Victorian art in the Walker Art Gallery
‘Samson’, Solomon J Solomon
The Walker Art Gallery was founded in 1873 primarily to display and collect art of that period, and it is not therefore surprising that high and late Victorian art is represented there splendidly and comprehensively with a strong international flavour.
Frederic Leighton’s ‘Elijah’ could almost have been painted for a grand baroque seventeenth century Roman church; Solomon J Solomon’s ‘Samson’ would surely have won a major prize at a nineteenth century Parisian Salon; John Gibson’s ‘Tinted Venus’ can be compared with the work of many followers of Canova and Thorwaldsen; Stanhope Forbes’s ‘Street in Brittany’ reflects the enthusiasm all over Europe in the 1880s for the paintings of Bastien-Lepage.
Early Victorian art
‘The Stonebreaker’, John Brett
Early Victorian art is less cosmopolitan but often more original. Millais’s ‘Isabella’, with its intensity of symbolism and of expression, is his first Pre-Raphaelite painting - the subject is doomed young love from Keats’s poem of the same name and the composition is deliberately archaic.
Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Waiting’ has a simple, modern, domestic subject, like so many early nineteenth century British paintings, but treated with the religious fervour of early Flemish art. John Brett’s ‘Stonebreaker’ has a much less obvious symbolism but is a supreme example in paint of Ruskin’s belief in the accurate rendering of every detail of the natural world.
The Liverpool contribution to early Pre-Raphaelitism is well represented by DA Williamson’s intense and brilliant north Lancashire landscapes of the early 1860s and by WL Windus’s ‘Burd Helen’ - his first Pre-Raphaelite painting with its moral subject rich in pathos, taken from a Scottish ballad.
Later Pre-Raphaelitism and the Aesthetic Movement
‘A summer night’, Albert Moore
Later Pre-Raphaelitism was less sharply focused in technique and its emotional content was more sensual, more poetic, more dreamy - indeed there are clear links with the Aesthetic Movement. Burne-Jones’s ‘Sponsa de Libano’ and Albert Moore’s ‘The Shulamite’ both depict the passionate heroine of the Song of Solomon, while Moore’s later ‘Summer Night’ shows the artist moving away from the pure form towards Pre-Raphaelite symbolism.
The cult of Dante and his love for Beatrice is well represented on a high poetic level by Rossetti’s ‘Dante’s Dream’ and on a more prosaic and popular plane by Henry Holiday’s ‘Dante and Beatrice’. Alone of the Pre-Raphaelites Holman Hunt remained faithful to early ideals and his ‘Triumph of the Innocents’ - for all its supernatural imagery - still contains a realistically Palestinian peasant family on a journey with their ass.
Social realism was a very different movement but with its own ambiguity - Herkomer’s ‘Eventide’ is more than an indictment of Victorian workhouses and in Paris it was much admired by the Decadent critic JK Huysmans. Similarly in sculpture Thornycroft’s ‘The Mower’ is both an ideal figure and the first life size statue of an English farm labourer. Onslow Ford’s ‘Peace’ with its adolescent figure, naturalistic modelling and rich, detailed, symbolic accessories is a more typical example of the ‘New Sculpture’.
‘And when did you last see your father?’, William Frederick Yeames
The Walker Art Gallery was fortunate in its leaders. PH Rathbone, a younger son of one of Liverpool’s leading merchant families, spent his early life in insurance but then became Chairman of the Gallery for most of its first twenty years; he combined a catholic taste, embracing both Pre-Raphaelites and Naturalists, with a sharp eye for the young progressive artists of the Newlyn School and of the early years of the New English Art Club - although, always conscious of popular taste, he could also buy less demanding paintings such as ‘And when did you last see your father?’ by WF Yeames.
George Audley, who made his fortune from beer and whisky, was more active as a collector than as a member of the Walker Art Gallery’s governing committee and around the early 1920s bought for the Gallery late Victorian masterpieces at auction just when they were cheap and unfashionable - Liverpool is indebted to him for nearly all its paintings by George Clausen and for Stanhope Forbes’s ‘By order of the Court’ as well as for about a further fifty notable mid- or late Victorian paintings.
James Smith of Blundellsands (just north of Liverpool), a wine merchant, was one of the most important patrons of GF Watts during the artist’s later years and Watts’s ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ from Smith’s collection are some of the grandest and most terrifying images of Victorian pessimism. In 1877, the year that the Gallery opened, Andrew Kurtz, a local industrialist, commissioned for it Frederic Leighton’s great ‘Elijah’ in order to establish proper standards for the future; in Victorian art at least he would not be disappointed.