Back in May, I went to see the exhibit, “Life, Legend, Landscape: Victorian Drawings and Watercolours” at the Courtauld Gallery in London. Many were works apparently shown for the first time. There were some beautiful Turner watercolours depicting Swiss scenes, such as “The Fall of the Rhone at Schffhausen” and “Brunnen, Lake Lucerne.”
I was most struck, though, by the female portraits, like William Etty’s chalk drawing “Female Nude with a Cast of the Venus De Medici” from 1835-7. An exploration of the real and the ideal, the illustration shows a nude model standing next to, and embracing, the cast of Venus. Oddly, though, the female forms are almost entirely identical, so that the painting doesn’t seem to reveal the shock of the real woman in contrast to the idealized sculpture. If anything, it seems to suggest that the real figure is even more graceful and fleshly than the fake. This seems an intriguing version of the Pygmalion myth: instead of the sculpture changing into a real woman, the figures stand there together, strange doubles of one another. Which one constitutes the copy, I wonder?
Perhaps more interesting than the completed works were the studies. These were often sketches for paintings, and thus allowed us to see drawings in a kind of unfinished state, their final role not entirely completed. George Frederic Watt’s “Study for Portrait of Emily Tennyson,” was beautiful, just a simple outline of Emily Tennyson’s lovely profile. And Whistler’s “Elinor Leyland” was striking in the young subject’s direct stare at the viewer.
After admiring the exhibition, I stumbled into a room that I enjoyed even more. The “Characters and Caricatures: Late Victorian Illustration” exhibit featured some wonderful, very funny figures. I was surprised by William Nicholson’s “Queen Victoria” (1897), a lithographic reproduction of a hand-coloured woodcut. Nicholson made this to celebrate Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and it was first printed in the New Review in June 1897, and later in William Heinemann’s Twelve Portraits (1899). A not-so-slim, aged Victoria is shown next to her dog. It seems a not very elevating portrait of the Queen, so it’s perhaps surprising that it was meant to commemorate her reign. It’s also quite charming, though, and I bought a postcard version for my office so that I could show my students what the Queen looked like (at least according to one artist) near the end of her reign.
In addition to a great Max Beerbohm sketch of Lord Rosebery, sprawled on his sofa looking, like a ridiculous dandy, I enjoyed surveying Nicholson’s London Types series (1898). These lithographs of various people, and often workers, that one encounters in London were influenced in part by Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster style. Their categorization as “types” – and the title for the portrait of the barmaid, “Barmaid – Any Bar,” suggest that unlike the unique Queen Victoria, these portraits are representative, rather than personal. Yet there is also an intimacy about the lithographs, and the figures appear not ridiculous, but almost stoic in their daily tasks. It might be interesting to think about these figures as clichés, in light of the Northeast Victorian Studies Association’s upcoming conference on Victorian Clichés and Orthodoxies.