Review: Victorian Treasures at Walker Art Gallery

Victorian Treasures, Walker Art Gallery 2017. © Dave Jones
Victorian Treasures, Walker Art Gallery 2017. © Dave Jones

Victorian Treasures
Walker Art Gallery, 27th January – 7th May 2017

Words, Carol Emmas

Hot on the heels of the Waker Art Gallery’s recent exhibition., Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion, comes Victorian Treasures. A familiar feel, but in a different guise. However, this time around it concentrates more on the female figure than the previous exhibition.

On show are 60 works from National Museums Liverpool, originally bequeathed by Liverpool’s wealthiest merchants and industrialists who once had the works hanging in their homes. Victorian art was the showcase of the successful nouveau riche and gave birth to the beginnings of the middle-class label that announced they had ‘arrived’. Today, while our labels may be more about Mulberry than Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite depiction of the female is not so far removed from the covers of today’s Vogue, Elle or any other similar woman’s magazine.

This was the inception of airbrushing in order to perfect the female form. While Ruskin’s doctrine was; ‘believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth’  – the very first thing these artists did to the female was to remove the flaw and create perfected and sexualised bodies for the male gaze in the form of decoration. In fact, the only real females in this exhibition that do not exude a striking beauty and come-to-bed eyes are Frederick Sandys’, petulant and sulky Helen of Troy (1867) or Kate Greenaway‘s cutesy embodiments of innocence.

However, the vibrant colours used in the Pre-Raphaelite palette never fail to tempt our eyes to feast upon the sumptuous luxury and the painters’ vivid attention to detail. The artistic world we live in currently all but dismisses technical detail for preference of the abstract and the fleeting. Or, while we might revisit detail in the form of photo-realism, there is something that always seems removed or sterile about this technique; it may be technically brilliant, but does it have warmth and soul?

Two works of technical wizardry stood out in particular; Madeline After Prayer, Daniel Maclise (1868), which displays such intricate detail of lace on the subject’s dress. Likewise, the folds in the dress of The Black Brunswicker, John Everett Millais (1860), that shows every single last stitch on her glittering silver gown.

The most striking aspect of these paintings, is the women these artists tried to capture through their natural beauty are timeless. I’m sure we all know someone who looks vaguely, if not very tantalisingly similar today.

What strikes me about John Everett Millais – Spring (1859), and its group of fecund, innocent teenagers who are lazing on the grass chatting (probably about boys) is that they look so relaxed in such a contemporary way that I half expect to see one of the young women pull out a mobile phone and start texting.

January 27 – May 7. Free. 

Victorian Treasures has returned home after touring four major cities in Japan and has been viewed by over 150,000 visitors.