Friday, February 22, 2008

Face to Face with the Victorians

A fascinating new exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York City lets viewers come face to face with Victorian poets, painters, novelists, playwrights, and illustrators.

"Facing the Late Victorians: Portraits of Writers and Artists from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection" opened yesterday and runs through April 26. It draws on the extensive collection of first editions, presentation copies, authors’ correspondence, and works of art and design assembled over the last 30 years by Mark Samuels Lasner, senior research fellow at the University of Delaware's Morris Library, and is curated by Margaret D. Stetz, Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Delaware.

The exhibition features portraits of dozens of well-known figures, including George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Barrie, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and John Singer Sargent, along with pioneering children’s book authors and illustrators such as E. Nesbit and Kate Greenaway. Many of these are rarely seen images, such as the unpublished sketches of themselves that Rudyard Kipling and Aubrey Beardsley included in letters to friends; the comical drawing of William Morris that the painter Edward Burne-Jones added to his guest-book; and Max Beerbohm’s savage caricature of Oscar Wilde’s head (shown here).

The exhibition also includes photographs and drawings of many lesser lights whose work was important in advancing British art and literature: people like the feminist novelist Olive Schreiner, the Catholic poet Alice Meynell, and the artists Walter Sickert and William Rothenstein.

"Looking at portraits, as Lord Palmerston told his Victorian contemporaries, was instructive and uplifting," says Stetz in the preface to the lavishly illustrated companion book. "There was something to be learned from the features of those who had accomplished significant achievements; the distinction of their minds and spirits would be written on their faces, and viewers would be moved to self-improvement by contemplating their expressions."

Whether circulating by means of posters, books, newspapers, magazines, cards, and advertisements, or hanging on the walls of art galleries and private homes, images were everywhere during the Victorian period. As this exhibition makes clear, the public quickly learned to "read" portraits -- to glean information about the class, the economic success, and the temperament of the persons depicted. When looking at pictures of writers and artists, however, what spectators most longed for was visual evidence of that elusive thing called “genius.” It was up to the makers of the images, therefore, to provide what audiences wanted and to create visible signs of genius, just as it was up to the subjects of the portraits to compose themselves and their surroundings in a way that would send desirable messages.

If you are interested in Victorian portraiture, I highly recommend the following online resources: Roger Vaughan's enormous gallery of Victorian and Edwardian portraits; the Victoria and Albert Museum's photography collection, begun in 1852; and the Heinz Archive and Library at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Shown here: Oscar Wilde by Sir Max Beerbohm (1872-1956); pencil, ink, and watercolor, c. 1894-1900. Estate of Max Beerbohm. Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library.


Bebe said...

Hi Kristan,

I've enjoyed your informative blog for quite a while! I love the Victorian era and am always anxious to learn anything I can about it. Thanks for posting such enlightening things!

Smiles...Bebe :)

Niall said...

Found my way here via Julie Schuler's house of Kewpie..Great site,I live in an area of Derby, England steeped in victorian history.I'm glad to see you have such a love for that period.You might be interested to know that I am a distant relative of William Gladstone!

WildeWit said...

I think it is so fascinating that a lot of these writers and artists were part of the same circles and social coteries but I guess birds of a feather flock together.

I enjoy your insights. Do you mind if I put a link to your blog on mine?

Thanks, WildeWit

Kristan Tetens said...

Wildewit, thanks for your kind words! Of course you can link to the site.

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