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Queen Victoria’s Centenary at the Victoria and Albert Museum: Conspicuous by her absence

A weak exhibition that attempts to survey the Victorian legacy is partially redeemed by the accompanying book

London

It might be tempting to use a cliché here and say “you have to be newly arrived from Mars not to know it is the centenary of Queen Victoria’s death”, but I’m not sure that it is true. Looking at the programme of the year’s events—any celebration of the Queen’s life is conspicuous by its absence.

One hundred years is a special kind of landmark. Very few people are still alive who were born during the Queen’s reign (notwithstanding one very prominent centenarian, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, an Edwardian child raised by Victorian parents), but it seems almost too short a time to encompass the wholesale jettisoning of so much in which the Victorians had implicit faith—including Faith itself.

Many seemingly immutable social, scientific and cultural conditions have failed the test of history. Their vast empire has vanished completely, and with it a position of unassailable superiority. Surely the figurehead who presided over this for 64 years deserves to be at the absolute centre of an exhibition relating the events of her life?

What we have at the Victoria and Albert Museum is something different, an attempt—as the Blairite title “The Victorian vision: inventing new Britain” indicates—to relate the Victorians and their achievements to our contemporary experience. The idea is to chart the emergence of a modern Britain. The curator Paul Atterbury’s quoted aim is to show the Victorians as they saw themselves—powerful, creative, a confident industrial nation at the heart of the greatest empire seen in 1,000 years. The juxtaposition in this wide-ranging exhibition of art and technology is a reminder of the origins of the South Kensington Museum in the Department of Science and Art.

However, it is clearly not possible to incorporate into an exhibition of material culture the most interesting aspect of the Victorians, the moral dilemmas and ideological conflicts in every area of new experience, which resulted in the Herculean struggles of the Victorian intelligentsia to reconcile progress with piety and acceptable human behaviour. It can never be forgotten that one heroic thinker of the Victorian age was John Ruskin, Queen Victoria’s exact coeval.

The exhibition design by John Outram is intended as a virtual journey through the Victorian world, where we are invited to marvel at evidence of social conscience and cultural ecleticism. This is not a new idea; one of the first books to attempt a summary of the South Kensington Museum, titled Travels in South Kensington (by the Rev. Moncure Conway, 1882), proposed that a visit should be regarded as an imaginary journey, opening with the sentence “‘Come’, said my friend Professor Omnium, one clear morning, ‘let us take an excursion round the world!’”

In the exhibition, the Queen and her family are not forgotten, but they are subsumed in the theme of Victorian modernity.

The five main topics begin with, “The Royal Family” (news flash—Prince Albert enjoyed works of art depicting female nudes and Queen Victoria gave him presents of them), followed by “Society”, as exemplified in the paintings of modern life subjects by Frith, Alma Tadema and Landseer. These show that the Victorians enjoyed themselves with sport, the seaside and the theatre, but worried meanwhile about vile working conditions and other abuses of those less fortunate.

Then the exhibition tackles the vast subject of “Nature”, and the way in which Darwin’s theory of evolution challenged the old certainties. The impact of these great scientific discoveries on art and design is highlighted by a chair made of antlers, a sheep’s head snuff box and a stuffed tiger. “The World” as a topic is vastly ambitious and is here symbolically encompassed within a collection of ethnographic curiosities and gems and jewellery.

“New Technology” is a theme of such large implications that it should, of course, have an exhibition to itself. The potentialities of railways, steamships, telegraph and electricity are signified by a model of a submarine, juxtaposed with heated curling tongs, a photograph of one of the first X-rays and a 1900 car, sign-posting the achievements of an age of unprecedented change and daring technological experimentation.

The brief is ambitious and encyclopedic, but relating the story of nearly a whole century through objects that are basically decorative, however widely and loosely the term is interpreted, inevitably becomes partial and selective.

Queen Victoria devoted a great deal of thought to her legacy in this respect, building an unrivalled collection of paintings, sculpture, watercolours and photographs describing her life and contemporary events almost from day to day.

To see the Victorian era through her eyes could be more valid than seeing it through our own.

A lavishly illustrated publication accompanies the exhibition. It is not a catalogue, but serves as a reminder of the exhibition’s themes and visual references. It seems kinder to overlook the misspelling of a number of artists’ names, which cannot be due to the distinguished contributors.

“The Victorian vision: inventing new Britain”, 5 April to 29 July, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 2000

o Professor John Mackenzie (ed.), Victorian Vision: Inventing New Britain, edited by (V&A Publications, London, and Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2001) 360 pp., $35, $65 (hb) ISBN 0810965798

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Conspicuous by her absence'