We revere the Victorians for many things, but their art, generally speaking, isn’t one of them. The energy and confidence that saw Britain’s power and influence at their zenith translated in the visual arts into a mania for illustrative historical detail, sentimental storytelling and overbearing moralising which leave us, at best, ambivalent today.
This show, however, takes a novel approach to this neglected area. Rather than jamming the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries together from floor-to-ceiling, as such art tends to be seen – and that is how the Victorians themselves liked to view it – the 60 works from across Liverpool Museums’ magnificent collections of 19th-century art, are given a more spacious, contemporary hang: on light-coloured walls with plenty of space around them. The paintings, for once, are allowed to breathe as independent works of art, rather than bits of historical clutter – and their strengths and weaknesses can be perceived with unforgiving clarity.
If Liverpool then was one of the world’s great mercantile cities, where the wealth that created these collections existed alongside horrific poverty and degradation, none of that is apparent in the paintings here. The initial impression is of a shallow romantic escapism. There’s an almost Harry Potteresque silliness to Arthur Hughes’s Sir Galahad – The Quest for the Holy Grail, with its doughty hero and trio of dewy angels, while the wild and rumpled heroine of John Everett Millais’s The Martyr of the Solway looks straight out of some 1930s magazine illustration.
Millais was, however, perhaps the best of the Pre-Raphaelites, and his A Dream of the Past: Sir Isembard at the Ford, remains an extraordinary painting. The first part of the title tells us pretty much exactly what the Victorians wanted from art, and this painting gives them that in spades: the elderly knight, carrying two children across the eponymous ford on his sturdy charger.
The not-so-young girl seated on his knee looks up at him with an expression of adoration that might raise eyebrows – to put it mildly – if such a work were created today. But it never, of course, would be: its mood of unambiguous sincerity is almost unimaginable from our perspective.
Edward Burne-Jones’s towering Sponsa di Libano feels awkwardly poised between extreme aesthetic conservativism and galloping modernity. A bride seen walking through a garden of lilies has the deathly-pale look characteristic of Burne-Jones’s women, as though beauty itself were somehow dangerous, while the wildly swirling drapery of the figures of the north and west winds cavorting above her looks positively futuristic.
The Victorians saw themselves as the cultural inheritors of ancient Greece and Rome, and many of the paintings here cater to a vogue for paintings evoking the domestic reality of the classical world. “Realistic”, though, they certainly aren’t. Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Tepidarium, with its naked woman on a fur rug, is a highly calculated piece of high-Victorian soft porn, and there’s a strangely waxy, embalmed quality to the female figures in the works of the most famous artist of the day, Lord Leighton.
In his Perseus and Andromeda, which brings the show to a resounding and rather preposterous climax, one of his ambiguous embodiments of desire poses almost coquettishly beneath the enwreathing form of a vast and repulsive dragon – no prizes for guessing what he represents.
Taken in tandem with the Walker’s main Pre-Raphaelite room, where the walls are packed with paintings in typical sumptuous Victorian fashion, this show makes for a highly atmospheric experience. While it would be hard to make huge claims for many of these painting as works of art, they provide compelling insights into a world that still affects ours in many ways, but which feels at heart hauntingly alien and remote.