Published: July 10, 2001
We are Amused:
By Marion Harris
LONDON, ENGLAND – Life and times in Victorian England, during Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901, is often referenced with puritanical stereotypes and images of prudish conservatism. In fact, as Paul Atterbury, curator of “The Victorian Vision,” currently at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, tells us, “The world of the Victorians relates to our world today more than most people imagine. Many of our modern day ideas about holidays, sexuality, entertainment, sport, leisure, science, and technology are Victorian in origin.”
The accepted figurehead of the period, Queen Victoria herself, was not the stern matriarch so often portrayed but a warm mother and grandmother who, until Prince Albert’s untimely death from typhoid fever in 1861, enjoyed life to the full. Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Victoria’s death, “The Victorian Vision” has been designed as a voyage through the world of the Victorians, inviting us to see them as they saw themselves and so reassess their lasting legacy.
Divided into five categories central to the Victorian view, Royalty; Society; Nature; The World; and New Technology, the exhibition takes us on a journey through these different areas, exploring both literally and metaphorically the sense of adventure, discovery, and imagination which powered the Victorian world.
Museum designer John Outram has theatrically installed the exhibit as a ship to reflect that image and show Britain’s position as an independent maritime nation generating wealth and power. Drawing inspiration from historical events and the totality of the Victorian world, the exhibit’s theme is how the Victorians shaped our lives today.
It is fitting that this symbolic engine room of Victorian life, with the five hubs illustrating the Victorians as the powerful, creative, progressive innovators and reformers that they were, sets sail from London’s famous V&A, one of three museums built in Kensington in the mid-Nineteenth Century for the enlightenment of the masses.
Throughout the Nineteenth Century, more than any preceding time in Britain, a contented home life was considered by royalty to be the key to national success. The royal section of the exhibit defines Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as leaders of taste and social change, helping to establish the concept of the family as the backbone of British society. A new sentimentality was offered to Britain with the royal passion for animals and their celebration of Christmas and other holidays.
The Victorians favored dogs – cats were regarded mainly as working animals – and as a result images of cats are relatively rare in Victorian painting. One of the better known, Ralph Hedley’s “Cat in a Cottage Window,” is shown along with other animal paintings, including Edwin Landseer’s famous portrait of Victoria’s favorite pet, Dash, a King Charles Spaniel. Animals really emerged as household pets during Victoria’s reign, when many new types of dogs were bred, with their popularity leading to the first Crufts dog show, which took place in London in 1886.
Continuing through the exhibit, John Outram’s ship-related design leads us through swing doors into steerage, where the section on society illustrates the Victorians’ changing views about life, children, family, work, sport, theatre, literature, and death. As Victorian Britain enjoyed more leisure time, public parks, gardens, theatres, music halls, zoos, and circuses flourished. The public shared and enjoyed a widespread curiosity about exotic destinations and strange creatures made familiar to them by newly accessible books and magazines.
A kaleidoscope of images of pastimes for children and adults highlights aspects of Victorian recreational activities, offering a brilliant insight into everyday Nineteenth Century life: the taxidermy kitten’s wedding in Cornwall’s Walter Pottery Museum of Curiosities; paintings of children playing at the seaside; Punch and Judy shows; depictions of newly popular sports such as cycling, cricket, and rugby; and, along with other childhood rdf_Descriptions, an exceptionally fine and unusually large Noah’s ark with hundreds of animals, insects, and birds reflects the commercialization of toys, games, and books as children emerged as consumers in their own right.
The children’s literary landmark Alice in Wonderland is, of course, included in “Victorian Visions,” and it could be seen again from a different perspective at London’s Sotheby’s at the beginning of June. The estate of the family of the real Alice, Alice Liddel Hargreaves, 1852-1934, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s original Alice’s Adventures Underground and its sequels, offered it for sale through the auction house, whose long history with Alice in Wonderland material dates from 1928 when they sold the original manuscript given to Alice by Lewis Carroll. At that time it reached $22,000, establishing a record for any literary manuscript.
This recent Alice sale, taking place in the very same Bond Street sale room as the 1928 auction, was as touching as it was expansive and, not unexpectedly, broke some new records of its own, although results on the whole were mixed. The collection, the largest and most significant of its kind, had been carefully preserved by Alice and her descendants for several generations. Comprising photographs, books, papers and personal rdf_Descriptions, it was keenly sought after by private collectors and museums.
A new auction record for a photograph by Lewis Carroll was set when his most celebrated study of Alice dressed as a beggar-maid sold for $250,000, triple its low estimate. An albumen print, this image was made in 1858 when Alice was just six years old. One of only 11 remaining letters from Carroll to Alice set another record when it sold for $125,000. Written in 1891, the poignant and evocative letter expresses how much he misses Alice in his later years.
The dedication copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground, specially bound and personally inscribed by its author “to her whose namesake one happy day inspired this story,” sold for $220,000, well under the estimate of $300/400,000. And the more personal rdf_Descriptions sold even more inconsistently: Alice’s wedding ring, estimated at $40/70,000, reached only $13,000, while biscuit tins and toffee tins found buyers at five times the estimate, selling for $9,000, and multiple lots of various editions of Carroll’s books in several languages collected by Alice for herself and her children ranged from $500 to $5,000.
Transporting ourselves, in every sense of the word, across London and back to “Victorian Visions,” the ship metaphor continues as a voyage to new cultures, illustrating the Victorian fascination with travel. Highlights from this view from abroad include a Japanese Samurai suit of armor given to Queen Victoria and a West African Yoruba carving of her. This strangely realistic wooden likeness of her highness was probably made for British travelers to Africa, telling us just how familiar her image was all over the world.
It was Queen Victoria’s belief that it was her duty, and the duty of her country, to share British civilization with the rest of the world. From the earliest days of her reign in the 1840s and throughout, she developed strong connections to foreign lands, especially India, from where she often handpicked her staff of servants and bodyguards.
Prompted by their queen’s example, travels to new and different cultures were enjoyed and meticulously recorded by the Victorians. Fascinated by distant lands and native peoples, they spent a great deal of time memorializing them in photographs and drawings. Children, for the first time, were made familiar with exotic cultures through globes, maps, illustrated books, and magic lantern slides; and compulsory education for all children between five and 12 years old is considered by many to be one of Queen Victoria’s greatest and most far-reaching achievements.
This pioneering spirit and thirst for exploration spawned inventions, while a growing grasp of new technology led to enormous expansion in both art and industry. Victoria’s reign saw many innovations, exemplified by the following “firsts”: first London to Birmingham railway; first underground railway; first divorce courts; first telephone; first discovery of x-rays; first inner tube for bicycles; first cricket match; first Christmas card; first penny postage; and along with other first timers, the first plain clothes detectives.
By the last days of Victoria’s reign and her death in January of 1901, her lasting legacy was clear. Britain was the world’s greatest ship building nation as well as a center of imperial power and commercial enterprise.
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