Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860 25 February – 7 June
Sculpture Victorious 25 February – 25 May
With its fabulous permanent collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Tate Britain always has an embarrassment of riches to offer the Victorian enthusiast, but its latest exhibitions are a further inducement to make the trip to Millbank if you can. Salt and Silver provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of early Victorian photography, bringing together ninety rare salted paper photographs from the mid-nineteenth century. Just across the hall, Sculpture Victorious is an ambitious attempt to capture the range and richness of Victorian sculpture, with offerings from the beginning of the Victoria’s reign to the fin-de-siècle. From sensuous classically inspired nudes to a five-foot high porcelain peacock, this exhibition showcases the beautiful, bejewelled and sometimes frankly bizarre world of nineteenth-century sculpture.
Because its exhibits are very small and most entirely monochrome, Salt and Silver is an unpretentious, even understated exhibition, but if you have the patience to examine its displays carefully, it is full of surprises. For one thing, I must admit that before visiting, I had thought the daguerreotype was the only kind of photograph being produced in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, in parallel to the development of daguerreotype images in France, British scientists were pioneering the production of photographs on paper treated with silver salts. William Henry Fox Talbot exhibited the first such photograph in 1839, and over the next twenty years, a large number were produced, until salt paper prints were replaced by silver albumen negatives, which provided clearer (and cheaper) images. Perhaps the redundancy of the technology which produced these photographs is a part of their charm, as passing images captured in a medium which we know would itself soon pass into obsolescence.
Moreover, if salt paper prints are less clear than the shiny daguerreotypes from the same period, and less frequently seen now because they are so fragile, this collection shows that the method had strengths of its own. The images produced were subtler than those of the shiny daguerreotype, the matte finish giving a softer effect and a slight blurriness that could be turned to artistic advantage. In Talbot’s photograph of ‘The Great Elm at Lacock’, for example, the mottling of the sky that resulted from overexposure gives the picture a peculiar beauty, the solidity of the black tree in the foreground stark against a sky apparently patterned by cloud, the shifting and the solid brought together in one fragile photograph.
The portrait of Elizabeth Rigby, later Lady Eastlake (most famous now, perhaps, for her scathing review of Jane Eyre), is similarly distinguished by its mottled background and stark central image. This time, it is the pale face and dress of the subject and the statue on which she rests her hand which stand out against a seemingly cloudy backdrop. Her eyes slide away from the viewer; touchingly, the great lady seems shy. The Newhaven fisherwomen in the next photograph, gathered round a huge basket, provide a sharp contrast in their clothing, but also avert their eyes, unlike the fishermen in the photograph beside them, who strike a jaunty pose and look right out at you.
One of the surprises of the exhibition for me was that the rigidly formal portraits I had expected did not dominate; there are indeed photographs of eminent bewhiskered gentlemen gazing sternly at the camera, but there are also barefoot boys lolling against carts, sisters lying in long grass tickling one another’s faces with daisies, even a woman smiling confidingly at the camera as her friends (or daughters?) look at a doll. I longed to know more about the subjects of these appealing photographs; most intriguing of all was the woman standing in an army camp in the Crimean War, looking boldly out, half-smiling, dressed in a tight-fitting military-style jacket and trousers, with a short frilled skirt over the top. This smart, military-looking woman is a world away from the ragged camp follower or neat Nightingale nurse that the phrase ‘Crimean War’ had conjured up in my mind – but a little digging has revealed that such ‘Cantinières’, wives of non-Commissioned officers, were a regular part of French army life, supplying food and drink to soldiers.
From the stern cultural critic to the toiling fisherwomen, the capable-looking cantinière to the naked artists’ models – represented here by the voluptuous Marie-Christine Leroux, supposedly Puccini’s inspiration for the flirtatious character of Musetta in La Bohème –this relatively small collection offers a snapshot of the sheer range of Victorian women’s occupations and experiences, testifying to changing times in a new medium. Transience was clearly a major preoccupation of these early photographers, the blurring carriage wheels on a Parisian street and the railway line snaking past the Devonshire coast testifying to a culture on the move, going places, while the eerily still pictures of ancient ruins suggest the urge to stand still, to look backwards with admiration or regret. That is exactly the effect of this understated but absorbing exhibition, which encourages you to linger, to look again, to see what you don’t quite expect.
Sculpture Victorious could hardly be more different, and the two exhibitions therefore complement each other perfectly. Once you’ve had enough of careful contemplation, you can pop across the hall and there find yourself in a world as impressive and gaudy as the photographs are quietly engaging. There is nothing understated about Victorian sculpture: in this exhibition, visitors are confronted with diamond-encrusted medals, faux-medieval parures that drip amethysts the size of pigeon’s eggs, stately marble busts, an oversized silver trophy in honour of a jousting competition (of all things), and a life-size Queen Elizabeth I – again draped with jewels – playing chess with Philip of Spain, the pieces replaced by galleons, in case you missed the allegory.
As this summary suggests, many of the exhibits here are an affront to modern taste, and I loved them; where the photographs bring our Victorian ancestors incredibly close, this exhibition reminds us of the difference of Victorian tastes, the foreignness of the past. The withering reviews that the exhibition has received in the Guardian and the Telegraph – which convict the Victorians of terrible taste – suggest that the curators have taken a big risk in putting on an exhibition of such unfashionable work, but in my opinion, it more than pays off. The exhibition is by turns impressive, moving, and downright odd: you turn from the trophies of Empire, breathtaking in their opulence and arrogance, and find yourself facing ludicrously fancy wood-carvings treated to look like leather (why?), apparently shown in the Great Exhibition with the same pride as the gigantic porcelain peacock and the massive ceramic elephant. Whether you’re delighted, intrigued or amused, it’s a terrible waste to stomp round such an exhibition harrumphing at the fact that the Victorians weren’t modernists, when there is so much to enjoy in what the exhibition does showcase.
For one thing, it highlights the technical innovations of Victorian sculptors. In the first room, Francis Chantrey’s famous bust of the young Queen Victoria sits in front of the Alfred Gilbert bust made in commemoration of her Golden Jubilee, Gilbert’s depiction of her heavy-lidded, many-chinned, magnificently bejewelled but apparently rather grumpy old age offering a cruel contrast to the earlier work which is, as the caption claims, ‘surprisingly sensual’. But what is most interesting is the accompanying display illustrated exhibit about Benjamin Cheverton’s ‘Reducing Machine’, a contraption which enabled miniature ivory copies to be made of larger marble originals. The commercial possibilities of the invention can be seen in the Great Exhibition Room, which contains miniature versions of John Bell’s ‘Purity’ and ‘Voluptuousness’ (nude only in the interests of allegory, you understand), sold for £3 3s each, offered as a pair to the middle-class collector seeking to add an artistic touch to the parlour.
The marriage of technological innovation and Medievalist nostalgia is neatly illustrated by James Sherwood Westmacott’s statue of the Earl of Winchester, one of the barons of Magna Carta fame, on loan from the Houses of Parliament. Made to decorate the newly refurbished, Neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster, the pioneering technology of electroplating (treating zinc with copper) was used to avoid the expense of casting in bronze. The sculpture brings together the industrial know-how of Birmingham manufacturers and the mythmaking of Parliamentarians who wanted to see themselves as the inheritors of a uniquely glorious English past: it is a perfect symbol of the self-conception and self-contradiction of the Victorian elite.
It would be unfair to suggest that this exhibition is of interest only to the historically-minded. There is much to enjoy here on purely aesthetic grounds, from the lovely Burne-Jones reliefs to Leighton’s sinuous bronze nudes. But in some ways the most obviously beautiful exhibits are the least distinctive. Those in search of Classical nudes can see them at the British Museum any day of the week, but how often do you have the chance to examine a silver salt cellar depicting an armoured St George standing smugly on the head of a droopy-winged dragon, worked in ivory, metal and clay? Who would make something like that? The answer is, apparently Edward Onslow Ford. Why he might have made it is a question this exhibition begins to answer, in bringing together the artistic preoccupations and productions of a wonderfully varied and inventive period which remains, for all our apparent familiarity with its art and culture, capable of surprising us.
‘Representations of Victorian Women in Museums’, Lauren Padgett (http://blogs.tandf.co.uk/jvc/2015/03/06/representations-of-victorian-women-in-museums/)
‘Odd Objects from Victorian Britain: The Ceramic Lovefeast Mug’, Ruth Mason (http://blogs.tandf.co.uk/jvc/2015/02/12/odd-objects-from-victorian-britain-the-cermanic-lovefeast-mug/)
‘Victoriana: The Art of Revival’, Helen Goodman (http://blogs.tandf.co.uk/jvc/2013/11/08/victoriana-the-art-of-revival/)