RECREATING THE PAST: British History and the Victorian Painter by Roy Strong

RECREATING THE PAST: British History and the Victorian Painter

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Roy Strong, director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, writes soberly and affectionately about a subject long derided by artists and historians: Victorian historical painting. The 20th century has found these paintings too literal, un-analytical, and vulgar, and Strong insists that this modernist bias distorts the past as much as did the biases of the Victorians. Instead of denigrating historical paintings, he says, we should learn to see them ""with a sense of awe and wonder"" at ""the confidence with which they evoke the visible past."" He elaborates on this theme with a short history of historical painting in England. Adopting the 18th-century idea that history teaches by example, British painters began to portray what Benjamin West called, ""those invaluable lessons of religion, love of country, and morality."" This tendentiousness did not induce neglect of fact but became allied with the emergent antiquarian interest in accurate detail. As the genre developed, its subject matter expanded from grand historical scenes to include domesticity, dress, portraiture, and the like. Then, in the 1870s, under the influence of scientific history and aesthetic criticism, historical painting died: the richly evoked past ceased to animate the popular mind. This outline is supplemented with short accounts of the most prominent painters (like West, Bonington, and Frith) and those who influenced them (like Delaroche), and of the most persistent historical themes, such as Cromwell and Mary Queen of Scots. If Strong does not convince us of the aesthetic merit of this kind of painting, he does allow us to see in it the deepest preoccupations of the Victorians, and thus contributes in a small way to the rising interest in pre-modernist art and culture.

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 1978
Publisher: Thames & Hudson/dist. by Norton