‘An artist may now without fear of presumption may speak of “The English School,” a school rich in fine works, whose painters are remarkable for the national character, as well as for the individual originality, of their genius’.1 The preface to Richard and Samuel Redgrave’s A Century of Painters of the English School (1866) demonstrates just how hard English commentators worked to create an identity for English art in the nineteenth century. A country that could not match its expanding commercial and political power with cultural achievements could be characterized as ‘philistine’ and the quality of artistic production was widely understood as an indicator of national progress. But just what might ‘national character’ mean and how might the ‘originality’ and ‘genius’ or artists benefit the nation? Lucy Hartley’s Democratising Beauty in Nineteenth-Century Britain demonstrates just how complex and contentious these issues could be. Two events frame the narrative, the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834 and the opening of the National Gallery of British Art in 1897 but the book is preoccupied with the development of art history rather than the evolution of art institutions. The professionalization of art criticism is a marked feature of Victorian England. Specialist critics emerged to mediate between the growing audiences for art and the expanding cultural infrastructure represented by museums, galleries and exhibitions. All the critics discussed in this book believed that art could be beneficial for the public but they did not all agree on what the benefits of art were and how they could be maximized. Three could be characterized as full-time art critics – John Ruskin, Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds spent most of their working lives writing about art – while the others were primarily creative practitioners: Charles Eastlake and Edward Poynter as academic painters and William Morris as designer and poet. The argument proposes that the eighteenth-century concept of ‘virtue’ was replaced with ideas that clustered around the term ‘interest’ within nineteenth-century deliberations on the arts. Stated another way, public good became less of an issue in the face of a sustained examination of how self-interest might be positively aligned to the arts. With the growth of democracy, the concept of self-interest became the pervasive subject of scrutiny and raised the question of what this meant for the arts: ‘could the self-interested pursuit of the pleasures of beauty establish the moral and political norms that enable democratic society to flourish?’(12). The interiors of the Houses of Parliament presented an opportunity to promote the national interests of art, explored in this book through Charles Eastlake’s role on the Royal Commission established to advise on art for the building. Hartley skilfully demonstrates the inherent contradictions within the ensuing debate: public art was seen as a way of simultaneously promoting both the universal values of art and the interests of the nation, a strange mixture of the ideal and the specific. She shows how Eastlake’s admiration for recent German art (especially the Nazarenes and the patronage of Ludwig I of Bavaria and Frederick William III of Prussia) proved to be too controversial to sway an English art establishment dedicated to Italianate art. Hartley’s argument is interesting in relation to Ruskin as it seeks to explain the changes of opinion so evident within Modern Painters. Through promoting landscape painting within the aesthetic hierarchy and encouraging popular access to art, he sought new ways of looking at beauty that had social and political ramifications: ‘Ruskin summons new publics for art through an appeal to enlightened interest, which seeks to shape the identities of the judging public and motivate them to act on behalf of art’ (67). She articulates a series of intriguing contradictions within Ruskin’s thought, many of them revolving around his admiration for Romantic subjectivity and how it clashed with the public morality of mid-Victorian England. Ruskin’s optimism for the influence of art was grounded in the belief that appropriate engagement with specific aesthetic forms would enable ‘the replacement of self-interest with a thoroughgoing concern for the collective good’ (108). Walter Pater did not accept the necessity of deferring gratification that was so necessary for Ruskin’s critical position. For him, experiencing the pleasure stimulated by beauty was central to the value of art. Reading Classical art through Winckelmann, Pater believed that the Hellenistic ideal involved a dismissal of a practical view of things which, for Hartley, amounts to a form of self-interest. An interesting section on the appropriation of Wordsworth for the aesthetic canon explains why poetry was not inherently moralistic: ‘Wordsworth’s poetry does not prescribe how to live but instead describes how to experience life’ (136). Pater’s Oxford rival, John Addington Symonds, was fascinated by the centrality of the arts in the renaissance: ‘From the Pope upon S. Peter’s chair to the clerks in a Florentine counting-house, every Italian was a judge of art’ (203). Hartley resists the idea that Symonds was a theorist in favour of concentrating on his belief in art as a way of achieving intellectual freedom. She shows how Symonds believed that Renaissance art transcended both Christian and pagan religion and was characterized by a pure devotion to beauty. Edward Poynter and William Morris are paired (perhaps a little tenuously) through their common preoccupation with the body. While Poynter advocated life drawing as the basis of art training (the ‘body aesthetic’), Morris believed in working bodies as the source of artistic labour that would lead to social and political transformation. Poynter is represented as an academic aesthete who both relied on and refuted his predecessors. While Ruskin was dismayed by the fleshiness and contortions of Michelangelo’s figures, Poynter proposed the active male nude as an expression of ‘universal life’ (166). Morris’s deconstruction of the cult of genius signalled a sustained critique of elitism and the bourgeois art establishment in favour of a populist participatory approach that relocated art within the domestic sphere. In marked contrast to the other writers, the category of fine art was an unwelcome product of commerce and capitalist activity: a ‘sham art, intended to satisfy the commercial middle class at the expense of the people’ (186). The focus on art criticism in this book creates a tension between visual and literary analysis common to studies of this kind, as the reader inevitably becomes interested in the artworks described as well as the critique. Illustrations present the reader with a series of Classical, Renaissance and nineteenth-century artworks but analysis of the visual sources is limited. This is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of a focussed monograph but readers may find themselves wanting to know more about how Eastlake, Morris and Poynter materialized their theoretical ideas within their creative practice. This book is both broad and narrow: the debate spans most of the Victorian period but the frame of reference is tight, as the author concentrates in a disciplined way on what specific texts say about her argument. The result is a study that benefits from the clarity of its argument but at times feels like a highly selective survey of a wide range of primary sources. Hartley works hard to pull the reader through dense and abstract source material, her regular pithy summaries are valuable and stimulating. Art is a very broad term in this book. Academic painting, site-specific public art, sculpture, poetry and historic periods from Ancient Greece to the late nineteenth century are all collected under the same banner. Eclectic critics such as Pater and Symonds certainly used sources in this way but this differentiates them from writers like Ruskin, Eastlake and Poynter who wrote in a much more specific sense about visual art. The fact that Pater and Symonds drew heavily on poetry suggests that their idea of ‘art’ was an expansive cultural concept. Morris’s political stance and approach to art was so different that he sits strangely with the other writers and it is questionable whether he was really participating in the same debate as Pater and Symonds. There is much to admire in this book beyond the core argument. The author’s discussion of Victorian intellectual responses to the Italian Renaissance is excellent and leaves the reader with a fascinating sense of the historiography of nineteenth-century aesthetics. While engaging with canonical authors, Hartley avoids the obvious dichotomies such as moral versus immoral and political versus apolitical and Pater and Symonds emerge as complex ethical authors who propose original frameworks for artistic interpretation. With a subject of this complexity the conclusions are necessarily equivocal but Hartley’s sustained examination of competing approaches to beauty is rewarding and full of insight. This book makes the significance of an important debate visible and much could be gained by studying Victorian art and its institutions through the same frame of reference. Footnotes 1 Richard and Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters of the English School (London: Smith Elder and Co., 1866), I, p. xiii. © 2018 Leeds Trinity University This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Victorian Culture – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 20, 2018
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