In ‘Victorian Radicals,’ art reflects, and reacts to, industrialization

The emergence of modern ideals of labor, beauty, and identity is highlighted in a new exhibit, on view at the Yale Center for British Art through May 10.
Mary Newill, bedcover circa 1908
The border text and celestial decorating Mary Newill’s handmade bedcover — on view in “Victorian Radicals” at the Yale Center for British Art — are taken from the second stanza of “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth.

The questions raised in “Victorian Radicals,” a new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), manifest in the vivid juxtaposition of two objects at the show’s third-floor entrance: a carpet and a bedcover.

The carpet, produced in 1851 on a steam-powered loom, represents the pride of Victorian England’s manufacturing sector, said Tim Barringer, the Paul Mellon Professor in the History of Art at Yale and a curator of the exhibition, which runs through May 10. The bedcover, handmade in 1908 by artist Mary Jane Newell, embodies an artistic response to industrialization that prized craftsmanship over mass production.

In a way, the whole of this exhibition is really a reaction against this carpet,” he said, noting that the carpet’s manufacturer, John Crossley & Sons, could churn out thousands of identical carpets in a matter of days, a testament to the rise of industrial manufacturing.

The carpet’s aesthetic qualities — gaudy colors and a boisterous floral pattern — reflect common associations with the Victorian Era (1837 to 1901), he said.

It’s loud. It’s bright. It shows the virtuosity of making unrestrained by good taste,” said Barringer, who also is chair of Yale’s art history department. “The Victorians were proud of this textile because nobody had made a carpet so quickly in such saturated colors ever before.”

The embroidered linen bedcover draws a sharp contrast to the machine-made carpet. Newell, who taught needlework at the Municipal Art School in Birmingham, England, picked flowers from local hedgerows and imitated them meticulously in the blanket’s intricate embroidery.

When we came to display it, we found that it is not quite square,” he said. “Of course, it isn’t — it’s made lovingly inch-by-inch by hand and is a unique, hand-crafted textile.”

Barringer suggested Newell’s bedcover in effect critiques the machine-made goods produced in the factories that dotted cities like Birmingham in the early 20th century.

What is of value in our lives? What kind of labor do we value? What kind of life do we value?” Barringer said. “Is it the life of high-pressure, mechanized, capitalist moneymaking success embodied in that carpet? Or is it the art of thoughtful artistic creation reflected in this bedcover?”

“Victorian Radicals” at the YCBA; the machine-made 1851 carpet is visible at bottom left.
“Victorian Radicals” at the YCBA; the machine-made 1851 carpet is visible at bottom left. (Photo credit: Ronnie Rysz)

Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement” explores these and other questions through the perspectives of three generations of artists and designers who revolutionized art amid the industrialization of Victorian Britain. The 144 works on view include paintings, drawings, stained glass, textiles, metalwork, and ceramics by artists and designers such as Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, William Morris, Kate Bunce, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Taking its cue from these artists, the exhibition explores the relationship between art and nature, questions of class and gender identity, and the search for beauty in an unprecedented age of factories, soot, and child labor.

The show includes a varied selection of paintings by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a society of young artists who united in 1848 to reject the dominant style taught at the British Royal Academy’s art school, which venerated the works of Raphael and other Old Masters. One of the paintings on view, “The Blind Girl” by Millais, demonstrates the Pre-Raphaelites’ drive to depict real events and real people in vivid, natural colors, Barringer said.

John Everett Millais - "The Blind Girl"
When John Everett Millais first exhibited “The Blind Girl,” he learned that he had reversed the color spectrum in the double rainbow's outer band. Prizing realism, he corrected the mistake.

In the painting, a blind girl huddles with her younger sister by the roadside following a rainstorm. Rooks and cattle dot the yellow-green fields behind them. A brilliant double rainbow arches over a town in the distance. A sign around the older girl’s neck states, “Pity the Blind.” Her face is tilted into the warmth of the sun. A butterfly rests on her shoulder, an accordion on her lap suggests that she performs music for money. She gently grasps blades of grass between the fingers of her right hand.

That Millais chose to paint a beggar, not an exquisite Virgin Mary or an idealized Pandora, shows his desire to break from the religious and mythical subjects prized by his teachers at the Royal Academy, Barringer noted.

She doesn’t look perfect,” he said. “She looks real. She looks true.”

The exhibition’s final section focuses on objects produced by designers and artists associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, which emerged in Britain during the Victorian Era and focused on traditional craftsmanship as a response to industrialization. Highlights include a simple claret glass the architect Philip Webb created in 1861 for designer and writer William Morris, a leader of the movement. Morris used the glass at his home, Red House, in Southeast London, which itself was an artistic statement decorated with handmade stained glass, textiles, and ceramics.

He wanted to create a medieval modern house in which everything is beautiful; everything is useful,” Barringer said. “Sometimes that meant a simplification, which is very extreme. This looks like a modernist glass from 1900. Yet, it was made in 1861.”

The exhibition, organized by the American Federation of Arts and Birmingham Museums Trust, will tour the United States after it concludes its run at the YCBA. Barringer curated the show with Martin Ellis, an independent curator, lecturer, and broadcaster; Victoria Osborne, curator of Fine Art for Birmingham Museum’s Trust; and Courtney Skipton Long, acting assistant curator of prints and drawings at the YCBA.

Slideshow: highlights from ‘Victorian Radicals’

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