Introduction to Victoriana

VICTORIANA: ARTS, LETTERS, AND CURIOSITIES OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Hardcover, 160 pp (New York: Castle Imprint, 2019)
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“That after men might turn the page / And light on fancies true & sweet / And kindle with a loyal heat / To fair Victoria’s golden age”—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, To the Queen (draft), 1851.

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity in Britain. The transatlantic telegraph, Bessemer steel, modern sewage systems, and the first forays into analytical computing were all introduced during this time, when the British Empire governed a quarter of the globe. In the Anglosphere of the twenty-first century we have inherited the technologies of the nineteenth century but we have not inherited the culture that once contained them. The World Wars obliterated that culture. In the crisis of the early twentieth century the context in which the modern world had been developing was suddenly removed.

Was a different modernity possible? Something more romantic? Something more authentic? A future of dirigibles, telephones, Prussian and Russian monarchy on the Continent, railways (instead of motorways), heritage crafts, muscular Christianity, classical education, art and architecture that continued to develop within the Western vernacular not against it?

The Victorian period occupies a special place in our popular culture. Every year it is recreated on page, stage, and screen in pastiche. No other era is revisited with such regularity. What is it that fascinates us? I believe we see in the Victorian past a future that might have been. Or that might yet be. The Victorians were forced by the exigencies of history to find a balance between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and populism, community and individuality, the old and the new. These forces coexisted, if not always comfortably, then at least sympathetically and effectively. We have lost that balance. Sooner or later the exigencies of our own history will demand that we strike it again.

This book involves a cultural history of nineteenth-century Britain. I write “a” cultural history and not “the” cultural history because it is by no means exhaustive. The major figures in arts and letters are examined in detail: Charles Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelite painters particularly. But you will read nothing of Darwin, Marx, or Freud. And you will read rather more about Thomas De Quincey than you might in another book about the period. Insomuch as I have written a general introduction to Victorian arts and letters, I have also, necessarily, written a very personal one. I trust that you will encounter in these pages interesting people and works previously unfamiliar, and familiar ones from unexpected angles. If I am successful you will come any with a touchstone to that lost future that still fascinates us. What you will make of it (indeed, what we will make of it as a society) remains to be seen.

“A Vaster Empire Than Has Been”

The world’s first Christmas postage stamp was issued in Canada in 1898. It depicts the Mercator map with the territory of the British Empire in red. It is dated “XMAS 1898.” Along the bottom reads the motto, “We Hold a Vaster Empire Than Has Been.” Pictured above is a specimen from my small collection.

An apocryphal anecdote concerns the origin of the design. Michael O. Nowlan writes,

At the time, stamp designs for the colonial countries had to be approved by Queen Victoria. The story goes that a post office official in discussing the new Canadian stamp for the Imperial Penny Postage rate (two cents) with Her Majesty said the new stamp could serve as a tribute to the prince. The official was referring to the then-Prince of Wales whose birthday occurred on November 9, the original date selected to release the stamp.

Queen Victoria, who had her gruff moments, is said to have replied “Which prince?” in a tone that suggested she would not be pleased with a royal connection other than herself. The official quickly said “Why, madam, the Prince of Peace,” referring, of course, to the Christ child. As a result, the stamp when it was officially released on December 7, 1898, bore, not only Mercator’s map, but also the words “XMAS 1898”.

In fact the Prince of Wales had already appeared on postage stamps from Newfoundland and New Brunswick beginning in 1860 and continuing in circulation at least until the late 1880s. I think the anecdote (much repeated in philatelic circles) is a post-hoc explanation for why the Christmas message appears on a stamp that does not otherwise relate to the holiday. But Christmas postage designs as we know them today only appeared much later in the mid-twentieth century.

Victorian Wages

On Twitter, Dr Bob Nicholson posted this article from the Oct 20, 1883 edition of Tit-Bits magazine. It lists the income by occupation of a wide range of occupation in nineteenth century England “from the Queen down to Her Majesty’s meanest subjects.”

Victoriana

Victoriana1

My book Victoriana is available now from Castle Imprint. Via the publisher’s website:

Our latest title, Victoriana: Arts, Letters, and Curiosities of the Nineteenth Century, is currently on sale in hardcover at all major retailers including Amazon in the USAUK, and CanadaBarnes & Noble in the US; Blackwell’s in the UK; and independent booksellers everywhere.

From the jacket copy:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.

Victoriana2

Victoriana, Coming Soon

My second book, Victoriana, will be published later this month by Castle Imprint. The official release date is May 21. From the Castle Imprint website:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.

Queen Victoria on Film

The earliest footage of Queen Victoria was taken in 1896, which was arguably the most important year for the development of British cinema.

Scenes at Balmoral was filmed by William Edward Downey of the W & D Downey photographic studio on October 3rd of that year. It shows Queen Victoria riding in her pony carriage (with her Pomeranian dog, Turi) as other members of the royal family walk along side. These include her granddaughter Tsarina Alexandra, Tsar Nicholas II, her son the Duke of Connaught, and others.

The film was screened for Her Majesty at Windsor Castle on November 23rd, 1896.

Papers and Collections of Prince Albert to be Published for the First Time

PrinceAlbert

As I have written elsewhere, I am an ardent admirer of Prince Albert, the husband and consort of Queen Victoria. So I was excited to read that the Royal Collection Trust is in the process of digitizing an enormous collection of his letters, photographs, and papers (both official and private). A press release yesterday from the Royal Collection Trust announced The Prince Albert Digitisation Project:

An unparalleled collection of papers and primary materials belonging to Prince Albert is due to be published online by Royal Collection Trust over the next two years, transforming our knowledge of Queen Victoria’s consort.

The three-year Prince Albert Digitisation Project, scheduled for completion at the end of 2020, will make available on the Royal Collection Trust website some 23,500 items from the Royal Archives, Royal Collection and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.  This wide-ranging material, most of which has never been published before, will shed new light on Albert’s contribution as consort of Queen Victoria, unofficial Private Secretary, a guide and mentor to some of the greatest national projects of his day, university chancellor, art historian, collector and patron of art, architecture and design.  The first tranche will be published in the summer of 2019 to mark the bicentenary of Prince Albert’s birth.

The Prince Albert Digitisation Project is supported by Sir Hugh and Lady Stevenson in honour of the late Dame Anne Griffiths DCVO, former Librarian and Archivist to His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, and by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.  Royal Collection Trust is also partnering with the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, on a post-doctoral research fellowship, building on a previous collaboration to present Queen Victoria’s Journals online.

Prince Albert (1819–1861) was the second son of Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and Princess Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg.  He married Queen Victoria, his first cousin, in 1840.  The period of his active life in Britain saw a fundamental change in social welfare, university education, the structure of government and parliament, and in British relations with the rest of the world.  It witnessed the arrival of railways and fast transatlantic trade, the rise of trade unions, and the transformation of Britain into a world-class industrial economy and sea power.

The Prince Albert Digitisation Project will bring together official and private papers relating to Prince Albert from the Royal Archives and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851; material in the Royal Library, including catalogues of Prince Albert’s private library; inventories of paintings commissioned or collected by Albert; the Raphael Collection, the Prince’s study collection of more than 5,000 prints and photographs after the works of Raphael; and the significant body of early photography collected and commissioned by Prince Albert (more than 10,000 photographs).

Oliver Urquhart Irvine, The Librarian & Assistant Keeper of The Queen’s Archives, said, ‘The Prince Albert Digitisation Project will increase understanding of material held in the Royal Archives, Royal Collection and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and enable a comprehensive study of the life, work and legacy of Prince Albert on a scale that does justice to his contribution to 19th-century Britain and the world.  We are very grateful to Sir Hugh and Lady Stevenson for their support and look forward to working with our partners to create a resource which will transform academic and public access to this unparalleled collection, and will allow a fresh assessment of this influential man.’

Queen Victoria and the Arts

Franz_Xaver_Winterhalter_Family_of_Queen_Victoria
The Royal Family in 1846, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846

The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace hosted a superlative exhibition in 2010, entitled, Victoria & Albert: Art & Love. The exhibition brought together works commissioned and collected by the royal couple. To be in the midst of a collection so vast and personal was to be brought into a sort of rare proximity to Victoria and her age. Or so it felt to me when I toured the gallery. One of the revelations of this exhibition was the extent to which the royal couple not only encouraged but guided the development of British and European art in the nineteenth century.

Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were passionate in their patronage of the arts. The contemporary painter William Powell Frith observed that their “treatment of artists displayed a gracious kindness delightful to experience.” They both had substantial training in the field. Queen Victoria had received drawing lessons for almost ten years from Richard Westall, an RA famous for his portraits of Lord Byron. She subsequently learned oil and watercolor technique from the Scottish landscape painter William Leighton Leitch, with whom she studied for over twenty years.

For his own part, Prince Albert was among the best-educated patrons of his day. As explained in the curatorial notes for Art & Love, His Royal Highness

belonged to the first generation of students to hear lectures in the new discipline of Art History. Visiting Italy as a nineteen-year-old he had steeped himself in Renaissance painting and made contact with leading scholars, many of them German expatriates. Ludwig Gruner, an engraver from Dresden famous for his prints after Raphael, became the Prince’s artistic adviser in 1842. Gruner acquired for Prince Albert twenty-seven Italian pictures of the kind then known as ‘Primitives’…

The Prince was an avid collector of Medieval and Renaissance art, and a champion of modern practitioners of the style, including the painter William Dyce, to whom he awarded the commission to paint the interior of the Palace of Westminster. Frith’s daughter, Jane Ellen Panton, recalled that, “[Albert] honestly loved art for art’s sake, and…did more for artists than any king or prince ever did before or since.”

The royal couple often met artists and visited their studios in person, an unusual practice for royalty. They were known to offer frank critiques and even suggestions. Frith commented on their extensive knowledge. He was specifically impressed by Albert’s ability to discuss the composition, light, and shading of a painting. Frith afterwards followed some of Albert’s suggestions, as did the painter John Martin, who affirmed that they were thoughtful, valuable, and reflected well on the Prince’s understanding of art.

Victoria cannily worked with Franz Xaver Winterhalter and other court painters to portray the royal family in such a way as to reflect both the Queen’s political supremacy and the Prince’s authority as pater familias. From the same curatorial notes quoted above:

Queen Victoria was the first Queen Regnant, and Prince Albert the first male consort, since the early 1700s. This presented a challenge to portrait painters, since the conventions that had been appropriate for Victoria’s male predecessors no longer applied.

Winterhalter looked for inspiration to the Dutch and Flemish old masters, especially Van Dyck, but his Royal Family in 1846 was a brilliant and original response to the challenge. The viewer is left in no doubt that the Queen and her eldest son represent the royal line, while Prince Albert rules the family.

Winterhalter’s family picture quickly became famous through public exhibition and engraving.

It was not only the traditional arts which attracted royal attention and patronage. Prince Albert was interested in how art could be related to manufacturing, making practical items beautiful, and beautiful items available to a broader section of the public. He wanted to encourage the development of good taste even among those whose surroundings and possessions were primarily practical or commercial. The royal couple encouraged the development of electroplating and electroforming as well as ‘Parian ware,’ a type of porcelain made to imitate marble. They often allowed manufacturers to replicate items from the Royal Collection by these new methods.

In her catalogue, Passionate Patrons, Leah Kharibian writes that,

art played a key role in every aspect of their daily lives. As patrons and collectors their tastes were exceptionally wide-ranging, taking in all types of art from early Renaissance panel paintings to sculpture, furniture, jewellery, miniatures, watercolours and the new art of photography. As a couple they took a keen interest in the serious endeavors of cataloguing, conserving and displaying both their new acquisitions and the magnificent inheritance of the Royal Collection. But they enjoyed themselves immensely, too. A large proportion of their purchases were bought as gifts for each other – often as surprises. They took great delight in planning and participating in magnificent balls and fancy-dress parties, musical evenings and theatrical experiences.

Victoria went to the theater or opera on thirty-six occasions during her coronation year alone, and she and Albert were patrons of both. They held many formal dances, including three costume balls. The most famous of these was a Medieval-themed ball at Buckingham Palace in 1842 to benefit the silk weavers of Spitalfields. The royal couple received guests in the Throne Room, on a raised dais under an ornate Gothic canopy, dressed as King Edward III and his consort Queen Philippa of Hainault. Their splendid costumes were based on the real tomb effigies of their predecessors.

The design and decoration of the royal residences also engaged the Queen and Prince. They expanded Buckingham Palace, adding the east wing and the Renaissance-revival ballroom. In Scotland, they erected the current Balmoral Castle, which they decorated in a fanciful Scottish vernacular, with tartan and thistles. Prince Albert contributed to the design of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. This included a sculpture gallery and served as an important showcase for the art that they collected.

The death of Prince Albert in 1861, at the age of forty-two, was a shocking blow for the Queen personally, and for the country. He was in my opinion the greatest public servant that Britain has ever had. Queen Victoria remained in mourning until her own death in 1901. She continued to advance the artistic genres and artists that he had championed, and that together they had cultivated, for the rest of her reign.

Sources:

Jones, Kathryn. (2012) “‘To wed high art with mechanical skill’: Prince Albert and the industry of art,” in Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, Essays from a study day held at the National Gallery, https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/victoria-albert-art-love/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace/contents

Kharibian, Leah. (2010) Passionate Patrons: Victoria & Albert and the Arts. London: Royal Collection.

Marsden, Jonathan. (2010) Victoria & Albert: Art & Love. London: Royal Collection.

Remington, Vanessa. (2012)  “Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their relations with artists,” in Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, Essays from a study day held at the National Gallery, https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/victoria-albert-art-love/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace/contents

Victorian London on Film

Motion pictures were screened in London for the first time in 1896 at the Regent Street Cinema near Oxford Circus. The first audience consisted of fifty-four people who paid a shilling each to watch the short films of the Lumière brothers projected on a hand-cranked Cinématographe.

British inventors were quick to develop competing technologies in order to enter the new market. Robert W. Paul had already created a camera based on the Edison Kinetoscope in 1895. He finished work on a projector in February of 1896—incidentally, on the very same day that the Lumière films were first shown in England. Paul exhibited his “Theatrograph” at the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square in March then toured music halls across the country.

In need of motion pictures to exhibit, Paul and other early filmmakers turned their camera lenses on London. As a result significant footage of the city survives from the year 1896. Almost all of it consists of candid street scenes. The finest, I think, is Paul’s film of Blackfriars Bridge, which depicts with excellent clarity and immersive perspective, the horse-drawn carriages, carts, and omnibuses, pedestrians, and bicyclists, crossing the bridge.

The Lumières themselves filmed London in 1896. Their footage of Hyde Park Corner was shown at a command performance for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on November 23 of that year (according to British Pathé, who revived the film in theaters in the early 1930s).

The Lumières also filmed three young women dancing to the accompaniment of an organ grinder in Drury Lane for passersby. This was apparently something of a common public entertainment—or nuisance, as the case may be—in the 1890s. Roland-François Lack at The Cine-Tourist blog discovered a newspaper article reporting the arrest of such a performer the same year the film was made.

From Reynold’s Newspaper, March 19, 1896:

One of the prettiest sights in London are the dancing girls of the street. Many of these dance in a way that would not disgrace some of the performances on the stage. So popular has this daily sight in London become that it has occurred to some unprogressive organ-men to engage rather superior dancers dressed in appropriate costume. These naturally have attracted larger crowds than usual, and, as a consequence, the unprogressive police, while tolerating the dancing of children, have decided that the superior class of street performance cannot be tolerated by Scotland Yard. As a consequence, a pretty girl named Lydia Davis was brought up at Bow-street Police Court yesterday, and charged with creating an obstruction in Adelaide-street, Strand. “She danced, and was nicely dressed,” one of the police inspectors informed the Court. But these entertainments were too popular to be tolerated by the police. Mr Lushington [the judge] looked grave, but in the gentlest tone of voice discharged the “terrible criminal,” telling her she ought not to be so entertaining as to attract a crowd.

Lack does not suggest that the woman in the Lumière film is Lydia Davis, but writes, “Lydia Davis and the performers in the Lumière film belong together as a type of London street life in the 1890s.”

Film screenings became part of the regular programming in music halls and dedicated cinemas beginning at the turn of the century. The Regent Street Cinema, more than 120 years later, is still a working movie theater.

Sources:

Lack, Roland-François. (September 13, 2016) “Victorian street dancing (and other sensations),” The Cine-Tourist. https://www.thecinetourist.net/choses-vues—things-seen/victorian-street-dancing

Mast, Gerald  Katwin, Bruce. (2011) A Short History of the Movies. Upper Saddle River [NJ]: Pearson Education.

Ward, Victoria. (May 26, 2015) “‘Birthplace of British cinema’ reopens 120 years after showing its first film,” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11585227/Birthplace-of-British-cinema-reopens-120-years-after-showing-its-first-film.html