This autumn one of the biggest Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions ever seen is being assembled at Tate Britain before heading to Washington and Tokyo. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it all before, but I’ll still go. Why does this era continue to fascinate?
First, for many of us it’s tangibly only just out of reach. My grandmother was a proper Victorian, keeping a silent, aspidistra-filled house free of all activities except ‘improving’ reading on Sunday, and I feel the late Victorian mentality is a shadow that will always touch me. Our houses and streets and public buildings are mainly still Victorian.
Jan* Morris’s ‘Pax Britannia’ trilogy brilliantly captures the intentions of the Victorian empire, how its roots surprisingly lay in improvement, fairness and universal equality, how it became corrupted by aggressive Christian intrusion and the desire to reform belief. All kinds of capitalist disasters occurred along the way. British textile manufacturers learned the techniques of Indian dyeing so well that they destroyed the Indian cotton industry. And yet to go to India now is the closest experience you can have to stepping into a largely still revered Victorian past. Even the language you hear feels like the conversation of your great-grandparents.
The Victorians were great self-mythologisers, reimagining a pure Arthurian past that had never existed, and that’s the problem with much Victorian art. Just two decades ago, Pre-Raphaelite paintings were still in such an unfashionable trough that a dying friend of mine sold his entire collection of Waterhouse, Millais, Rossetti and Holman-Hunt pictures for virtually nothing. One year later, the collection surfaced at Liberty’s with massively inflated prices attached.
We love and hate them, often because our thinking about them has become clouded by lazy tick-boxes of what it meant to be Victorian. Prudery, hypocrisy, laissez-faire arrogance – yes, there were elements of all, but the picture is far more complex than that. Victoria’s own youthful desires to do good were ultimately stifled by her ministers, and perhaps after sixty years of stability every state must stagnate.
To me the late era is perfectly summed up by the Millais Ophelia, not a picture of madness and suicide at all, but a becalmed and graceful unawareness, its beauty hiding inner darkness.
*In the Comments it has been pointed out to me that James became Jan a long time ago – not in my editions. I was unaware of the change.