The Victorian era, from 1837 to 1901, marks out the reign of Queen Victoria. The British Empire was at its height and the Industrial Revolution was underway, giving the British nation an unprecedented period of prosperity and national confidence. The Victorian era saw a move from the rationalism of the Georgian period towards romanticism and mysticism in broader society. This was, of course, then reflected in the art of the period.
The decorative and visual arts of the Victorian period incorporated the revival of historic romantic styles with the Asian aesthetics that were becoming more prevalent because of the reach of the British Empire. They used these styles to explore ideas of the self, nature, life events, tragedy and emotions and other romantic ideals, like the role of art in, and the responsibility of the artist to, society.
John Everett Millais and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
John Everett Millais was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, one of the most influential British art groups of the Victorian era. The original group – Millais, D.G. Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, later joined by W.M. Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner – felt that art had become too stylized and untruthful since the early Renaissance, so they looked to a time before the emergence of Raphael to find inspiration for modern art. They started by painting the opposite of whatever the Royal Academy was teaching its students. If the academy taught students to paint with one major source of light, deep shadows and soft colors, the Pre-Raphaelites painted a brightly colored scene that was flooded with light.
Millais was arguably the best known of the group, though perhaps not the leader of the movement. He gained entry into the Royal Academy at the remarkable age of 11. It was there that he met Hunt and Rossetti and formed the Brotherhood. Initially his style was controversial. He painted Christ in the House of His Parents, which depicted Jesus and his family in their poorly furnished, untidy home. This caused a major outcry, as it was seen as vulgar in its depiction of the holy family as normal, poor people. After marrying his wife and starting a family, he began to paint in a less confrontational style. He was described as a sell-out by some, while others complimented his growth, citing an artistic connection to Whistler and other artists.
Joseph Paxton and Victorian architecture
Joseph Paxton is one of the best known Victorian architects, not least because he designed the famous Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition. Paxton fell into architecture: he started his career as a garden boy, and, after becoming the protégé of his employer, the Duke of Devonshire, moved into garden and eventually building designs. It was his experience designing greenhouses that inspired both the design of the Crystal Palace and his passion for incorporating steel into buildings.
It was the introduction of steel and other products resulting from the Industrial Revolution that allowed Victorian buildings to scale new heights and become more ornate than previous buildings. Victorians could create with metal and paint the ornamentations that previously could only be done by stonecutters and painters working meticulously. This led to a revival in elaborate styles, including Gothic Revival (typified by St Pancras station in London), Renaissance Revival (such as the Central Library in Edinburgh) and Romanesque Revival (seen in The Natural History Museum in London).
Julia Margaret Cameron and the rise of photography
Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta in 1815 and was likely introduced to the photographic process by her friend and renowned developer of photography Sir John Herschel. She immediately began working on the various aspects of creating photographs, from staging compositions to developing the film and assembling photo albums. It was not until she was 48, however, that she received her first camera. She quickly began experimenting with techniques, scratching negatives, printing from cracked or smudged negatives, and photographing things out of focus. These techniques were highly criticized by some, but she also was awarded with many prestigious honors, including a gold medal in 1866 in Berlin.
Although photography had been developed at the beginning of the 19th century, the processes of capturing and developing photographs were constantly being improved. Still, from the very beginning, photographers tried to advance photography as an art form, leading the first photographers to capture images that depicted religious icons, landscapes, contrasts in light and other typically artistic subjects.
The Great Exhibition
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was an international exhibition held in 1851. The first in a series of World’s Fairs, it was organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert to showcase the advancements of the time, and especially those of Great Britain. The exhibition’s aim was to ultimately show that Britain was the undisputed leader in the industrial age. Among the more than 13,000 displays were Mathew Brady’s daguerreotypes, Samuel Colt’s newest revolver, a precursor to the fax machine and a reaping machine from the United States.
The Crystal Palace was built to house the exhibition. Taking only nine months from concept to finished building, the glass and cast iron building covered 990,000 square feet and saw six million people come through its doors during the exhibition. The invention of cast plate glass, which was cheaper and stronger than other glass, allowed the structure to be completely clear. It was the most glass many of the visitors had ever seen, creating a dazzling impression that led to its name. After the exhibition closed, the palace was moved to Sydenham Hill, but was reconstructed in such a different way that it was almost unrecognizable as the home of the Great Exhibition. It continued to be used after the Victorian era, notably being the site of the Festival of Empire in 1911 which marked the coronation of George V. Soon, the costs of maintenance became too high, leading the building to fall into disrepair. Eventually, the building was destroyed by a fire in 1936.
The end of the Victorian era saw the introduction of aesthetic movements like the Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Anglo Japanese styles. All these artworks and new developments have had a lasting impact on British society, both in the art world and in the public world in general.