Monday, 16 February 2009


I have been enthralled by the 19th century for decades; the engineering, inventions, buildings, literature, art, the philanthropy of worthies striving to improve the lot of fellow men. I am also still readily shocked, even at time's safe distance, when confronted by reminders of the squalor and poverty and harsh working conditions, an era when labour was cheap, hours long, and workers easily replaceable. I have read Mayhew on London. I have made my pilgrimage to Osborne House on the isle of Wight to see the desk where the great Queen signed so many papers, lived her happy family life until the tragically early death of her Albert, and stood in reverent silence at the side of the bed where she died. Yup, I'm a sucker for the 19th century.

TV also seems to be suddenly in love with the social history of the 19th century. This love affair is certainly a mixed bag, with the Victorian Farm, which hasn't grabbed my attention, What The Victorians Did For Us, which is unmissable, and now, as discussed by Caius Plinius in his blog today, Victorious Viewing, the latest, Jeremy Paxman's The Victorians.

I was impressed by Paxman the presenter; here was a greatly more mellow Paxo than we usually see on the box, hectoring hapless politicians or students. I had feared that he would be irritating, yet he was warm and mostly erudite. He mucked in, splashing through London's sewers and eating gruel and breaking stones in a workhouse. His was an enthusiasm which he wished to share, rather than simply a desire to instruct. Indeed, at times he had the air of one astonished to find himself allowed to be doing such a programme at all, and pinching himself at his good fortune. The scope of the first programme was wide, yet there was a narrative thread woven through which drew the various strands together. On a personal level I can't say I learned anything new, but as an intelligent introduction to the subject I hope it draws in a new audience keen to find out more.

My favourite part of the programme, however, wasn't the wading through Bazalgette's vast sewerage system, nor the mad glory of Waterhouse's Manchester Town Hall, Wonders of the World though both be, it was the visit to Glasgow's Kelvingrove, where Mr P was confronted with a painting which nonplussed him, Guthrie's Highland Funeral.

Clearly The Glasgow Boys' school of social realism has passed Paxman by, but in Scotland at least this unsentimental painting is considered a masterpiece, and rightly so.

Maybe next year, when an exhibition of the work of the Glasgow Boys has reached Lunnon, Mr P will have learned to appreciate it a little more.

Anyhow, today I thought I'd add my own farthing worth of erudition and post the above picture to fill in a small gap in last night's programme. Its long name is In the nineteenth century the Northumbrians show the world what can be done with iron and coal by William Bell Scott 1861 (courtesy of the National Trust). Its short name is Iron and Coal. It clearly was inspired by Work and in turn was part of the inspiration for the sequence of paintings at Manchester Town Hall. It is one of the impressive scenes of the history of Northumberland painted for the central courtyard at Wallington Hall, Northumberland.

"Scott painted Iron and Coal, the last and most important of the series at Wallington, between January and June 1861.

Bell Scott visited Stephenson's railway-engine works to see a locomotive wheel being forged to give him his central action, but the painting as a whole is a composite showing the Tyneside industries: an Armstrong gun barrel and a shell, a locomotive wheel, barges carrying coal, a train crossing Robert Stephenson's newly completed High Level bridge. One of the men wielding the hammers (the figure on the left) is drawn from Charles Edward Trevelyan, who in due course inherited Wallington."

"In 1855, the year in which Pauline had conceived the Wallington scheme, a local journalist wrote in despair that the 'fine arts in Newcastle appear literally to be dead and buried', and that with the growing prosperity of the people of Newcastle and Sunderland came a growing ignorance of art and a preference for 'champagne and claret'. By 1862, that opinion had significantly changed. The Wallington scheme was recognised as an innovation of national as well as regional significance, and it was widely reviewed in the national press. The paintings were exhibited in London before finally being hung in Wallington. The only comparable (though not closely comparable) recent decorative scheme were the frescoes of Arthurian subjects painted by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Morris, Prinsep and others in Dean and Woodward's new Gothic Union building at Oxford in 1857. Bell Scott's Wallington paintings prompted similar decorative schemes elsewhere in the country, such as the cycle of twelve historical paintings for Manchester town hall (depicting episodes in the history of Manchester from Roman times to the recent past) undertaken by Ford Madox Brown in the 1870s, and the later decorative scheme commissioned for the Scottish Portrait Gallery."

Two reviews of The Victorians

The Telegraph didn't like it:

The Scotsman did:

As for the mawkishness of the TV presentation of Lark Rise, I can only express the hope it at least sends some to seek out the books, which are worthy of reading, and can I also growl about the failure of attention to detail?

For a start, no 19th century female of any social standing would be rushing outdoors and parading around the streets in their indoor clothing, without a hat. They just wouldn't. Something simple in straw, but a hat. Gloves also, and a jacket for more formal occasions. Please please ladies - cover it up. Folk will gossip.


1 comment:

Caius Plinius said...

I think it was Paxo's enthusiasm for his subject that made it so watchable. After being so used to seeing him in cynical curmudgeon mode, his mood was quite infectious on the programme.