Victorians: Arts & Invention

The Victorian period was one of the richest and most creative in British history. An era of extraordinary individual and collective inventiveness – with developments ranging from photography to museums to new forms of light entertainment – it was also the great age of realism in art and literature.

Engraving of the Great Exhibition of 1851

Engraving of the Great Exhibition of 1851

THE GREAT EXHIBITION

Nowhere was the growing spirit of inventiveness, confidence and optimism better expressed than in the Great Exhibition of 1851. The brainchild of Prince Albert, held in the vast iron-and-glass Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, and attended by over six million people, it was the greatest ever display of creative manufacturing from Britain and around the world.

The invention of photography, showcased at the exhibition, was to have a profound effect on culture. It became a wildly popular way of seeing the world, and has in turn shaped our understanding of the Victorian age, the first to be recorded in this way.

Photograph c.1900 of one of the many 'fisher girls' at Great Yarmouth

A photograph of one of the many Scottish ‘fisher girls’ who went to Great Yarmouth in Norfolk every year to gut and pack huge quantities of herring. The invention of photography meant that the lives of ordinary people could be captured as never before.
© Great Yarmouth Museums

MORAL PURPOSE

The fundamental optimism and purposeful character of Victorian society were reflected in the popular idea that art should be ‘moral’. Successive Royal Academy shows were filled not only with landscapes and portraits, but also with ‘modern moral subjects’ and historical tales with a moral purpose.

New institutions like the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum), which had its origins in the Great Exhibition, and the Royal College of Art, embodied the widespread belief that standards of design could be improved through the study of the past.

LITERATURE

The seriousness of Victorian art was echoed in the social responsibility that suffused much of the literature of the period. Novelists set out to make sense of a society caught up in rapid change – and in so doing established the novel as the dominant literary form of the period.

Its popularity was evident in many ways, from the great realist narratives of George Eliot and the passionate tales of the Brontë sisters (all published under male pseudonyms) to Charles Dickens’s sensationally popular reading tours, which saw ladies fainting as Nancy was murdered in Oliver Twist.

Dickens also reflected the social implications of industrial revolution and urbanisation with increasing clarity, barbed satire and horror, as fiction reflected the wider political and intellectual preoccupations of the period. Thomas Hardy’s plots, in which his characters are at the mercy of their environment, echoed Charles Darwin’s explosive evolutionary theories.

The end of a period also marked by great women poets (including Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning) saw the development of genre fiction, such as the detective stories of Wilkie Collins and the science fiction of HG Wells.

Oliver asks for more

An illustration by George Cruikshank for the first edition of ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838), showing Oliver asking for a second helping of gruel. The second novel by Charles Dickens, ‘Oliver Twist’ is an early example of the social novel, exploring social evils such as child labour and the recruitment of children as criminals.

MUSIC HALL

The popularity of the arts in Victorian England is nowhere more apparent than in the music-hall culture that emerged in the 1850s, often working-class, and the origin of modern forms such as stand-up and revue. Its more genteel counterpart from the 1870s was the stratospherically successful light entertainment of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas.

Detail of the William Morris wallpaper in the manor house at Mount Grace Priory, North Yorkshire

Detail of the William Morris wallpaper that decorates the manor house at Mount Grace Priory, North Yorkshire. William Morris designed the wallpaper himself and it was made using the traditional techniques that characterised the Arts and Crafts movement.

REACTION

A reaction against establishment culture can be seen in later Victorian art forms. The second generation of the Pre-Raphaelites, led by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, rejected mass production in favour of a return to traditional techniques and craftsmanship. These ideals inspired the Arts and Crafts movement that emerged in the 1880s. Ironically, only the rich could afford their work.

Cosmopolitan influences were also being felt. In painting, Impressionism was spreading to England by the late 1870s. In the 1890s many were scandalised by Aubrey Beardsley’s erotic illustrations to literary works such as Oscar Wilde’s play Salome.

Though that play was refused a licence in England, Wilde’s satirical comedies ridiculing Victorian values were enormously popular – before his conviction for homosexual acts, imprisonment and exile.

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