Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Picture Gallery

I've been meaning to write this post for months now. I always have several on the "back burner." I can't remember when it was - months ago, anyway - the College opened up its Picture Gallery to the public for a day. The Picture Gallery is full of really wonderful Victorian paintings. We're never allowed in there, which I can sort of understand: you wouldn't want someone graffitti-ing "Gary woz ere"on your very valuable paintings, or running off with them (though I think someone would spot that - most of them are massive). It would be nice, though, if someone could come and guard the place once a week for a few hours so I could get to know the paintings by heart. There must be some other students who like them.

Apparently not, though. I went up that Sunday to see the paintings and, well, I'm always aware that I stand out a little. I don't mind that. I actually rather like it. But I felt as if I were visiting from another planet. Everyone was very posh and very old, except, that is, for the middle-class mummies and daddies dragging their bored teenagers around. All these elderly ladies in pearls, peering at a great, magnificent depiction of a Babylonian wife market, and saying, "Oh, yes, very nice." All very sedate. And there's me, in my full-length paisley coat and trailing purple scarf, feverishly scribbling notes, vaguely aware that I was muttering to myself as I did so, and trying not to gasp audibly when I saw something new. I was half in raptures, but half of me felt a bit... bizarre.

Anyway, that's neither here nor there, really. I looked the paintings up on Google Images for you, but the results were rather disappointing. I have got a few, though:

Briton Riviere - Sympathy, 1877

This is the College's "trademark" painting. It must be quite famous. We have postcards and posters and all sorts for sale. In fact, I've had a poster of it in my room all year. I don't think it's going up in the new house, though. I've kind of gone off it. I mean, yeah, it's very nice. It's cute. She's endearing, and it's interesting to wonder what she's thinking, as I always do with people in paintings. It's the dog that ruins it, I think. I mean, sympathetic, loyal little dog. It's so twee, such a cliche. Maybe it hadn't been done to death in those days.

J. Pettie - A State Secret, 1874

What a fantastic idea for a painting. This has really grown on me, especially since reading Ann Radcliffe's The Italian. There's something truly fascinating about ruthless, cruel Catholic clergy. They make the perfect villains. Perhaps because clergy are supposed to be the opposite, so our expectations and the social order are overturned. And you've got the added mystery that goes with Catholicism, the atmosphere created by the great buildings and the ceremony. The Inquisition, as well, is so scary. The idea of physical torture, dark, dank cells and corridors like the deepest, most primeval parts of the human mind, sadism, something inhuman about the inability or refusal to feel pity, wickedness disguised as righteousness, and the self-deceit that goes with that. I wish this image were close enough for me to see the clergyman's face. It's brilliantly done, the human forms and flames in the background, distant and indistinct enough to be nothing but a mural, flames which link so directly to the burning of the paper. Amazing.

Princess Elizabeth in Prison at St. James', 1879

What I like about this one is that you can almost see into her mind. The discarded books and papers are evidence that she tries to employ herself, to make the time go faster, but she cannot concentrate. She is just a little too pale, having a naturally fair complexion. She is healthy enough, but you can deduce if you look carefully that she's had no sunshine or fresh air in too long, and not enough sleep. There's a dread in her face. This painting is twinned with one of the two princes in the Tower, which you can see here.

Joshua Mann - The Cauld Blast, 1876

It's interesting... the Victorian sentimentality that comes through in so many of the paintings. It's the same sentimentality that Dickens is full of. Where did it come from, I wonder? Life has always been hard for the poor, so why the sudden heartache over it, the sudden romanticising? There have always been children, so why the sudden obsession with them? I vaguely remember, when we were studying Oliver Twist, the philosophical works we looked at, about childhood innocence and whatnot. Obviously these philosophical works got people thinking about childhood, but for me that doesn't quite explain the mania surrounding the Victorian child. Dickens had a passion, obviously. He was on a one-man mission.

Gosh, I wish I could do the Ritual and Society in C19th Fiction and Painting module next year. Unfortunately, because of the way the system works, choosing that option would have left me doing stuff I didn't particularly want to do for the rest of the English Literature half of this year's work. It wasn't quite worth it, to miss out on all the other stuff I want to do.


Harry said...

You might enjoy The Little Professor; a blog by someone who specialises in the Victorians and especially anti-Catholic writings.

Harry said...

I agree, btw, that the Victorians' sentimentality and high tolerance for tweeness is intriguing.

To make a horribly sweeping generalisation, they don't seem to have been inclined to introspection.

In fact they seem to have had a big blind spot when it comes to all sorts of aspects of what I would think of as good taste. Very much in the 'more is more' school of design. 'Good taste' can be pretty deadening in its own right, of course, but when you see all that Victorian majolica, or those narrative paintngs with titles like 'Home From The War' or 'Temptation Resisted', or the Albert Memorial, so much of it is actively ugly, as well as being irony-deficient.

I don't know whether it's possible to ascribe any cause or meaning to it beyond swings of fashion. It's tempting to try to link it to industrialisation or imperial power or something, but I wouldn't know where to start.

Bandersnatchi said...

Thanks for sharing the paintings. I also enjoyed your earlier posts of digital photos.
I note that you state Southampton / Egham as bases.
I lived in Egham for a year (teaching in Farnborough) and graduated from U of Southampton - family home in Bramble Hill, New Forest.
I'll look in on your blog some more. I look forward to your "thinkey" posts when you get around to it.


Mary Paddock said...

Thank you for taking me to the art gallery with you LP. I did so love the picture of you wandering through the crowd of "posh" people taking notes and talking to yourself.

I also enjoyed the paintings. Being me, I liked the first one the best.