Inside the Art Market: Victoriana

Then came the moment for the Queen to receive the Crown, and for all the peers and peeresses to put on their coronets. As the Queen knelt for the Crown to be placed on her head, a ray of sunlight fell upon her, and the Duchess of Kent, overcome by the scene, overwrought by mingled emotions, burst into tears.

—Edith Sitwell, Victoria of England

Overwrought is perhaps the perfect word for describing the reign of Queen Victoria.

Most recently it was captured on television in all its splendor in the series Victoria. If one imagines historical figures from the 19th century being stuffy and repressed, here were revelations: The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, appears as the hunky Hollywood heartthrob “Lord M;” Victoria is an iron-willed but endearing chatterbox who reminds one of Holly Hunter; Prince Albert is a dreamy-eyed, well-meaning prig with masses of in-laws hovering about; his scheming and overbearing Uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, seems forever to be turning up uninvited; and Albert’s debauched brother Ernest is diagnosed with a social disease. Backstairs intrigues abound. There is even an infestation of rats at the palace, adding an element of creepiness and sending the young queen into a panic.

Watching Victoria I couldn’t help thinking about the field of collecting known as Victorian art, as it covers such a wide and colorful swath of subjects and styles. Despite the long reign of Queen Victoria, encompassing six decades of English cultural history, it may seem surprising that the art of that period was often dismissed as trite and vulgar, drenched in sentimentality, too provincial to be taken seriously by the art market.

There is, for example, this anecdote from the new book of remembrances of Sotheby’s legendary Chairman Peter Wilson entitled Sotheby’s Maestro (2018). In it Diana Berry, who once worked in the Sotheby’s Works of Art Department in London, recalls drily:

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Sotheby’s did not sell Victoriana. Pieces of furniture and works of art post-1837 (with the exception of Impressionist paintings) were sent away from the counter, described as ‘NSV’ [no sale value].

What an embarrassment! One can only imagine the condescending tone of dismissal that might have been delivered by a junior cataloguer dispatched to the front counter at Sotheby’s on fashionable New Bond Street to wave away, say, a painting of kittens at play, deer poachers in the highlands, wheat harvesters in a field, or perhaps a more haunting and distressing composition with a title like Cold, Misery and Want Destroy Their Youngest Child.

Did owning Victoriana reflect badly on one’s taste and sophistication as an art collector?

Maybe it did. For in looking through volumes of The Ivory Hammer, the annual review of the auction season at Sotheby’s published in the mid 1960s, Victoriana is barely glimpsed. A rare exception was a smallish oil-on-panel of Antony and Cleopatra (1883) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the acclaimed Victorian portraitist, that sold for $6,500. But Alma-Tadema was hardly typical of the times. He was a Victorian superstar, making a fortune in his day painting lush, titillating tableaux of ancient Egypt and Pompeii, of Roman baths and harems. And as old-fashioned as his paintings may seem now, in his day they were thrilling and lurid blockbusters carefully staged by an artist who understood well the value of marketing and branding, of spectacle and money, in the building of one’s career.

It was only a matter of time before the art market caught up to him.

Hence in 2010 one of Alma-Tadema’s greatest and most flamboyant works, The Finding of Moses (1904), sold for a stunning, almost surrealistic $35.9 million amidst frantic bidding in the saleroom at Sotheby’s New York. This was the kind of price one would pay for a Picasso or a Malevich, a de Kooning or a Rothko, something abstract and modern. It didn’t make sense.

But it was no accident.

For the painting had served as an inspiration for the script of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1950’s biblical blockbuster The Ten Commandments, and so it now had a fabulous and filmic backstory. Moreover, it had been owned previously by the radio and television producer Alan Funt, creator of the long-running hit show Candid Camera. Indeed, Funt seemed to have stockpiled paintings by Alma-Tadema, amassing so many that he was able to parlay an exhibition of them at The Met in 1973—despite the objections of director Thomas Hoving, himself a master showman perhaps annoyed by Funt’s pile-driving personality. For here was a collector who demanded top billing and got it, even from The Met. He probably also had a hand in dreaming up the breezy, almost flippant title of the exhibition—Victorians in Togas.

And what an exhibition. Here were thirty-five of the most sensual, drama-dripping oil paintings perhaps ever seen in one exhibition at the museum. Many of the works appeared in exotic hand-carved frames designed by the artist for eye-dazzling effect, as if suggesting to the viewer that each painting had somehow descended directly from Roman collectors in the time of Tiberius, Claudius and Nero. Hoving must have gone mad with this conceit. All that was perhaps missing during the exhibition was a toga party!

The public lapped it all up, and the value of Funt’s paintings skyrocketed—not least The Finding of Moses. It was brilliant packaging, using a museum for co-branding, just the sort of promotion that the Saatchi bothers in England would later employ. They would cheaply buy up masses of work by little-known art school graduates like Damien Hirst; advertise it aggressively with the help of a museum willing to lend endorsement through an exhibition aimed at causing a stir and attracting crowds; and then, having achieved a glorious inflation of values for the art, sell off at great profit. Alan Funt in his day was thus a pioneer in the arcane, often cynical dealings of 20th century art market speculation.

Interestingly, Funt had once trained as a commercial artist at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Perhaps had he not gone into television he might thus have become a dealer specializing in Victorian art. But this would have been a roller coaster ride all the way.

For despite occasional spikes in popularity during the past few decades, Victorian art has steadfastly remained the same—an acquired taste.

These thoughts came to mind on a visit to London in late spring of this year. In fact, the entire trip seemed to have Victorian art and architecture as a recurring theme.

My daughter Gillian was completing an art business program at Sotheby’s Institute, and her accommodations for the year had been pure Victorian. She had found a residence hall for young ladies in Kensington just opposite Royal Albert Hall and across the road from the magisterial Albert Monument. The residence hall, built in red brick and terracotta in 1885 in a Jacobean/Queen Anne style and named Queen Alexandra’s House, has practice rooms to accommodate the many residents studying nearby at the Royal College of Music. The ladies take their meals together, decorum is strictly observed, and guests are received at the front desk under the watchful gaze of a matron. One can almost feel here the hovering, protective spirit of Victoria herself.

It being a bank holiday weekend, we decided to visit a few museums in and out of London in order to explore Victorian art more closely. Thus on a bright Saturday morning we walked down Pall Mall and caught the 88 bus to Clapham Common, alighting near Tate Britain. The museum was almost empty, and we amused ourselves by watching an eerie performance piece by artist Anna Hamilton called “The Squash” before moving on to the Turner galleries.

No artist is more prominently displayed at the Tate than J.M.W Turner, who on his death in 1851 bequeathed to the nation 2,000 paintings and 19,000 drawings, a vast and spectacular trove that included monumental oil paintings of naval battles, Roman ruins and Swiss mountains as well as drawings, watercolors and sketches done on Turner’s constant travels throughout England and the continent. The Turner Bequest is thus a museum unto itself, reminding one not only of Turner’s genius as a painter but his Victorian sense of industry and inventiveness. For he was an Impressionist long before Monet and Pissarro; ran his own private gallery to display and market his paintings to greatest advantage; and was at once the envy and scourge of his peers.

But while Turner was surely the greatest of all Victorian-era artists, the art market seems to have spared him any comparison with his lesser peers by identifying and distinguishing him—in marketing terms—as British rather than merely Victorian.

This seems an odd distinction, but it makes perfect sense. Hence when appearing in the auction saleroom at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, for example, an important work by Turner is likely to be presented in a catalogue for Old Master paintings, thus elevating him to the level of Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian and Caravaggio. Also elevated in this manner are Turner’s esteemed countrymen Gainsborough, Reynolds and Constable, as if to confirm their standing in the same pantheon of the greatest European artists of past centuries.

As Lionel Lambourne explains in his book Victorian Painting, labeling is thus everything in the art market:

Until quite recent years the term ‘Victorian’ was used, when describing paintings, as a dismissive and pejorative term, frequently coupled with the word ‘sentimental.’ Today, although convenient, the word is still frowned on by the academic fine art world, for most serious art historians prefer to use date-specific or stylistic terminology such as Romantic Realist, Realist or Symbolist, although the salerooms continue to hold regular sales of ‘Fine Victorian Pictures.’

Hence we see that Victoriana is divided almost in half: the upper tier including Turner and his peers, who get special treatment in the salerooms; and the lower tier encompassing all others. I suppose this makes sense—with one exception.

In this lower grouping one would have to include the Pre-Raphaelites, surely the most sensational and alluring of all Victorian artists and well deserving of their own thematic showcase.

These artists—a “brotherhood” that chiefly included Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt—believed that English art in the early 19th century had become trite, pompous and repetitive. They were also appalled by the advances of industrial technology and wished to dream of a simpler and nobler time, as one might envisage in legends and myths. Thus a painting by Burne-Jones of 1863 entitled The Merciful Knight celebrates the 11th century legend of a Florentine knight who was embraced by a wooden effigy of Christ because he had shown mercy to his defeated enemy—a perfect Pre-Raphaelite statement of idealism. One can easily see how such vivid and dramatic paintings stood out from the ordinary Victorian fare of sentimental slush.

The Tate is a treasury of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by all the major artists, and I walked about the rooms entranced, looking up at paintings stacked high and dense on the walls, some nearly disappearing from view. I had seen them many times before on previous visits—Love and the Pilgrim by Burne-Jones, Beata Beatrix by Rossetti, Christ in the House of his Parents by Millais—and yet the sense of poetry and mystery they convey seems always to me timeless, immediate and powerful. John William Waterhouse’s haunting oil painting of 1888, The Lady of Shalott, carries this description on the card beneath it, summing up precisely the Pre-Raphaelites’ vision of fairy tales, myths and heroic tragedy:

In Tennyson’s poem, the eponymous Lady is cursed for gazing directly upon Sir Lancelot. She floats downstream to her death.

The experience of all that emotion can be exhausting. And so Gillian and I thus repaired to the Tate restaurant, with its dazzling, story-like mural by illustrator Rex Whistler entitled The Expedition in Pursuit of Red Meats. But it was too beautiful a day to sit inside, and so we were shown to a table in the garden where we dined and listened to a jazz trio. We then took a boat across the Thames to Tate Modern and walked about the brilliant Picasso 1932 show and planned our next excursion.

I was now in search of more Victorian paintings to see but especially eager for more Pre-Raphaelites. Hence we were off to Birmingham in the morning.

The train sped through the English Midlands. Looking out the window at the passing verdant landscape, I was mindful of all those period paintings of gleaners and harvest scenes, of sheep in pastures and rainbows on the horizon, that have perhaps given Victorian art such a bad rap. There would be more paintings like these at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, but also an immense and magnificent collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings, one of the largest in the world.

Walking up from the Birmingham train station into town we suddenly were immersed in High Victorian architecture, the buildings mainly in red brick and terracotta, many long converted to other uses. On Church Street, for example, the austere former Birmingham and Midland Eye Hospital (1883) is now the chic Hotel du Vin and Bistro. Nearer the Museum, on Margaret Street, is the vast and gloriously-decorated Birmingham School of Art, which in the late 19th century was a center for the Arts and Crafts Movement in England.

Passing through Victoria Square and on to the Museum, we found the entrance hall deserted, as if we had arrived at the wrong place. We proceeded up the grand staircase, past a painting of elegant shoppers commemorating Birmingham’s Corporation Street in the more prosperous days of 1914, and made our way to the majestic central rotunda, with its vaulted skylights and profusion of Victorian pictures arrayed on the drab red walls.

As at Tate Britain, the paintings here are stacked high and deep, and so I concentrated on a few enchanting and dramatic ones at eye level, like The Parable of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins (1899) by W. J. Wainwright, a minor Pre-Raphaelite. Nearly all of the paintings on the walls were encased in glass, and thus the reflections bounced wildly off their surfaces as I moved about in order to gain the right angle for taking photographs. The antique setting of the rotunda, in all its color and faded grandeur, made the experience of viewing these densely-packed old paintings seem all the more Victorian.

But we had come here to see the great Pre-Raphaelite collection, and so we made our way in that direction. Enroute we passed a stiff yet sumptuous group portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of The Roffey Family (1765). It depicted a “rising middle-class” couple and their children, the portrait intended to be a sign of their newly-achieved wealth and social status.

This image stayed with me as we entered the great rooms filled with Pre-Raphaelite paintings, for the artists here seemed to have been entirely oblivious to the societal preoccupations and pretensions of the previous century and its artists.

For here were more myths and enchantresses aplenty, a fairyland of make-believe stories and legends and heroes painted in lush, dense colors. Burne-Jones (born and raised in Birmingham, and thus a local hero) reigns supreme here. There was even an old black-and-white photograph of him on the wall. He is perched on a staircase, brush and palette in hand, as he pauses from working on the enormous watercolor painting The Star of Bethlehem, which was commissioned by the city fathers for the opening of the Museum in 1887.

This Victorian civic pride was apparently the reason why an astute and wealthy group of Birmingham subscribers began acquiring Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings with a vengeance in the early 20th century. This effort has continued to the present day. Hence Birmingham now has the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings in the world.

But with so many exotic and ravishing paintings to view in these rooms I could not tear myself away from one in particular. I had seen it before only in a book, and now here it was before me in all its ravishing colors and dark narrative.

It was the painting Medea by Frederick Sandys, based on the Greek legend of the Golden Fleece. Scorned by her lover, Medea is preparing a deadly potion in revenge, clutching at her coral necklace in a gesture of pure torment as she mixes her poisonous potion of deadly nightshade berries. Two mating toads and an Egyptian votive figure add further sinister overtones to the composition. The Museum’s brochure shared the following gossipy insight on this mesmerizing painting:

Both Sandys and Burne-Jones were excited by sexually confident and independent women. Sandys had an affair with a gypsy woman and artists’ model, Keomi, who is likely to have modelled for this painting.

 There was much more to see, but Gillian had made luncheon reservations for us at the nearby Hotel du Vin and so it was time to leave for Sunday roast. Tearing myself away from Medea and heading out into the grayness of Birmingham, I felt a renewed appreciation for Victoriana in all its surprising forms and expressions.

However, as far as its achieving a wider and more appreciative audience in the current art market, I wasn’t so sure. It would perhaps require many more stirring and sensational paintings like Medea—and the promotional wizardry of an Alan Funt—to achieve that feat of reinvention.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Frederick Sandys, Medea. Photo © Birmingham Museums Trust.)