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Not So Bitter Medicine
on 24 June 2015
Paxman is not an expert on Victorian paintings, of course, but he knows enough about them and is passionate enough about them to want to communicate their importance. This book was published in 2009 and accompanies his TV series, but is by no means a slavish repeat of his script for that series. (Note, however, that in Paxman’s generous acknowledgements at the end of the book he implies that much of the writing was done by Neil Hegarty.)
The book is illustrated with full colour reproductions, some double-paged. But they have white borders that diminish the power of their colouration. The reproductive quality is satisfactory but could be better, especially when looked at in detail with a magnifying glass. For example, I looked in vain for the comet streaking “silently across the sky” in William Dyce’s ‘Pegwell Bay’.
In his eight page introduction Paxman writes, “It has been the odd destiny of the Victorians to have created modern Britain, only for modern Britain to sneer and spit at them.” Despite changes in attitudes in recent times to the merits of Victorian literature, architecture, and engineering, Victorian art, argues Paxman, is still viewed “like a dose of bitter medicine … the military ones appear to glorify battles we know nothing of, the moral tales seem to be trying to indoctrinate values we discarded long ago, and many of the remainder appear cloyingly sentimental. And … lots of them are simply not very good.” Paxman aims to show us the stories behind those depicted in the painted scenes when bourgeois Britain was at its height.
On one level, the title of the first of the book’s five chapters – ‘The Mob in the Picture Gallery’ – is the story of the Victorian desire to build art galleries for the masses, but the chapter begins with a look at the crowded paintings of William Powell Frith such as ‘Ramsgate Sands’, ‘Derby Day’, and ‘The railway Station’. Paxman comments that the belief in a traditional class society, with everyone and everything it their place, collapsed in the face of these monster canvases – “Pictures like these celebrated a new social reality.”
Chapter two – ‘Thy Long Day’s Work’ – features portrayals of the poor and the working classes with Paxman arguing that Victorian artists took a while to get these right. Meanwhile, the third chapter – ‘The Angel in the House’ – looks at the truths and falsities of Victorian family life. The monarchy, capitalism, the army, and the empire are the subject of chapter four, entitled ‘A World of Wealth and Power’.
The final chapter is concerned with ‘A Land of Dreams’. Paxman writes, “Swift advances in astronomy and the earth sciences were revealing terribly new questions to the Victorians, and it was little wonder that, in the midst of this new universe, the industrial, imperial and cultural advances of their own society might suddenly seem to count for little. … The paintings of this period reflect these anxieties.” He makes some perceptive analyses here, for example that artists “classified rather than speculated”, reproducing the natural world in detail without “wondering what it represented.”
So why the chapter’s title? Well Paxman here uses this argument as a basis for exploring the Victorian artist’s desire to enter the Arthurian realm of medieval escapism, whilst the vogue for paintings of fairies represented “a fear – seldom articulated yet deeply felt – of the new medium of photography and its tyrannical exactitude.”
In conclusion, then, this book is more than a mere ride through the Victorian artist’s imagination and eye for detail, for there is much more of interest here. It is just a shame that opportunities were not taken by the publisher to produce a much more sumptuously illustrated tome that would add a ‘wow’ factor to back up Paxman’s claims for the glories of Victorian painting.