Serena Trowbridge, Birmingham City University
Serena Trowbridge is Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University. Research interests include Victorian poetry and novels; nineteenth century cultures of faith; Pre-Raphaelitism and Gothic. She blogs at Culture and Anarchy and tweets @serena_t.
I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house,
Wherein at ease for aye to dwell. (Tennyson, The Palace of Art)
Lord Leighton’s art has, like the work of many of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, had a mixed reception in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Both his colourful, vivid style and his choice of subjects, often classical, both attracts and repels, and as a consequence critical reactions to his work vary from effusive praise to complete disgust. Both have been apparent in the reviews of the exhibition, ‘A Victorian Obsession’, at Leighton House Museum, Kensington, which opened in November and runs until March 29th, 2014. The works in the exhibition are drawn from the Pérez Simón collection: Juan Antonio Pérez Simón owns the largest private collection of art outside the UK, and this exhibition demonstrates his own ‘Victorian obsession’, with painting in the Pre-Raphaelite style, mostly highly decorative, and classical or literary themed. What makes this exhibition particularly interesting, of course, is its situation: ‘A Victorian Obsession’ has already run in Paris and Rome, but at Leighton’s house many of the paintings are coming home, for the first time in over a century, and are displayed in the artist’s house. Whatever one may think of the paintings, there is a distinctly poignant appeal to this.
Leighton’s house, then, is not just a setting for an exhibition. The house was restored in 2010 and now is as close as it can be to how Leighton planned it, and it’s a house to remember. Leighton received his training in Europe and travelled widely in the Middle East, and these international influences are plain in the Arab Hall, for example, a space of brilliant blues with a fountain and mosaics. The outward-looking, travel-obsessed nineteenth century, with its taste for the exotic, is apparent throughout the building (though combined with domestic furniture and other items), and Pérez Simón’s paintings seem perfectly at home here, in a house designed to display works of art of the period. The exhibition opening felt very much like one of the soirees which Leighton himself used to give, offering guests the chance to mingle and take in the beautiful surroundings. Though the exhibition guide indicates a loose theme for each room, the paintings are hung informally, allowing visitors to draw their own parallels.
The exhibition features paintings in the Pre-Raphaelite style by many familiar names, and some less so. The exhibition offers a range of literary subjects as well as some striking femmes fatale, such as Rossetti’s Venus Verticordia (1867-8) and Burne-Jones’s Fatima (1862). Other subjects include Pygmalion, Elaine the Maid of Astolat, and Enid and Geraint from Arthurian legend. For the Pre-Raphaelite painters, literature was hardly a lesser art than painting, and their work is entwined with literature, in the subjects and often in the narrative nature of their work, perhaps depicting a particular moment from a favourite poem. Myth is often where literature and legend collide, as well as a fertile ground for painters, and myth, whether ancient or more recent, Arthurian or Eastern, is shown here to be a favourite topic, alongside Alma-Tadema’s Roman everyday life, such as An Earthly Paradise(1891), in which a distinctly Victorian-looking mother and baby embrace in a Roman setting.
The paintings in the dining room provide, the guide tells me, ‘four distinct representations of women’, including the seductive-but-evil to the romantic-and-pure. Myth, particularly classical myth, of course, permits a distancing of the subject, making it more acceptable to paint nudes, for example. The mythic women in this exhibition, however, also offer the painters an opportunity to explore aspects of Victorian womanhood, and do not, on the whole, undermine the binary view of women as angel or seductress. Waterhouse’s beautiful painting The Crystal Ball (1902) shows a strong woman – quite a contrast to others in the exhibition, such as Leighton’s lightly-veiled nymph, Crenaia (1880), whose modestly downcast gaze belies her seductively-displayed form. Yet this shouldn’t be over-simplified: it’s not always a matter of the male gaze upon a woman who averts her eyes, as these paintings demonstrate: the woman may look away, but in many paintings, such as The Crystal Ball or Albert Moore’s A Bathing Place (1890), the woman withdraws herself by looking away, distracted by an object or her own thoughts, removing herself from a cycle of submission.
One can’t write about this exhibition without mentioning its piece de resistance, Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus(1888). This huge painting depicts the emperor Heliogabalus suffocating guests beneath a torrent of rose petals – an image which is decadent both in its subject and in its rich, static surface – even the action of the picture (the rose petals in the air) seems still, posed for the viewer’s gaze, and the faces of the figures are almost expressionless. This is Decadence in art with a capital letter; it is art for art’s sake, asking us to appreciate its beauty without worrying too much about the meaning, perhaps. This is a very late-Victorian concept: that art is somehow good for us, good for the soul, even educative, despite its emphasis on surface and appearance. The fact that we can take pleasure in a painting which is about a very decadent method of death is perhaps a reminder of the sly barbs of late nineteenth century wit: we are ready to see beauty in the painting, and we see that before we see death and cruelty. When we do see it, and realise we have been duped, perhaps that is in itself an educative experience.
What really struck me as I looked round the rooms is that the overall effect of the house and the paintings on display is the lens or filter that Victorian culture provided. Few of the paintings are of contemporary Victorian subjects; rather, there are myths – Eastern, Arthurian, classical – which are refigured through the nineteenth century painters’ gaze. The preoccupation with history, with narrative, with heroes and heroines, is created here by a range of artists in a very Victorian manner: despite the apparently ‘timeless’ subject matter, you wouldn’t mistake these for anything other than Pre-Raphaelite style Victorian paintings. The draperies may be artfully ‘historical’, but they are nevertheless dated by the period in which they were painted; the style of the figures and faces, the backgrounds, even the poses, are those of Pre-Raphaelitism, not of antiquity. Whatever one may think of the paintings, the insight that this offers into the aesthetics and social mores of nineteenth century thought is invaluable.