by Helen Goodman (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Emma Curry (Birkbeck, University of London)
EC: Reinventing the Victorian period in film and literature has become something of a trend in recent years, from the multiple new versions of Sherlock Holmes to Sarah Waters’s fantastic Neo-Victorian novels. In response to this repeated reimagining and reshaping, the Guildhall Art Gallery has put together a wonderful new collection of work inspired by the nineteenth century, entitled, appropriately, ‘Victoriana: The Art of Revival’. The exhibition, described by its curator Sonia Solicari as a ‘retrospective of a retrospective’, brings together the work of artists from the past twenty years who have been inspired to reimagine or subvert the traditional design tropes of the period. It is also truly one of the most brilliantly-curated collections I’ve ever seen, and confirmed for me how endlessly fascinating and inspiring Victorian culture can be.
As you step into this Neo-Victorian world, you’re almost instantly confronted by this brilliant mash-up between old and new in Amanda Scrivener and Thomas Willeford’s wonderful Steampunk-inspired bust, its distinctive goggles arrestingly subverting the classical tropes from the very beginning. As you move through the rest of the exhibition, these quirky touches and fantastic look-closer moments continue: one of my favourite pieces was Tessa Farmer’s wonderful Swarm (2004), a marble-white statue of a young woman, surrounded, as becomes clear when you move closer, by marauding flies, ants, bumblebees, and (look even closer!) tiny fairies. It’s a really striking piece which fascinatingly subverts classical ideals of femininity, and also calls to mind the Victorian obsession with the supernatural.
HG: When your eye rests on something which seems familiar, comfortable and ordinary, it isn’t for long. Having followed the swarming
insects downstairs, with tantalising glimpses of all the incredible pieces to come, an inviting red velvet armchair recalls the ideal domestic hearth setting. On closer inspection, however, there appear to be two stuffed fox encased in the back of the chair – easy to miss, but disturbing and impossible to un-see once you spot them. This is Miss Pokeno’s Trophy Chair (2009), which she describes as ‘armchair destructivism’. For the artist, who grew up in New Zealand, the chair confronts impressions of Victorian stuffiness and the strange allure of England. This is only one of a mind-boggling array of taxidermic quirks on display. Nothing typifies this stereotypical ‘stuffiness’ for long.
On the walls of the next room hang a woman with a squid instead of a face and another with octopus’ tentacles where one might hope to find legs. No such luck, and all the while, one is being peered at by a bewildering assortment of oversized butterflies, large pipes and tubes, all suspended just above one’s head. Specimen jars line shelves, like those of Barts Pathology Museum and other anatomy museums. In between the bottled brains sit disconcerting phrases, printed on slips of paper, claiming ‘I shot you while you watched’, ‘the dog sat very still’, and ‘I wish you weren’t here’. The scientific theme continues with Simon Venus’s Two Minds (2007) – a small mechanical theatre staging conflicts between science and nature, with the grinding machinery of industrialisation up against rose bushes and extinct birds surrounding a small phrenological head. Other interactive displays include pairs of carefully-shaped cogs forming gears to represent the workings of famous relationships: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Another piece by Amanda Scrivener advertises a Do it Yourself Lobotomy (2010), ‘designed to turn your brain OFF!’ — another terrifying prospect amidst this weird and wonderful dreamscape of an exhibition. You might need to pinch yourself to check that you’re awake.
Su Blackwell’s stunning installation, While You Were Sleeping (2004), provides a welcome breath of macabre-free fresh air. The perfectly-lit suspended Edwardian nightgown, reminiscent of Peter Pan, appears to be sending forth a swarm of butterflies (yes, more butterflies, but these are less ominous) upwards, as if to heaven. The piece is inspired by a Burmese legend about the soul butterfly or winlaik-pya. According to the tale, a sleeping person’s soul takes the shape of a butterfly and flies abroad while its owner is asleep, searching for the souls of other people and animals, before returning to the body before waking.
EC: I was also a huge fan of Chantal Powell’s Nightingale’s Nest (2013): a beautiful and whimsical installation designed to explore the Victorian preoccupation with ideals of childhood and femininity through the popularity of fairy tales. Hundreds of plaster cherubs lie sleeping on pillows in an entirely white, delicately-lit room, and this very excessiveness means that the representation of purity and sentimentality is almost aggressively overpowering. The piece is also scented with Spanish Jasmine, a popular nineteenth-century flower, again implying the cloying, suffocating nature of this rather sickly-sweet Victorian ideal. As with so much of this exhibition, this is a piece to spend time on: the details that emerge as you look more closely evoke and then subtly subvert the theme, distorting and reshaping Victorian tropes so that we see them anew.
HG: Following a nightmarish and alarming strobe-lit installation (to thoroughly shake you out of your Victorian comfort zone in case by
any chance you’ve managed to stay in there so far) and an onslaught of demands from the walls to ‘DRINK MORE GIN’ (which may seem a good idea as you head towards the exit), came another one of our favourites. A witty Victorian-themed illustrated alphabet informs us that ‘E is for experiments of a regrettable nature’, ‘F is for fallen women, and those who would pick them up’, ‘G is for gimlet eye’ and so on. ‘I is for indolently intrepid’, ‘N is for not cricket’ and ‘V’, amazingly, ‘is for voluptuous automaton’. But OF COURSE that is what V is for! Words fail me. You’ll just have to check out the illustration, plus the WEDDING CAKE MADE OF HUMAN HAIR (I kid you not) and all the other astonishing goodies for yourselves. Well worth it for £7 (or £5 for students). You have until the 8th of December!
Helen Goodman is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is writing her thesis on insanity and masculinity in English literature and culture, medical journalism and London lunatic asylums c. 1840-1890. You can follow her on Twitter: @HelenMGoodman
Emma Curry is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is researching Dickens’s representations of bodies, body parts and fashion accessories. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmmaLCurry