Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

By Richard Moss | 13 November 2012
a painting of icarus attended by several semi naked women
Herbert Draper, The Lament for Icarus (1898)© Tate, London 2012
Exhibition Preview: Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate, Birmingham Museum and art Gallery, Birmingham, until January 13 2013

Bombastic, beautiful, paradoxically sexy and laden with layers of symbolism, Victorian paintings continue to fascinate British audiences.

Like the popular literature of the day, the paintings of the Victorian era plundered the classics for subject matter and bestowed gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines with the same seemingly distinctive aesthetic of limpid complexions and downhearted countenances that today seem so symbolic of the times.

At Birmingham Museum and art Gallery, a great civic collection established in the late 19th century, you will find the perfect location to view many classic examples, and this wonderful exhibition complements a rich collection with 11 great Victorian paintings borrowed from Tate.

a painting of a naked figure in a doorway
Anna Lea Merritt, Love Locked Out, 1889.© Tate, London 2012
Among the rarely traveled selection is JW Waterhouse’s haunting The Lady of Shalott, (1888, Tate) which depicts Tennyson’s doomed heroine sailing down the river to her death.

For its sojourn in Birmingham, a stronghold of Pre–Raphaelite art, it is displayed amid earlier depictions of the subject by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Birmingham artist Arthur Gaskin, to explore the palpable influence of the “Brotherhood” on Waterhouse. 

Similarly Herbert Draper’s The Lament for Icarus (exhibited 1898, Tate), a wonderfully overblown Victorian interpretation of a Greek myth, is accompanied by Birmingham’s Alfred Gilbert and Frederic Leighton sculptures of the male nude figure – which might help cast a little light on the complex and changing Victorian attitudes to the body in art.

Alma Tadema’s Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon (1868, Birmingham Museums), together with A Silent Greeting and A Favourite Custom, reveal the Victorians’ serious interest in depicting the classical period.

Elsewhere, classics such as Anna Lea Merritt’s Love Locked Out (1889, Tate) show the grieving figure of Love pushing vainly against the locked gold doors of a mausoleum.  Painted shortly after the death of the artist’s husband, the painting was the first by a woman to enter the national collection.

Another great Waterhouse, The Magic Circle (1886, Tate), is joined by a pair of classic Birmingham treasures, Frederick Sandys’ Medea (1866-8) and Morgan-le-Fay (1864), to explore the enduring Victorian appeal of the seductive yet dangerous sorceress.  

The Victorian fondness for depictions of drama, love, beauty, tragedy and death may be familiar to modern British audiences but these paintings remain endlessly fascinating, and still worth experiencing.

  • Open 10am-5pm (10.30am-5pm Friday, 12.30pm-5pm Sunday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @BM_AG.

a painting of a long haired woman in medieval garb in a boat
JW Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott (1888)© Tate, London 2012
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