on 23 March 2010
I was firstly surprised to find this was almost novel-like in size - most unusual for this type of book, but actually means it's easy to carry around/read on the train etc! Nervertheless there are reproductions of the paintings dotted throughout so it's not all text. It's clear Paxman is really enthused by his subject, which is always important when approaching topics of this kind - the Victorians are so frequently written about, but this provides an enjoyable and unique angle. Definitely deserves to be widely read - shows that history can be understood not simply as a lists of dates and events, but by appreciating the works of the people of the age in the form of paintings (or indeed, works of literature) and how they felt about, and portrayed, the age in which they lived.
on 23 January 2013
I stumbled across this in a library while teaching Victorian poetry. I'm no historian or art critic, and had been developing my knowledge of this period. Great supplement to the ideas and concerns of poets like Christina Rossetti. Beautiful images of a wide range of paintings including pre-Raphaelites and John Martin - both of which I love and interesting narrative..
Beware, the paperback is a much smaller size: I bought it thinking I could save money and had to send it back - the images were far too small and you would need to break the spine to see them properly. If the price is an issue buy the hardback second hand. The hard back is twice the size o the paperback and bound nicely. Each page has one or more large image - some go across two pages. The book is presented as a series of discussions or comments on Victorian England as presented through the art of the day.
Chapter headings include: The Mob in the Picture Galley (images of contemporary society); Thy Long Days Work (art as a documentary of living conditions); The Angel in the House- (the representation of women in Victorian art); A World of Wealth and Power- (social class); A Land of dreams- (myth, fantasy, the imagination).
on 12 April 2009
Jeremy Paxman's The Victorians is stuffed with famous and obscure paintings,all documented by title,artist and gallery,below the work,making the book incredibly easy to read. No flicking around to see the subject! The written work is learned but fast-flowing,revealing Paxman's knowledge and liking for Victorian Art,pithy rather than maudling. His research is nationwide,with works often pulled from the industrial cities, whose wealth reflected the surges in Victorian life.
A well documented passion, from an "unlikely" source,
I did not see this series on the TV, not having one (I believe it is just a passing fad) but several colleagues mentioned it to me. Following the TV series, the author was repeatedly asked to deliver a book covering the same ground but did not have the time. In the end he was assisted by Neil Hegarty, whose name is only mentioned towards the end of the Acknowledgements, but deserves greater credit.
Victorian painting suffered for much of the 20th century, being considered less radical that their Impressionist and Post-Impressionist colleagues in France. It was seen as overly sentimental and, in the first half of that century, there were few buyers wishing to buy works by Victorian painters. It was not until the 1961 Pre-Raphaelite exhibition organised by Jeremy Maas that a reassessment began and, whilst paintings by less familiar artists can still be bought inexpensively, there is a strong market for works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Maddox Brown, Leighton, Alma-Tadema, G. F. Watts and their like.
In a series of somewhat opinionated, but very engaging chapters, Paxman (meaning Paxman and Hegarty)considers Victorian painting from the perspective of The Mob in the Picture Gallery, The Long Day's Work, The Angel in the House, A World of Wealth and Power, and A Land of Dreams. His great strength, compared to many art critics and writers, is that he moves back from concentrating on just the artist and provides a broader, social historic view of the artist in Victorian society. These chapters are illustrated by many coloured illustrations which are generally of high quality although the glossy paper tends to heighten the fiery reds and oranges, contemporary photographs, black and white drawings, prints and cartoons. The book ends with an Afterword, Suggestions for Further Reading and an Index.
In general the book links its illustrations and text very well, avoiding the frustration of reading comments on one page whilst having to hold another page open to see the illustration referred to. To me, it succeed as a book and did not read like something transferred from another medium.
In the Afterword, the author states that the pictures "show us what it must have been like to live in a rigidly structured society, to acknowledge an imperial destiny and to wrestle with doubt, to huddle in the snow waiting for admission to a night shelter" and it is certainly true that, during the 19th century, paintings were reproduced as relatively inexpensive etchings and prints to as to become available to a wider range of society, set public taste and expectation, stimulated art appreciation and, through genre paintings, support political and social campaigns.
At the beginning of the century, the people commissioning portraits and other genres were the landed gentry and the aristocracy, but as the Victorian era continued they were joined and, to a degree, replaced by self-made industrialists who were concerned to pass on a record of their importance and economic success. The vast majority of these were male, as were the artists, and it is no surprise to see so many ways in which naked or almost-naked women are able to be inserted into works without attracting public or religious disquiet.
I would recommend this book very much, especially to those with an existing interest in art. However, despite its age and limited number of coloured reproductions, I would also recommend Jeremy Maas's Victorian Painters which has a much stronger complementary, art history perspective. Inexplicably, this book does not feature in Paxman's Bibliography. Interestingly, Paxman does not include Sargent nor Whistler, which Maas does.