Nineteenth-Century Graphic Art and Material Culture

with Dr. Laura MacCulloch and Dr. Ruth Livesey

at The Picture Gallery, Royal Holloway University of London

by Azelina Flint, UEA

The Royal Holloway Picture Gallery is a hidden treasure-trove of Victoriana. A vast oblong room with an ornate bas-relief ceiling and walls crowded with epic paintings in gilt frames, it conveys an almost obscene sense of ostentatiousness appropriate to the period. As a small group, we were almost swallowed up by the space and were privileged to be granted exclusive use of it for the day. Dwarfed by the epic grandeur, you would be forgiven for assuming that the picture gallery belonged to a palace. Indeed, the Royal Holloway campus is modelled on the Chateau de Chambord.

The Curator, Laura MacCulloch, began our workshop with a short overview of the gallery’s history. Thomas Holloway, a Victorian entrepreneur, originated a range of medical pills and ointments that many Victorians swore by. However, subsequent research has shown that Holloway’s brand contained nothing of any medical significance, and the pills worked merely as a placebo. Holloway was a master of advertising and one of the pioneers of the billboard campaign. Nevertheless, he had an altruistic streak. He used his great fortune to support a sanatorium at Virginia Water at a time when prejudice still dominated the treatment of the mentally ill and, at the behest of his wife, Jane, founded the first all-women’s college in Britain to admit women for degrees (at this time Oxford and Cambridge were still in the habit of allowing women to study for a degree without actually awarding them one).

Holloway wanted his new college to rival Vasaar, the famous all-women’s college in the USA, and therefore decided to set about creating a picture gallery—something that Vasaar was famed for. He did not have a background in art collecting and, as a businessman, merely set about accumulating the most famous and valuable pieces of the period. He embodies the status of the nineteenth-century art-dealer as impresario, and the Royal Holloway Picture Gallery uniquely reflects the popular taste of the Victorian era. Indeed, Frith’s Ramsgate Sandswas so popular in its day that policemen had to install a crash barrier. The copyright for The Railway Station by the same artist was also sold for £16,500 in 1862. Holloway was astute enough to realise that most of the value of a painting lay in its copyright and was therefore able to purchase it for a mere £2000 in 1863. One of the most iconic images of the Victorian period, it is the jewel of the Picture Gallery.

Laura then went on to talk to us about the conservation of the gallery—introducing us to another facet of Material Culture studies: the mutability of the object and the importance of its preservation, which affects how we interact with and understand visual culture. Originally designed as a women’s recreation room, the gallery space holds a number of problems for any curator. The vents have caused steam damage to the paintings, while the stems for the gas-lights (which are no longer used) are listed items, along with the wallpaper. The heaters are dangerously close to the paintings, while the numerous windows are something of a liability. The space is a multi-purpose one, belonging to the college and an important part of its legacy: used for social functions and college dinners. However, the curatorial team have created an inspiring vision for the continuing preservation of the gallery, while supporting ongoing access to the college’s students. An all-purpose art-store with racking is under development, allowing the team to continue collecting and preserving paintings. A UV filter is being added to the windows, along with Sunex blinds, and the college has worked with a lighting company to produce an innovative new design that will both protect the gallery and endow future events with a quiet ambience.

In the afternoon Dr Ruth Livesey, a specialist in the Aesthetic movement, led us in a seminar on the gallery collection. In a session on The Railway Station, she opened our eyes to how this painting self-consciously constructs a sense of British national identity, picturing the diversity of the nation up against the criminal figure of the other, with Tom Taylor providing a phrenological interpretation of many of the figures in the scene. We examined the painting as an image of mobility in a mobile world of images: emerging at a time when the reproduction of the image was on the ascent, and when slide-shows of moving images, accompanied by spoken text and musical performances, were gaining increasing popularity as a kind of early film. The image of Paddington Railway Station under the Glass Dome bore striking similarities with depictions of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, perhaps allowing the contemporary viewer to experience a disturbing vision of humanity trapped under glass, which resonated with the increasing interest in the natural sciences and home taxidermy. We also considered how the painting invites the viewer to read and interpret it as a narrative and to involve themselves in the scene, in order to create a sense of cultural hegemony. Up against our experience of The Railway Station, Ruth placed the works of Oscar Wilde—allowing us to understand Aestheticism as a reaction to the mass circulation of the image, so as to privilege the subjective response of the individual in its place. We were therefore able to read Wilde’s theories as focused on a de-materialisation of the object.

At the close of her session, Ruth invited us all to study works from the Picture Gallery individually and, with Laura, provided further background information and cultural context to supplement our differing responses to the paintings. Such activities allowed us to immerse ourselves in the visual culture of the Victorian period, while the history of the College and the continuity of the space as a reflection of its past, allowed us to experience the paintings in a uniquely contemporary way, as if we were stepping back in time. Indeed, it is impossible to separate many of the paintings from their place within the collection, and some have achieved an almost mythic status amongst college students.Landseer’s iconic image of the polar bears, Man Proposes, God Disposes, is apparently cursed for allegedly driving a student to commit suicide in an examination, who supposedly scrawled over his exam-script: “The Polar Bears made me do it” in a state of horrified fascination. Despite the fact that there is absolutely no factual basis for this story, students still insist upon covering the painting with the Union Jack flag during examinations today. As an alumna of the college, I was perversely and perhaps, rather gruesomely, disappointed that the story was untrue. I had always regarded Landseer’s painting with an air of suspicious trepidation, much as an actor regards “The Scottish Play”.