VSU). It is easy to become sceptical of such Royal flattery, but regardless of such modern twenty-first century cynicism, as far as I am aware Houghton always maintained she was merely the channel for the drawings rather than responsible as designer. God was the designer, the spirits were merely her friends in rendering and making visible God’s message, and we all had a spirit flower from the time we were born. There is at least consistency in Houghton’s thinking and output.  One visitor remarked upon Houghton’s capacity to maintain conversation whilst being engaged in drawing, but this was merely additional evidence for her role as conduit, as channel. Houghton was the Lord’s vessel.

If one was to describe the forms within her paintings one may flounder, and indeed many of the reviews seem to steer clear of really engaging with the look and feel of Houghton’s Spirit Drawings. Simon Grant offers one means of explaining the bafflement of critics: ‘nobody had a language to explain these odd-seeming images’. It is quite feasible that our language has become even less suitable for engaging with such spiritualist works, despite The Courtauld’s attempts at recapitulating them into the twentieth / twenty-first century in order that we may easily grasp their meaning. But these images are of their time, they are Victorian. Our world has become so secular, so rational, that the religious poetry of Houghton is not easily accessible to us. We have to stand and look at the peacock swirls, and bright sunlight daubs, the trailing forms of life and love, the energy within and without the paintings. We have to look and feel the close up intimacy of Houghton and her angels if we are to receive any of her artistic, let alone Christian energy. Can one walk away without engaging with the Christian spiritualist message of her works? Why, yes, of course. But that is not what Houghton would have wanted.


Houghton, Glory be to God (5th June, 1864, VSU)

It seems the most honourable and honest way to encounter these works is to at least acknowledge and receive the angels and saints and past masters whom Houghton clearly loved and admired, and sought artistic and personal spiritual guidance from. If we discount (at least whilst in the exhibition) Kandinsky, Klint, Mondrian and any other abstract artist you care to bring into the conversation, we have a hope of becoming a receiving conduit and vessel for Houghton’s highly emotional and spiritual works. I don’t think it matters if we aren’t all experts in Victorian spiritualism, but we do at least need to acknowledge the context these works spring from. Kandinsky can wait. O’Keeffe though? Now, I definitely think there is mileage in comparative analysis there…Perhaps Houghton was a nineteenth century O’Keeffe, full of flowers and light? Have a look at The Flower of Warrand Houghton (18th September, 1861) and see.

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Houghton, The Flower of Warrand Houghton (18th September, 1861, VSU)

Both O’Keeffe and Houghton clearly developed abstract languages of art born from organic forms in order to transcend the everyday realm of consciousness. Houghton used spiritualism, O’Keeffe the desert. Houghton’s automatic writing and trance like drawings are mesmerising and deserve more attention. Forget the big exhibition at the Tate for a moment and invest in some quality energising works by an artist whose reputation will continue to bloom after this sensitively arranged display.

You can access Houghton’s book, Chronicles of the photographs of spiritual beings and phenomena invisible to the material eye (London: E.W. Allen, 1882), here.

You can access Houghton’s autobiography, Evenings at home in spiritual séance (London: E.W. Allen, 1882), here.


Spirit Photography…




Consuming (the) Victorians: BAVS2016

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On reading the BAVS CfP for the 2016 Annual Conference of the British Association for Victorian Studies earlier this year (included below) my initial thoughts became rather reflective. I include it again below for you to re-read, to digest, to consume.

The Victorian age saw the emergence of ‘modern’ consumer culture: in urban life, commerce, literature, art, science and medicine, entertainment, the leisure and tourist industries. The expansion and proliferation of new mass markets and inessential goods opened up pleasurable and democratising forms of consumption while also raising anxieties about urban space, the collapse of social and gendered boundaries, the pollution of domestic and public life, the degeneration of the moral and social health of the nation. This conference is concerned with the complexity and diversity of Victorian consumer cultures and also seeks to consider our contemporary consumption of the Victorian/s.

After reading the CfP, I started to consider what ‘consuming’ as a word really meant: what was the core, the very definition and meaning of that word? Consuming. Consumed. Consumptive. Consumption. All of those connotations were instantly negative and pessimistic to my ear. The Oxford English Dictionary however, suggested ‘consuming’ was a positive adjective: meaning (of a feeling) completely filling one’s mind and attention; absorbing, e.g. ‘a consuming passion’.

This set my mind anew. Consuming…What better definition of an academic life, ‘a consuming passion’. Consuming: a subject that pervades both your waking and your sleeping hours. Consuming: what better means of identifying that which fills your time and your thoughts? Consuming. Consumed. Consumption. Isn’t this what researchers do? Trawling over archives and books and essays and the internet, pouring over single sentences and extracting and consuming each meaning and each word. Each phrase or idea slowly consumed and in turn transformed: implicit within the very act of ‘consuming’ is a transformation.

For each academic who embarks on a consuming project, there is a transformed academic at the end of the journey. For each project consumed, there are new ones waiting to be consumed. The process of consumption leaves us forever hungry and dissatisfied. Academics strive and academics thrive off of consumption, and in doing so embrace a type of intellectual anxiety.

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Rojas, La Miseria (1886)

The CfP made use of the word ‘anxiety’ although its focus was more directed toward consumer culture. But the type of consumption I research is not the Aubrey Beardsley deathly consumption, nor the anxiety filled mercantile one, it is instead an aesthetic one. The consumption I explore and partake in is visual, international, and travels across centuries.

Stanhope, Love and the Maiden (1877, MFA, San Francisco)

Reception and revival are key tenets of the images I consume as part of my research. I labour my hours upon tiny small details which are like visual conversations between artists across time. I consume the gentle bend of a foot painted in John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s, Love and the Maiden (1877, MFA, San Francisco), and I realise he too had also been a consumer: for when he admired the turn of Venus’ foot in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (1485, National Gallery) he knew it sought a new life, and out from the tiniest detail bursts a new one. The chain is long and the details small but the meaning is often great. Look, look right at Stanhope’s painting and see how Cupid draws back the roses for you to see Botticelli’s three graces dancing near the shore.

La Donna Della Finestra

Rossetti, La Donna della Finestra (1879, Harvard)

In order to fully understand one work, we must seek to consume all of its details, and then to search beyond it for more, for new meaning. We cannot merely look at Rossetti’s La Donna della Finestra (1879, Harvard) without acknowledging the time he must have spent consuming Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (1470 – 1480, V&A).

The often seemingly inconsequential details reveal latent messages of the history of art: the foot records one artists’ reception of another’s work, and the parapet recalls sales of the old masters on the contemporary art market. Buried beneath each small detail is a layered history of engagement, visual, literary, mercantile, historical and personal.

Rossetti purchased the painting from Christie’s for the relatively small sum of £20 in 1869. The work must have appealed to him because of its half-length arrangement which he had already been experimenting with in his own work and the act of owning the Botticelli seemed to propel Rossetti in a new and more intense ‘consuming passion’ for Botticelli’s work, and thus Rossetti began to repeat the various elements of the work, paying particular attention to the diaphanous over-gown, and the architectural framing of the figure.

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Botticelli, Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (1470 – 1480, V&A)

In purchasing Smeralda Bandinelli, Rossetti proliferated a greater consumption of Botticelli art, and in 1870, the year after Rossetti’s purchase, Walter Pater published ‘A Fragment on Sandro Botticelli’ which was the first full article on the artist whose name and reputation had suffered with neglect for some centuries. Artists, critics, buyers and patrons began to consume Botticelli’s name and work to such an extent that the critic Henry Horne described the interest as being a ‘peculiarly English cult of Botticelli…as odd and extravagant as any of our odd and extravagant time’.[1]

Sensitivity to this type of visual consumption creates a critical space where the subtleties and finer details of each work can be discussed. Understanding that a series of fresco styled paintings produced in 1906 have a heritage, not just from fifty years before their design but from three hundred and fifty years prior, means a light can be shone on the social, religious, artistic, and critical judgements being made by each ‘consumer’ in the chain.

In this manner, all research is an act of consumption. Rossetti himself became a different type of consumer through virtue of owning this painting, for in 1880 he sold Smeralda Bandinelli to the Anglo-Greek stockbroker Constantine Ionides.

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Photograph from an Ionides album, Smerelda Bandinelli on display in the collection of Ionides (circa 1900, V&A)

The type of paper I gave at BAVS2016 fitted not a Madame Bovary style consumption of fine silk dresses nor her consuming passion for love, instead it fitted the seemingly perpetual consumption by visual artists of the visual arts as described here.

A commission for the decoration of the ceiling of St. John’s Church in Hoxton, London was awarded to architectural decorators Christmas and Campbell Ltd. in the early 1900s and the resulting paintings are surprisingly Victorian in both look and theme, and yet if we are being literal and pedantic, they are ‘Edwardian’ not Victorian.

Unlike Stanhope’s consumption, there was no gentle turn of a Botticellian foot: instead there is a vast ceiling of angel wings and clouds and rainbows. On first sight, the decorative scheme is so gaudy and bright that one could not easily determine the presence of any cohesive aesthetic. But through the patient act of comparative analysis, precise Victorian influences began to reveal themselves within the cycle, and so the chain is further extended, link by link, cloud by cloud, wing-tip by wing-tip.

The paper I presented about these rainbow gilded angels sought to understand the purpose of these Edwardian religious paintings but also to present them as an Edwardian consumption of a Victorian aesthetic (one which is bound up with the Old (Italian) Masters). Through reference to the detail within the Book of Revelation and early Pre-Raphaelite paintings, it was suggested the paintings were part of a Victorian desire to construct a ‘New Jerusalem’: one which Campbell and Christmas achieved by harvesting images from their near past in order to create a comforting sense of Christian longevity. Matthew 13:39 offers insight into why the turn of the century mix of anxiety and desire for comfort resulted in a ceiling full of seemingly Victorian angels: ‘The harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels’.

Academics and artists are like angels, in as much as they harvest and they reap. They consume.


[1] Herbert P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, commonly called Sandro Botticelli, painter of Florence (London: Chiswick Press, Charles Whittingham and Sons, 1908), pg. xix