Guildhall Art Gallery rehang breathes life into a major Victorian art collection

By Richard Moss | 23 January 2015

Like Victorian Art? There's a new essential stop on the itinerary at London's Guildhall

a photo of a gallery with many pictures on the wall.
Guildhall Art Gallery has re-hung its Victorian Collection © City of London Corporation
Like many civic holdings of Victorian art in the UK, the City of London Corporation collection is both important and fascinating, but for too many years the vast majority of its artworks have lain submerged, out of sight from most people save curators and staff.

Now, at last we can see more of it, which comes as welcome news because the Guildhall’s Victorian collection is one of the best of its kind, with examples by Frank Holl, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Millais, Byam Shaw, Juan Tissot, Holman Hunt to name but a few.

The Guildhall Art Gallery had, for nigh on a century and a half attempted display this roll call of famous (and some lesser known) names, but even after a sensitive redevelopment in 1999, which reinstated the Gothic building savagely torn apart by the Blitz, the revolving selection never did justice to its depth and range.

With the accent in the permanent galleries firmly on the Victorian, the paintings have now been placed in what seems to be a wholly Victorian manner - in every nook, cranny and corner, on walls painted appropriately in Aesthetic movement green.

Effectively doubling the display, there are nudes, Pre-Raphaelite maidens, social realist tableaux, classical fantasies, industrial and pastoral scenes, municipal and society portraits and just about every manifestation of the Victorian aesthetic.

A thematic approach has arranged this eclectic haul according to themes of home, beauty, faith, leisure, work, love and imagination.

The intention, say the curators, is to “challenge preconceptions” about Victorian art being dated and to help modern viewers “draw parallels with life today”. And it has made for some interesting unions.

Dante Gabrial Rossetti’s flame-haired La Ghirlandata (1873) sits demurely below a surprising painting by Stanhope Forbes, On a Fine Day (1903), which reveals how the realist painter of Cornish fishing communities dabbled in Pre-Raphaelite escapism. Presumably his vision of medieval maidens cavorting on Albion’s hillside was painted en plein air?

There’s the inevitable John Everett Millais, who’s My First Sermon and My Second Sermon, display both the artist’s mastery of capturing children - and his descent into slushy Victorian sentimentality. And the Victorian taste for melodrama, which is also well served, notably via John Collier’s Clytemnestra (1882), a wonderful life size painting in which the subject clutches a double headed axe stained with the blood of her husband, Agamemnon.

Collier is an interesting Victorian whose broad taste in subject was combined with an eye for a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite female form.

Click below to launch a gallery of images from the exhibition.
Elsewhere the collection boasts everything from perfectly executed Alma Tademas and Leightons casting their luminescent light on the classical world, to Tissot’s Thameside narratives of love and adventure hinting at the coming age of elegance.

In the Leisure section, an interesting pairing brings together Augustus Edwin Mulready’s Dickensian vision of childhood poverty, Remembering the Joys that Have Passed Away (1873), with an intriguing view of Hampstead Heath by the unknown artist Frederick Edwin Bodkin.

Landscape with Pines (1894) stands out here for the way it breaks the conventions of landscape of the period; Bodkin offers a lively alternative view of the Heath that contrasts pleasingly with James Baker Payne’s similar, yet prescribed, effort below. 

And if you have come in search of pomp and grandeur, Michelle Tedesco’s A Pythagorean School interrupted by Sybarites (1887) is everything you might want in a Victorian history painting.

Dealing with a classical subject via an improbably large canvas, it was presented to the Guild by the Italian Ambassador in 1894 and the curators have done remarkably well to accommodate such a wonderfully excessive narrative painting. It's neither good nor bad, but like the collection as a whole, it is simply impressive.

Yet the gallery, with its undercroft, temporary exhibition galleries and remains of London’s amphitheatre in the basement, is not without its challenges.

Where somewhere like the Watts Gallery or Leighton House Museum are settings full of the atmosphere of Victorian Britain, the Guildhall, with its office doorways marked private and paintings hung next to the lifts, feels much more like a civic setting. There’s a real sense of a working building here – rather like a court or a council. 

And in a way that makes it an appropriate space in which to display paintings that have spent most of their lifetimes in surroundings like this.

Perhaps a little Victorian drapery, a pot palm and aspidistra or two would really ramp up the sense of Victoriana,  but then it’s the paintings that really matter here, and these make the Guildhall another essential place to enjoy Victorian art.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24's Painting section:

Van Dyck takes a seaside holiday in Margate as self portrait heads out on exhaustive UK tour

Dulwich Picture Gallery lines up major Eric Ravilious retrospective for summer 2015

Sea change: John Virtue captures the ephemeral on a monumental scale at Towner

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