February 26, 2024

How to read a Victorian painting @GuildhallLib

Like everyone who discovers there is a talk about Victorian paintings on at the Guildhall library I rushed to the Guildhall library. Arriving with moments to spare I asked the man on the entrance desk if he could direct me to the talk.

‘The art talk?’ he clarified.

I nodded.

‘Have you booked?’


He shook his head.

‘You won’t get in. You’re supposed to book.’

This wasn’t good news. I had thought that a talk about Victorian paintings would be one of those things that never sells out.

‘It said no booking required,’ I said.

The man indicated to the left.

‘Go the enquiry desk. They’ll tell you if they have any places. They’ll probably turn you away.’

This wasn’t the welcome I had expected after my journey across London. I’d imagined it being very different. ‘You’re here for the lecture about Victorian art? Why, we thought no one would come. Jane! Someone’s turned up for the talk. Come in, would you like a cup of tea?’

I walked round the corner and saw the enquiry desk. Ahead of it was a glass-walled room full of people sitting and facing a white screen that said Every picture tells a story. If ever there was a room that was about to host a talk about narrative in Victorian painting, this was that room. There was a man on the door who looked like he’d be the one to turn me away. I walked over.

‘Are you here for the talk?’ he asked me.

I nodded. He pointed at a chair.

‘There’s a seat there. Last one.’

Thirty seconds after I had sat down Pete Smith stood up at the front of the 70-strong audience and How to read a Victorian painting was underway.

Victorian paintings don’t always get a good press. Words like sickly and moralising have been applied to them. Smith certainly showed examples which could have been so described, getting the audience to guess the titles of works that dripped with sentimentality. The guesses were pretty accurate. A man dressed in black. Holding a child. By a fresh grave…Motherless. 

The Victorian audience were more sophisticated than their 21st century descendants when it came to reading the narrative in paintings. (Although we can whip them at understanding televisual and cinematic tropes). Even so, it was easier for a painter to hitch his work to stories that the viewers could be expected to know. In those days that included poetry, the Bible and Shakespeare. Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents illustrated the Biblical, showing how every element was related to the story of Christ’s life, from the ladder in the background to the bowl of water carried by his cousin.

The explosion of Victorian genre painting can be traced to the simple fact that Victorian industrialists suddenly had plenty of cash but little artistic education. Commercially minded artists were on hand to give them what they wanted. Of course the best known Victorian art movement is the Pre-Raphaelites, who took things very seriously and saw the work of the magisterial Raphael as the place where art had lost its way. Oh to see their reactions to today’s contemporary art.

I didn’t expect funny voices in a lecture on Victorian painting, but Smith found room for them and the audience enjoyed his explanations of individual paintings and Victorian artistic tropes in general. For example, the colour red often signified carnality. We learned how the titles of pictures changed over time, to change the stories the viewer was supposed to perceive.

To read a Victorian painting you really need to have read every volume of Victorian sentimental poetry, know the Bible like an Arch-Bishop and Shakespeare as though you were an understudy for all the plays at the RSC. Once you’ve done that you shouldn’t have any problem working out what the artists are trying to say. Until you have that much knowledge, I recommend the simpler expedient of reading the label.

If you want to see Victorian painting in all its splendour, Tate Britain is the place for you.

More details of events at the Guildhall library

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