The Victorians lie in the subconscious of Londoners, literally and figuratively. Literally, the major engineering works of the Victorians still define the city in terms of sewers and train lines. Figuratively, images from Dickens and Conan-Doyle still define the symbolic power of London.
This Spring there have been two exhibitions examining the Great Men, the Victorian sages of London.
Famous as the friend and fellow traveller of William Morris, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ work is resplendent of the gaudy Victorian Neo-gothic medievalism of Pugin and Sir George Gilbert-Scott. For both Morris and Burne-Jones the medieval meant a return to a better time before the exploitation of workers under industrial capitalism. It is a flawed vision, but one that is still understandable. It was shared across class boundaries in the UK.
At the same time Burne-Jones was inspired by classicism. He was not a trained artist in the traditional way. Rather he was educated at Oxford, where he studied theology.
His paintings capture something of the etherealness of medieval myth with his fondness for soft eyed, full lipped and long necked beauties, which he shared with other pre-Raphelite artists. Yet if you look closely at the flowing medieval robes of his figures, they all point back to the Parthenon Marbles prised off the Parthenon by Lord Elgin and put on show in London at the British Museum. At its most obvious he lifts entire scenes from the Parthenon as in his Perseus series, but the shapes of Phidias persist throughout his work.
A fine painter who took on many influences and transcended them to create his own style, which depending on your taste is either exquisite or quaint. The Tate’s recent retrospective did the artist justice.
Ruskin was a major influence on Victorian art. He promoted Turner and the Pre-Raphelites. His books on art and architecture created new ways of seeing. He was also a major influence on early twentieth century socialists.
He was also drawn to Gothic architecture. He particularly liked to see vegetation grow in the cracks of stone. He called it the “living weed ornament”.
Like Burnets-Jones and William Morris, Ruskin saw in the medieval a more equal society in which craftsmanship and art were valued over the profit motive. Ruskin called himself the “reddest of the reds and a true blue”. (In Britain red symbolises the left and blue the right).
Alongside the medieval period, he also saw in Venice a society perfectly matched between hierarchy and equality. Venice is a strange city. A meeting place of East and West. The glory of St Marks, hinting at Constantinople and beyond, Samarkand and Taxila.
Much of the objets on show come from Sheffield, where Ruskin set up a museum frequented by working people. It includes paintings of flowers and birds, rock samples and pages from manuscripts. It is a brilliant insight into the mind of John Ruskin and the consciousness of an age.