As some of you that read this blog will know, I also have a bit of a fetish for the eighteenth century. In both my degree and masters with the glorious Open University, I studied the art, architecture, literature, music and politics of eighteenth century Europe. I also make a delicious capezzoli di venere. Nom nom nom. Anyway, some of my favourite Victorian art is based on eighteenth century scenes, filled with massive dresses, heaving bosoms and marital entanglements. Hurrah all round!
|Rejected Addresses (1876) Charles Lidderdale|
No wonder the Victorians loved the Georgians; the century before got to indulge (and overindulge) in things that were frowned upon in the time of good Queen Vicky. Plus, the fabrics were wonderful and there was a sense of romance in the air at all times. Take our lady in the painting above. She's been well and truly snubbed by some bastard. You take some time to think, my darling, and you'll realise that he didn't deserve you and you are well out of that. Plus, with those hip pads you'd never fit through his gate.
|The Trysting Place (1878) Charles Lidderdale|
Here we are again, waiting for our beloved to turn up. Take my advice and give him 5 minutes, tops. If he doesn't turn up by then, he's just not into you. Have a bit of self respect, no matter how hot he is. I do wonder if a big silk dress is the ideal outfit for wandering around woodland looking for a good tryst. I hope she's wearing wellies underneath...
|A Tangle (1897) Francis Muschamp|
Of course, the Victorian idea of Georgian life wasn't just filled with bitter jiltings. There was plenty of lovely courtships too, including this charming pair who are having japes whilst winding some yarn. That is a patient man indeed and she should marry him immediately because any man who will sit still for that long is a keeper. Also, look how shiny his outfit is. I think she likes him as he got the chair on the furry rug. He's in there.
|Harmony (1879) Jean Carolus|
These three sisters all sing together beautifully and I'm sure will not be elbowing each other out of the way for the chap with the violin. Something the Victorians attribute to the Georgians is a love of music and there are many scenes of girls singing, dancing and generally being lovely and accomplished. Georgian women are the best.
|The Minuet (1892) Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes|
Everybody dance now! And start them young! Perhaps the Victorians thought Georgian women were far better behaved (which is optimistic of them), rather than those pesky suffragettes and women with their own thoughts. Look at those nice Georgian ladies, why can't you be more like them? They do dancing, waiting for feckless lovers, and sing a bit. That's proper girl business.
|The Rehersal (1886) Edmund Blair Leighton|
Is it just me or do neither of these two look particularly happy about playing the song? Often the Victorians took the opportunity to equate musical duets with lovers, but in the case of this unlikely pair, they don't look too thrilled.
|The Singing Lesson by Arturo Ricci|
Take The Singing Lesson by Arturo Ricci; that couple is definitely in love and singing something romantic to each other. In fact all of Ricci's Georgian paintings are a cavalcade of Rococo interiors packed with jolly, satin clad lovelies who are all filled with the romance of being strictly corsetted...
|Rococo Interior by Circle of Arturo Ricci|
For the Victorians who had rules and boundaries, the perceived freedom of the previous century seemed carefree and beautiful. The fact that there are some attractive manly ankles on show can't have hurt either. It was only when I watched Pride and Prejudice on the BBC that I learnt how men changed from knee breeches and stockings to boring trousers. Looking at the interior above it's all bright colours and smiles. Those Georgians are so jolly, but then it's all fun and games until someone cuts a king's head off. The French just ruined it for everyone, t'uh.
|The Picnic (no date) Edwin Blair Leighton|
See, this is far calmer and less likely to end in revolution. No-one gets regicidal with a cheese scone in their hand. Trust Blair Leighton to find the calm, sweet side of the previous century.
|Market Day (1900) Edmund Blair Leighton|
Artistically, he often gets left behind, but The Other Leighton carved a very decided path for himself with his warm paintings of innocent life. These two ladies are taking flowers to market and this handy chap is rowing them. Now, he might be their brother or he might have his eye on one of them. Maybe the narrative of this one is that the ladies are competing for the man with the muscly forearms and shortly there will be a discreet splash and only one lady will be left in the boat. However, the way Blair Leighton plays it is innocent and respectable.
|The Golden Train (1891) Edmund Blair Leighton|
There is a certain amount of fetishistic treatment of the clothing in these paintings. It's not like the Victorians didn't have beautiful clothing but maybe the impractical elements of the women's clothes emphasise desirable feminine helplessness. You won't be riding bicycles in that frock, let alone trying to get the vote or other such nonsense. If you have any sense, you will sit still and look pretty. Why would you want to do anything more in a dress that beautiful? Anyway, thinking gives you wrinkles. Sit still and enjoy your dress...
|The Clumsy Suitor by Francis Muschamp|
One thing that is a safe bet for a big-dressed lady is that true love will prevail, even if he is a tad uncoordinated. This poor chap is knocking everything over with his enormous sword (not a euphemism), much to the amusement of the young lady. She obviously likes a man with an unwieldy weapon. Moving on.
|Cut off with a Shilling (1885) Edmund Blair Leighton|
What the Victorians sought out in these paintings was obviously an idea of themselves. This is where they came from, their forefathers, the scandal-ridden, pleasure-loving dancers who transformed into a nation that defeated Napoleon and embraced the rules and boundaries of the Victorian age. In images like Cut off with a Shilling they show the caprices of the Georgians, but that scene could have come from any Dickens novel. The Georgian age might have also had the rosy glow that all previous ages tend to have - look at the way the Victorians are often shown to us, without the disease, prejudice and questionable hygiene that is no doubt true. To the Victorians, the previous age might have represented a more stable social order. If you were a nouveau riche type, buying a nice painting for your brand new house, then you would seek to align yourself with one of those rich Georgian men who had always been the ruling class, who had knowledge, money and power. The Victorian social order must have felt like shifting sands at time, with money raising people up or dumping them down, like a see-saw.
|The End of the Journey (c.1870) Philip Richard Morris|
When the Victorians paint other periods they are obviously talking about themselves. That is a quality they very much share with our modern times in that respect. I wonder if other periods were guilty of this? The people in the past are so glamorous, beautiful, romantic and brave. The women are gentle and waiting for your proposal, however long it might take. The men are courtly, suave, strong of arm and long of sword. By buying the art you buy into the ideals, the myth and say 'this is my world, this is how I want life to be'. It's no different to people liking period dramas now, wishing life could be that elegant and polite. History paintings have certain outcomes, we are the living proof of how things turned out. Maybe by looking back we are not facing our own paintings, our own lives that have far less certain outcomes. We can only hope that future generations look at us and find us beautiful.