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On 19 March 1893, art dealer, editor, and author David Croal Thomson wrote to Beatrix Whistler, wife of painter James McNeill Whistler, to report on her husband’s exhibition with the commercial firm, Goupil, which Thomson then managed:

First it must be recorded that the Exhibition is a great & legitimate artistic success. To those who have eyes to see, & fortunately they are increasing in number, the collection is the most notable event that has taken place in London for many many years & it will stand out for all future times as one of the epochs of art in this country[. . . .] To day the public are crowding in (I am writing this during a lull at lunch time) willing to admire & mostly doing so—Mr Whistler is becoming the fashion at least it is becoming the correct thing to pretend to admire him What a dreadful thing it is that people cannot learn more quickly. The rooms are crowded & every one is coming here. The triumph of the pictures & the artist is complete & we must hope that the recompense of the lucre will not be wanting.


This passage is worth quoting at length as it reveals much about exhibition culture in London, which geographically dominated the British fine art market at the close of the nineteenth century. Firstly, it reveals the significance increasingly accorded to commercial firms in the London art world; critics and the public attended to Whistler’s exhibition, “Nocturnes, Marines & Chavalet Pieces,” just as they did those of the Royal Academy whose exhibitions had helped to define a public and market for art. Secondly, it hints at the networked nature of relationships in the London art world, with the dealer familiar with both artists and critics and sometimes playing the role of mediator. Thirdly, it indicates how one-person shows were used to establish visibility and celebrity status as well as commercial viability and artistic legitimacy. Fourthly, it reminds us that, above all, exhibition culture was a business, despite often-articulated ambivalence regarding its commercial nature and repeated attempts by both dealers and artists to transcend the market place.

Exhibition culture was tremendously important for the Victorians; the Great Exhibition and World’s Fairs and Expositions, for example, were important means by which the British articulated their identity as a modern industrial nation—a self-proclaimed leader in art, industry, science, and empire. The largest temporary art exhibition ever held in the UK, the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition of 1857, epitomized the Victorian desire to catalogue, order, and investigate the holdings of the world—in this case the greatest works of art located within the United Kingdom, ranging from old masters such as Michelangelo Buonarroti to modern British masters such as John Everett Millais—while also highlighting culture achieved through industry.[2]

Such exhibitions set a high standard in terms of scale, spectacle, and sheer variety of works. At the other end of the spectrum were smaller-scale exhibitions, perhaps featuring fifty works as compared to the over five thousand paintings, statues, engravings and architectural designs at the London International Exhibition on Industry and Art of 1862. For the artist, smaller exhibitions, particularly solo exhibitions, created an opportunity to craft one’s identity and, as Thomson recognized, assert one’s artistic significance. Such significance was accrued and argued through the work itself, accompanying didactic materials such as exhibition catalogues (often penned by leading critics and writers of the day), the artist’s reputation, and even that of the institution hosting the exhibition.

Exhibitions, as Reesa Greenburg, Bruce Ferguson and Sandy Nairne remind us, are key means of validation and distribution as well as knowledge production. Exhibitions, they persuasively argue, “are the primary site of exchange in the political economy of art, where signification is constructed, maintained, and occasionally deconstructed. Part spectacle, part socio-historical event, part structuring device, exhibitions . . . establish and administer the cultural meanings of art” (1-2).

This essay offers an overview of exhibition culture in Victorian London as it pertains to the art market in dialogue with our contemporary exhibiting of the Victorians, focusing on special exhibitions of paintings organized by museums. On the one hand, this may seem a forced marriage: exhibitions in the Victorian age were largely intended to put goods into circulation and were means by which art participated in the burgeoning commodity culture with its increasing emphasis on display and visuality, whereas art objects held by museums today are largely, and intentionally, removed from the circulatory pathways of the marketplace. On the other hand, these two institutions—the commercial dealer and the museum—are inextricably intertwined; both engage in processes of assessment and valuation and, in addition, rely on the same vehicle by which to communicate to the public: the exhibition.

If this essay had been written fifty years ago, these processes of valuation and assessment would have appeared to pull in opposite directions as indicated by the notorious episode in the 1960s when Frederick Lord Leighton’s Flaming June was for sale at £50 (Jones 236). But since that date, Leighton has been the subject of a major monographic exhibition handsomely installed on the walls of the Royal Academy in 1996; his work has been critically evaluated and amplified by important scholars in the field and is again gaining visibility and prominence in the installation of museum permanent collections. Now is a particularly apt moment, therefore, to consider the relationships between exhibition culture and the market in the Victorian age and the museum and the perception of Victorian art today.

Moreover, major research initiatives are currently under way that, once completed, will give us a much fuller and richer understanding of the histories of exhibition culture in Victorian Britain, including the attendant infrastructure and networks of collaboration, influence, and sociability as well as the key agents who developed and deployed these networks and produced and promoted the goods that circulated within this system. These projects include the University of Glasgow’s “Exhibition Culture in London, 1878-1908,” led by Patricia de Montfort, and a collection of essays concerning the rise of the London art market 1850 to 1939, edited by Pamela Fletcher and myself (Manchester University Press).

The Exhibition and the Victorian Art Market

Broadly speaking, three constituencies shaped the Victorian art market as defined through exhibition culture: artists’ societies, commercial dealers, and collectors. Auction houses also played a key role in the market and can be regarded as products of collectors’ activities since in Great Britain auction houses largely handled the secondary trade (denoting the re-sale of objects, rather than primary or initial trade). The auction trade was also a highly visible component of the market: notable sales were reported in the art press; the trade was supported by published catalogues; and sales of well-known collections became public spectacles with crowds gathering to view the objects and witness the competitive bidding. But it was artists’ societies and commercial dealers that dominated the primary trade of the work of living artists.

Artists’ Societies

The Royal Academy was founded in 1768 as an artists’ society dedicated to instruction and exhibition, both regarded as essential means of raising the reputation of art and the artist. It initially held one exhibition a year in the late spring, featuring the works of academicians as well as those approved by jury selection. In 1870, it began a new tradition of the winter exhibition, featuring the work of Old Masters, often from important collections. The Royal Academy had a complicated relationship to the art market: it claimed to rise above it while mimicking the activities of a marketplace (Solkin 5, 8). No works were ostensibly for sale in the exhibition but works were bought from the exhibition and the practice of visiting artists’ studios prior to the opening of the annual spring exhibition that developed in the later nineteenth century helped to fuel sales of paintings. Moreover, the academy functioned as a quasi-economic center; artists’ colourmen as well as commercial dealers clustered around the site of the academy, particularly after it located to Burlington House in 1869 in close proximity to the luxury trade located on Bond Street. In addition, the academy, because of its historic longevity and social prominence, helped to acculturate art lovers to the practices associated with attending exhibitions, such as studying works of art first hand, relating works on the walls to catalogue text, comparing one’s opinion to that of one’s neighbors or published criticism, and engaging in rituals of enlightened sociability.

The winter exhibition was a response, in part, to the demise of the British Institution, which had been founded in 1805 by prominent art collectors for the display and sale of both Old Masters and contemporary art of the British school. Artists were excluded from membership in the British Institution, but, in addition to the Royal Academy, there were numerous other artists’ societies, many of which were more overtly commercial in intent. The Society of Painters in Water Colours, for example, was founded in 1804 in part to fuel the sales of watercolour painting by improving the visibility and prestige of the medium (Greg Smith 133-175). In addition to forming societies specific to media, artists organized more general societies. The Society of Artists of Great Britain, for example, was founded in 1761 as an outgrowth of exhibition-oriented activities of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce as well as from the desire of artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds (also instrumental in the founding of the Royal Academy) and Francis Hayman to have the opportunity to organize their own displays.

The Society of Artists of Great Britain folded in 1791, undone, as Matthew Hargraves explains, by the attempt to “reconcile the inconsistencies that lay at the heart of its enterprise: commercial interests with disinterested rhetoric; cooperation and competition; the liberal artist and the mechanic; the professional and the gentleman; administrative efficiency and political flexibility; institutional and national politics” (172). Its history was a cautionary tale for subsequent enterprises of this nature, such as the Society of British Artists, founded in 1823. Its main purpose was to hold exhibitions, showcased in a purpose-built gallery designed by John Nash, to promote the sale of art. In 1886 Whistler assumed the Presidency and stepped down two years later, after encountering resistance to a number of changes he had instituted to modes of display and selection of artists. The New English Art Club, formed in the mid-1880s by a group of younger artists who had studied in Paris, also experienced seismic fissures traceable to Whistler, or, more specifically, the circle of Whistler led by Walter Sickert (Robins 89).

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, artists’ societies and their attendant exhibitions proliferated. As Julie Codell explains, more frequent exhibitions and increasingly specialized topics allowed societies, as well as dealers, to cultivate and “refine” the market and accommodate “a pluralism of taste” (170). A dialectic between consumption patterns and art production, arguably in place well before this time, became highly visible and thus more open to manipulation and recalculation (182).

Commercial Dealers

Whistler was particularly adroit at working within this dialectical system. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, he began to work closely with dealers; following his bankruptcy attendant upon the financially disastrous decision in the Whistler v. Ruskin trial and the mounting expenses of his “White House” in Chelsea, Whistler took a commission from the Fine Art Society, a commercial firm, to produce twelve etchings in Venice.[3] This episode points to the lucrative potential of print making as well as the long-standing association between commercial art dealers and print publishers. Earlier in the century, individuals such as Samuel Woodburn, Arthur Pond, John Boydell, Paul Colnaghi, and Rudolph Ackermann functioned as print dealers and publishers and helped to stimulate and expand the market for contemporary British art in the face of both rising costs for Old Masters and controversial claims of spurious works of art.[4]

Thus when Ernest Gambart arrived in London in the 1840s, ostensibly as an agent for the French firm of Goupil, he quickly ascertained the opportunity for establishing his own gallery devoted to the work of living artists. Gambart exemplifies the paradigm of the entrepreneurial dealer who may have relied on printselling for economic bread and butter, but lavished attention on high art and developed strategies such as rotating exhibitions for attracting the public’s attention.[5] Moreover, Pamela Fletcher explains, “as Gambart and other entrepreneurs moved into full-time picture dealing, they professionalized the role of the dealer and invented a new kind of space for the exhibition and sale of art—the modern commercial art gallery,” often having to defend their activities from accusations of soiling the transcendence of art with the profit motive (Fletcher). Gambart’s response was to emphasize his annual cycle of exhibitions— his winter exhibitions featuring such British artists as the PreRaphaelites and his French exhibitions of artists such as Paul Delaroche and Rosa Bonheur. By acting like an artists’ society, that is, by sponsoring exhibitions, he created a symbolic space of supposed economic disinterest that separated him from other printsellers (Fletcher). In addition to these group shows, he organized one-person shows, either featuring a single canvas, such as William Holman Hunt’s The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (for which Gambart had paid the record-breaking sum of £5,500) or a body of work, as in the case of Jasper Cropsey and David Cox (Fletcher).

By the 1870s, the field for art dealing in London was densely populated and London was growing increasingly significant within an international commercial network. The Goupil Gallery was a prime example. In 1857, the French firm of Goupil, which had originally sponsored Gambart, opened its own shop in the Strand—presumably not to be outdone by Gambart. At first, the Goupil branch in London only sold directly to other art dealers, functioning, in essence, as an importer, largely of prints, which were at the core of the Goupil business. But by the mid 1870s, following the pattern of the main house in Paris, the London branch began to handle original works of art and sponsor exhibitions, drawing heavily on the stock of the Paris house. In the mid 1880s, around the time of David Croal Thomson’s appointment as manager of Goupil, the London branch began to add contemporary British artists to their roster, initially focusing on topographic artists and then moving into the circle of artists associated with Impressionism.

Likewise, the firm of Agnew’s, although it garnered a reputation for Old Masters, supported the contemporary British market. When the Manchester-based firm opened its London branch in 1860, its stock included a version of Frith’s immensely popular Derby Day as well as works by Augustus Egg, Thomas Girtin, and William Dyce (Agnew’s 19-20). It also entered into the heated market for reproductive engravings—prints executed after well-known works of art; Gambart, for example, commissioned Auguste Blanchard to produce a print after Hunt’s The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, which fetched £10,000 in sales its inaugural year (Rix 184). In 1875 Agnew’s re-located from Waterloo Place to Old Bond Street and opened a new purpose-built structure featuring several exhibition spaces, including a second-story top-lit gallery that rivaled the picture galleries of wealthy country homes in scale and appointment.

The 1870s and 1880s witnessed an intensification of activity on Old and New Bond Streets as the luxury art trade located to this vicinity; the Goupil Gallery, for example, took up new premises at 116 & 117 New Bond Street around 1884. In 1876 the Fine Art Society, which began as a reproductive print firm, was founded at 148 New Bond Street. In 1877, the Palace of Art, as the Grosvenor Gallery was known, opened at 135-137 New Bond Street; its scale, lavishness, and attention to what would now be called the visitor experience, as well as its relationship to many of the leading artists of London, meant that it became a conspicuous trend setter for commercial art galleries.[6]

Whistler, as has been noted, exploited the opportunities created by such venues as the Fine Art Society, Grosvenor, and Goupil as well as the leading firm of Dowdeswell, often playing one dealer off against another and constantly seeking an advantage. Indeed, when Whistler held his exhibition at Goupil in 1892, he was hoping to burnish his reputation and chose to organize a quasi-retrospective. He showed many works already owned and, therefore, technically not for sale. However, he relied heavily on Thomson’s discretion and ability to recognize which patrons might be willing to part with works for the right price and also charged Thomson with cultivating future portrait commissions, for which the firm would receive a modicum of financial recompense. Whistler also worked closely with the firm to develop a photographic album that could be sold as a souvenir. And ticket sales for the exhibition itself were brisk.

Victorian Art and the Museum

This model of generating income not only from the paintings themselves but also from catalogues and ticket sales is surprisingly similar to strategies of museums today. Though the rising rates of insurance and the current recession may have put a damper on the practice, museums have come to rely increasingly on blockbuster exhibitions to generate income. While no recent exhibition of British nineteenth-century art has experienced the attendance records of the British Museum’s exhibition devoted to King Tutankhamun in 1972, which arguably brought the blockbuster phenomenon to the fore, the number and variety of exhibitions devoted to the Victorians over the recent decades indicates that they have achieved a level of popular recognition perhaps never anticipated in the 1960s and 1970s.

The rise in the number of exhibitions of Victorian art over the past twenty years is due in large part to the leadership role played by Tate and Tate Britain as well as civic collections such as Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. Collaborations between these institutions and museums in the United States, perhaps most notably the Yale Center for British Art, have ensured that American audiences have been able to participate in this revival of Victorian art. Indeed, several American museums have also assumed leadership roles, as in the case of the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition The Victorians (1997) or the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s monographic display devoted to Edward Burne-Jones (1998).

The One-Person Exhibition

These recent exhibitions of Victorian painting can be divided, broadly speaking, into two categories: thematic surveys and one-person shows. With respect to the latter, it is worth considering which artists have been regarded as significant enough to warrant this treatment and how this listing maps onto the historic Victorian marketplace, since both museum and marketplace have come to privilege the one-person show as the key means of validating and celebrating artistic accomplishment. The lists of notable auction sales posted by The Year’s Art over the closing decade of the nineteenth century include the following Victorian artists: Edward Burne-Jones, John Constable, Edwin Landseer, Frederick Leighton, J. F. Lewis, John Linnell, John Everett Millais, and J. M .W. Turner. Most of these artists have received one-person shows at major museums in recent decades, although perhaps predictably Turner and Constable outpace the competition.

The conception of one-person shows of Victorian artists has changed perceptibly, as demonstrated by the contrast between the Turner exhibition of 1966 and J. M. W. Turner, the most recent retrospective to tour the United States. That of 1966, organized by Lawrence Gowing, was anxious to situate Turner as a proto-modernist and thereby establish the painter’s significance for the history of art; accordingly, the exhibition featured numerous unfinished oils that anticipated the delicate skeins of color found in the work of such artists as Helen Frankenthaler (Warrell 8). By contrast, the recent show, the largest exhibition devoted to the work of Turner to tour the United States since 1966, offered a far more even-handed selection of works and even included large-scale history paintings such as The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory, 1808, which had been eschewed in the earlier exhibition, presumably because their overt narrativity did not accord with the tenets of high modernism. The current organizers were able to, as they recognized, build upon the considerable body of knowledge developed by Tate Britain (the primary keeper of Turner’s artistic bequest to the nation) and, relatedly, the interest and understanding of Turner generated by smaller, more specialist exhibitions, such as Turner and Venice in 2003-2004 (Warrell 7, 8). Indeed, in the last twenty years a whole Turner exhibition industry has arguably arisen, often drawing heavily on the collections of Tate Britain and offering both broad sweeps of the artist’s career, as in the most recent exhibition, and close examinations, as in the case of Andrea Fredericksen’s Vanishing Point, The Perspective Drawings of J. M. W. Turner (2004) and Gillian Forrester’s Turner’s ‘Drawing Book’ The Liber Studiorum (1996).

Constable, who often competes with Turner for the accolade of Britain’s greatest landscape painter, has likewise been represented through a combination of major retrospectives—the most recent held at Tate Britain in 1991—and more narrowly focused displays, such as Constable’s Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings (2006). The latter exhibition juxtaposed sketches with finished works and also explained Constable’s painting technique. The didactic nature of the latter exhibition and its critical success proved audiences are prepared to engage with, and indeed are curious about, issues of artistic production and reception. This holds true as well for perhaps the most famous of Constable’s themes—the cloud—elucidated in a comprehensive exhibition organized by the National Galleries of Scotland and National Museums and Galleries of Merseyside in 2000.

As Steven Deuchar, Director of Tate Britain, points out in an invaluable essay elucidating the ‘two art histories’ (that of the academy and the museum), the 1991 Constable retrospective was a major disappointment in terms of attendance figures. He rightly contrasts this reception with that for At Home with Constable’s Cornfield, hosted by the National Gallery of London in 1996, which took up the topic of John Constable’s The Cornfield as a symbol of national identity (7-9). The museum invited members of the public via the Wimbledon School of Art to contribute reproductions of the painting to the exhibition, and the result underscored both the populism of the picture and the commodity culture in which fine art is embedded.

Just as the number of exhibitions of Turner and Constable has mounted steadily upward since the 1960s, with a particular intensity in recent decades, likewise the PreRaphaelites have gained considerable attention, beginning with the major comprehensive Tate exhibition of 1984, which offered a chronologically organized overview of the movement and its aftermath. Although critiqued, most notably by Deborah Cherry and Griselda Pollock, for the treatment of women artists, it should nonetheless be credited for assembling a considerable amount of scholarship on the artists and their works and serving as a catalyst for subsequent scholarship and exhibitions, such as Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s PreRaphaelite Women Artists (1997-1998).

In 1984, at the time of the PreRaphaelite retrospective, the then director of the Tate, Alan Bowness, noticed that “in recent years there have been excellent one-person exhibitions of the major Pre-Raphaelite artists” (Parris 7); but in the twenty or so intervening years, further scholarship on these artists as well as broader conceptions of art history and artistic value, has led to a renewed spate of one-person exhibitions. The Millais retrospective organized in 2007 by Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith offered a balanced treatment of the artist’s career by including numerous works produced after 1870 compared to the relative paucity in the 1984 exhibition of work of this period, when Millais was formerly perceived to have declined. The inclusion of an entire section of the retrospective devoted to Millais’s portraits was no doubt fueled by the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of the artist’s portraits, organized by Peter Funnell and Malcolm Warner.

Despite the seriousness with which Funnell and Warner addressed their topic, they nonetheless faced the critique that many of Millais’s late professional portrait commissions suggest that the painter “seems to be at the start of a downhill run into self-consciousness and lack of confidence” (Duguid). This reviewer clearly approached Millais’s work searching for specific hallmarks of virtuosity and innovation—re-enacting a familiar tension regarding Victorian art in the museum. The master narrative of art history and notions of artistic excellence have been founded on models other than British, most often Francophone; therefore inserting British art into this framework often proves problematic. But what needs to be questioned here is the framework itself—both how it came to be constructed and how we might write a better art history that recognizes the multivalent contextuality of production and reception.

A willingness to go beyond the PreRaphaelite years also holds true for the retrospective exhibition of Rossetti organized in 2004 by the National Museums Liverpool and Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, with the assistance of guest curator, Elizabeth Prettejohn. In addition to addressing the whole of Rossetti’s career in paint and print, the exhibition revealed his capacity as a designer and significance as a collector—thus revealing the situatedness of his artistic practice.

The Rossetti retrospective of 2004 built upon a collaborative partnership that had been established earlier in the context of developing an exhibition devoted to the work of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1996, a retrospective indicative of a growing interest in artists outside the traditional great pantheon of Turner, Constable, and the PreRaphaelites. This trend has been reinforced by recent exhibitions devoted to, for example, William Powell Frith, Simeon Solomon, James Tissot, and J. W. Waterhouse. As the exhibition organizers acknowledge, Alma-Tadema’s reputation declined considerably following his death and did not enjoy a revival until the 1960s (Becker 7). More recently, curators have been willing to accept the artist on his own terms, not re-shaping him into, for example, a fore-runner of Jeff Koons, which required reconsidering the painter’s treatment of antiquity and materialism

The challenges in rehabilitating the Victorians came to light with respect to the Royal Academy’s 1996 Leighton exhibition: “the first major retrospective exhibition devoted to the artist’s work since the Memorial Exhibition mounted at the Royal Academy in the year after his death” (Jones n.p.). As Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Prettejohn note in their introduction to an edited anthology about the former President of the R.A., “Leighton’s reputation proved far more difficult to recuperate than those, for instance, of his Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries” as revealed by the “critical abuse directed at Leighton’s work in 1996” (xiii). This abuse was all the more remarkable because of the market popularity of reproductions of the artist’s work but is nonetheless explained by notions of quality formed by high modernism. In their volume, guided by academic revisionism, Barringer and Prettejohn proposed breaking “the stalemate between a discredited Modernism and a historicism that evades questions of value” (xxx).

The Survey Exhibition

Nonetheless, the issue of modernism continued to haunt the display of Victorian painting; The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, & Watts, Symbolism in Britain, 1860-1910, conceived to help celebrate Tate’s centenary in 1997, was intended as a reevaluation of British Symbolism by demonstrating “significant aspects of the Symbolism movement as originating specifically in Britain”—a thesis fueled by concern that hitherto the British contribution to this movement, regarded as a major catalyst for modernism, had been marginalized (Wilton and Upstone 13). But the effort to achieve this end often threatened to overshadow the original contexts of the works and distort their meanings. For example, the complex iconography and homoerotic resonances of Simeon Solomon’s Love In Autumn are touched upon but inadequately contextualized when compared to Whitney Davis’s exegesis of the painter’s practice in the context of John Addington Symonds’ homoerotic art criticism (199-210).

The exhibition, The Victorians, British Painting 1937-1901, held by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1997, directly took up the issue of quality with respect to Victorian painting. The curator, Malcolm Warner, acknowledged that the exhibition did not mirror its Victorian counterparts for it eschewed the frequent eclecticism of Victorian group shows in favor of works of “high artistic quality to represent Victorian painting by its greatest works” (14). This approach contrasts markedly with that adopted for the exhibition The Victorian Vision, Inventing New Britain organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2001. Here visual culture illustrated the complexity of the Victorian period, and both the display and the accompanying exhibition catalogue (MacKenzie) attended to such issues as class, gender, religion, and imperialism; the equanimity with which the diversity of objects was treated betrayed no concern regarding quality.

This juxtaposition—quality vs. didacticism—might be overdrawn, but nonetheless it points to a tension that lurks around many exhibitions of Victorian art which wish to assert, appropriately enough for the museum context, the artistic value of the works on display, and yet must provide contextual information regarding both aesthetics and socio-historical issues so that the works become fully articulate for modern viewers. It is a tall order, achieved with varying degrees of success oftentimes determined by factors that lie beyond the control of curators, such as the ability to secure crucial loans, funding, staffing, and the research interest and capacity of the sponsoring institution.

In 2001, on the occasion of the opening of the Linbury Galleries in the renovated Tate Britain, the institution hosted Exposed, the Victorian Nude, an exhibition closely based on curator Alison Smith’s book Sexuality, Morality and Art (1997). Director Deuchar used it as an opportunity to insist on a new direction for the institution, explaining that it “exemplifies the commitment of Tate Britain since its launch in March 2000 to offer a fresh and often challenging presentation of both accepted and neglected areas of British visual culture, from time to time cutting across conventional categories of high and low, and introducing a broad range of artistic production, including, for example, photography and film” (7). The language that Deuchar deployed in his essay —visual culture, high and low, production—signals his participation in revisionist approaches in art history.

The Tate’s commitment has been manifested in other exhibitions, such as Pre-Raphaelite Vision, Truth to Nature (2004), an examination of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting in the context of the scientific, religious, and social preoccupations of the age. While the historical context for understanding Pre-Raphaelite practice was lucidly laid out in the exhibition catalogue, the curators intelligently confronted the problem of conveying such points in the exhibition itself by including objects such as geological specimens and looking glasses, which visitors could use to scrutinize or “botanize” the paintings. The 2008 exhibition, The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, organized by Tate Britain in association with the Yale Center for British Art, also utilized an expansive framing, including a diversity of visual materials as well as contextual approaches (including gender and cross-cultural analysis) to examine Orientalism as both a real and imagined place and a crucial paradigm riddled with paradoxes.

Civic galleries have also contributed significantly to this revisionist trend, as in the case of Black Victorians, Black People in British Art 1800-1900 (2005-2006), which supported Manchester Art Gallery’s “aim to bring new ways of looking at and thinking about art to a wide audience.” In making visible black Victorians, the exhibition brought to light a subject matter that had been hitherto woefully neglected by the field as well as means of visual expression—“moralizing and didactic art,” documentary archives, and ribald caricatures—that had “plummeted out of favour, pulling the black Victorians seen here into obscurity” (Marsh, Black Victorians 22).


It is difficult to predict with confidence the future of exhibitions of Victorian art if the current exhibition of William Holman Hunt is taken as the case in point. The exhibition, which I saw installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, ambitiously seeks to explore Hunt’s relationship to “fears and neuroses of the Victorian age . . . the conflicting attitudes towards capitalism and materialism, the dichotomy of faith and science, the growth of female independence and its impact on gender relations, the impetus for political intervention in the Middle East, and the omnipresent threat of war” (Lochnan and Jacobi 9). The artist’s interest in exploiting the possibilities of the marketplace are manifested in the reproductive engravings that accompany many of his important paintings; the artist’s role as collector is highlighted by the inclusion of his textile collection; and period photographs in the accompanying video projection suggest conditions in the Middle East when Hunt lived there. But Victorian attitudes to women’s sexuality, increasing factionalism of religious belief in nineteenth-century Britain, the history of British imperialism in the Middle East, and Hunt’s own often stereotyped reactions to and beliefs about the peoples he encountered in his travels are only hinted at in the exhibition display itself.

This raises the question: how do we recognize, re-evaluate, and contextualize such a past in a format—the one-person exhibition—that was originally designed to celebrate and sell? Is the museum and the one-person exhibition simply an institution and a vehicle inappropriate for this task? Does the possibility for misunderstanding by the public pose too high of a risk for the museum as an entity that serves a diverse community, thus driving such considerations to the pages of the exhibition catalogue? Would revealing this complex history on the exhibition walls undermine the hard earned and sometimes only recently won recognition of aesthetic merit? How might an exhibition display achieve informed interpretation without drawing attention away from the paintings themselves, the deserved “stars” of the show? Could fuller treatment of socio-historical conditions inform aesthetic appreciation? I pose these questions in hopes that colleagues, from both museums and academia, will join me in reflecting upon them.