Victorian Sentimentality

This weekend, I went to Tate Britain to see a little exhibition called ‘Victorian Sentimentality’. While the exhibition was just one room, it contained some Victorian giants, and was also immensely thought-provoking. The exhibition notes suggest that at a time when so many aspects of Victorian art have been re-evaluated, a rethink is overdue of the ‘maligned and misunderstood phenomenon’ of Victorian sentimentality. This exhibition, which offers an overview of the ‘development of sentimental art’, attempts to make us reassess our views, and asks what it is which has turned modern critics and audiences off sentimentality – is it a kind of snobbery towards the populist; a distaste for the emotive; a fear of the hackneyed or clicheed, or a distrust towards art which attempts to manipulate the viewer? The first painting I saw was Landseer’s Dignity and Impudence (1839) (left), and I have to say that this is a really good example.  My first response to the painting is a kind of disapproval, almost disgust, and yet it’s well-painted, and I like dogs. But its sentimentality, which, like nostalgia, is viewed with deep suspicion by academe, puts me off. A copy of this painting used to hang in a nursing home I worked in; it represents a kind of classic ‘bad taste’. But what is wrong with it? A lot of it must be about a mistrust of the cliche. The title is also unhelpful, something which I noticed throughout the exhibition; it tries to transform a picture of two dogs into something higher, something human, even, and that seems rather – facile, or trite. Perhaps it is academic snobbery…

Onwards. Other pictures included here present different problems; for example, Andrew MacCallum’s 1885 Silvery Moments, Burnham Beeches, is actually quite a beautiful picture, which depicts a pictorial resistance to manmade destruction. My problem here is definitely the title; that is verging on the cheesy. Narrative painting with an emotional pull also seems to be too sentimental for modern tastes. Such paintings included Millais’s The Order of Release (1852-3), Abraham Solomon’s Waiting for the Verdict (1857) and Not Guilty (The Acquital) (1859) and Arthur Hughes, April Love (1855-6). These narrative paintings invite the viewer to fill in a back-story, and to respond in an emotional way, to take on the emotions of the figures depicted and to, perhaps, bond with the painting. This is perhaps more difficult for modern audiences. Many of these paintings also include what we would think of as cliches of emotive art: a dog, a baby, a bereavement, love, relief, etc.

Particularly sentimental, to my mind, is Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Broken Vows (1856) (right), which was exhibited with lines from Longfellow: ‘More hearts are breaking in this world of ours’. Not dissimilar in many ways to Hughes’s painting, in Broken Vows the painting itself seems a cliche, trite, skimming the surface, despite its apparent depiction of heartbreak. Another particularly interesting painting, I thought, was Walter Deverell’s A Pet (1853) (left), in which it is unclear whether the pet is the woman or the bird; and both are bounded in the painting, by the cage or the doorway. Such an idea, the woman as a caged bird, is certainly a cliche of Victorian studies now, but I am not sure whether that is sentimental; however, if we take the painting at face value – as a woman’s love for her pet – then it certainly is sentimental. Perhaps what lifts a work of art from the ‘merely’ sentimental is a certain depth, scope for further discussion, for alternative readings etc. This academic reading is much more difficult, of course, if we become ‘entangled’, as Roger Fry said, in the emotions of a work, such as Luke Fildes’s painting The Doctor (1891), depicting a night vigil beside a child, based on the death of Fildes’s own son. It is difficult not to be moved by the emotions of many of these paintings – particularly in the latter part of the exhibition, which featured many children – ill, dying, starving etc. These paintings may be sentimental, but they would also have served a social purpose; pulling on the heartstrings can make people open their wallets, or be moved to act for the good of the poor and needy.

Of course, these ‘sentimental’ paintings are rarely avant-garde; they tend to be well-executed but not particularly striking in artistic merit. But they were phenomenally popular, and perhaps our resistance to engaging with sentiment needs to be fully reassessed. The last image in the exhibition is one of the most striking: Watts’s painting Death Crowning Innocence (1886-7) (right), a painting full of symbolism, meant as a comfort to bereaved parents, but nonetheless an important and striking painting in its own right. Somehow, sentiment here seems rightly placed; the painting can engage viewers’ attention and emotions without seeming excessively clicheed. This is certainly the right painting to close the exhibition with. And at least there was no Bubbles – which was what I had most feared.

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Preview of “Desperate Romantics”

The BFI screened a preview of the BBC dram446_indexa Desperate Romantics earlier this week, with a discussion afterwards with the cast and writers. Based on the book of the same name by Franny Moyle, the series focuses on the dramatic lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The series, following on from the recent BBC4 programmes on the art of the PRB, is clearly designed to appeal to those who know nothing about the PRB as well as those who are already aficionados. It is encouraging, though, that the series aims to show how novel the PRB’s approach was (suggesting that they are “comparable to the punks a hundred years later”).

I wasn’t expecting to be particularly enthused by it, but actually, I rather enjoyed it. It’s loud and rollicking, with a script by Peter Bowker (Occupation, Blackpool) that is sometimes a little too concerned with quick-fire humour, but it certainly entertained me. There is evidently a desire behind the series to show the PRB as real people, not stuffy long-dead painters, and it certainly achieves that end. Sometimes it goes rather over the top, and of course salacious detail is prioritised, but in this first episode at least, the characters of Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais are appealing if a little exaggerated.

In the discussion after the screening, the writers, Peter Bowker and Franny Moyle, made it clear that it is the contemporary relevance and resonance of the story behind the PRB which they wanted to get across to the viewer; certainly they have presented it with a strong contemporary appeal, all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but personally I feel too much is made of trying to link the past with the present. Nonetheless, Moyle discussed the human elements of ambition and love which feature in the series, along with the group dynamic, which she feels gives it an appealing mythic quality. She wanted to “dust down” the academic perspective of the PRB and bring the intense emotions of the artists back to life. Ben Evans, the producer, added that it was the aspects of human nature – and the sex – which interested the BBC in it! The series has a dangerous appeal, he suggested, which is stronger than the average period drama.

Bowker explained that he wanted to get across the “laddishness” that Moyle had implied in her book, and commented that when writing Millais he had been thinking of David Blunkett – that is, a clean-living character who turns out to be having an unexpected affair! Rafe Spall explained that to a certain extent playing the members of the PRB presented the actors with a blank canvas, since we don’t know what their voices or mannerisms were like, and so the actors have worked hard at their interpretations. In Holman Hunt, Spall aimed to create a mixture of control and precision desperate_romantics_01with sex and violence, which provided an interesting challenge. Clearly Spall has done some considerable research on Hunt, and has grown to love his character. Amy Manson suggested that in portraying Elizabeth Siddal she had attempted to show the desire to achieve more than expected from life, as the milliner became a model. Certainly Manson looked the part, almost uncannily, and was sharp-tongued and blunt, perhaps intending to recreate Siddal as a very modern heroine, rather than the waif-victim she is sometimes portrayed as. Oh, and it was suggested that Barbara Windsor is a modern version of Annie Miller!

The issue of historical accuracy is bound to be one of the biggest questions that any programme like this raises, and Bowker admits that the passage of time permits more liberties with history than biopics of more recent subjects do. A number of direct quotations from Ruskin and others were used in this episode, although I was surprised that Dickens’ comments on Christ in the House of his Parents, which were published in Household Words, were here spoken at an exhibition, as was Ruskin’s reply which appeared in The Times. The biggest liberty taken, which concerns me more, is the invention of a narrator-character, Fred Walters; apparently this was because all the possible narrators – WM Rossetti, Fred Stephens, Walter Deverell – had such stories of their own that Bowker felt it would be best to minimise the part of the narrator by making him up. I’m not sure this was necessary, personally.

The programme also suggests that the PRB first exhibited their paintings together, in an exhibition that they put on themselves. This is patently untrue, though I can see how it works as a device, but of course many viewers won’t realise the liberties that have been taken with the truth. Still, if it leads people to a genuine interest in the PRB, perhaps it will be worth it. Best, I think, to try to suspend personal knowledge and concerns, and just enjoy it as a well-produced and entertaining show. It starts on BBC2 on July 21st at 9pm.