Vicky Victorious

By Marek Kohn, 10 July 2001

Intentionally or unintentionally, the V&A’s Victorian Visions exhibition proffered a surprisingly accurate interpretation of New Britain – New Labour’s Britain that is. Among other things, its polite modus operandi also demonstrated how effective Victorians’ attempt to create a pleasing self-image has been.

Sometimes, to make a change from contemplating the original features of the Victorian house in which I live, I try to imagine how it must have looked when it was occupied by Victorians. The vision of overstuffed and ungainly gloom is equally agreeable, symbolising as it does our luxurious liberty, in which we hold the rights to the Victorian heritage but have escaped from its duties.

The V&A’s own Victorian Vision, marking the centenary of Victoria’s death, is likewise one which is at peace with the past. It hasn’t had to make peace; instead, it materialises upon an ideological field that had already been cleared. One of the merits of this exhibition is that it makes you stop and realise that this has happened. Many retired people can’t for the life of them understand why their descendants choose and cherish Victorian houses: they grew up in them when the buildings were oppressively middle-aged. Those now themselves middle-aged remember when ‘Victorian’ meant not only obsolete and unacceptable, but laughable. The “Victorian values” invoked by Margaret Thatcher were condemned as all those things. And they were seen as values for a ruthlessly divided society.

All that, it’s now apparent, is in a past from which the present has drifted clear. The public may now be invited to embrace the Victorians without a shudder and without irony.

At first glance the subtitle’s omission of an article looks like no more than an opportunistic grab for contemporary relevance. But this really is how we are supposed to see it. Victoria, says the introductory gallery text, ascended the throne surrounded by “economic uncertainty, republican agitation and social unrest. Yet, through industry, imagination, confidence and a sense of their own history, the Victorians were able to create a new Britain, with a new morality and democracy, and an enthusiasm for education and progress”. How uncannily like New Labour’s these Victorian values were, apart from the morality and democracy, and the absence of “choice”.

The nascent parliamentary Labour movement is represented by a picture of an orator addressing a crowd. Jutting forward at a Lenin-like angle, he could be a Bolshevik icon, but his listeners are decked out in top hats and straw boaters. This was presumably before the moment, noted by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, when working men universally asserted their class identity by donning flat caps and mufflers. In this context, though, the effect is emollient. Like the new Labour worldview, Victorian Vision is based on the understanding that there is only one grand story. Conflicts are acknowledged, but dwarfed and lost in the crowds milling underneath the Big Tent.

Compassion is also fundamental to both visions; and the V&A’s show presents many images that are truly moving. George Clausen’s The Stonepickers is luminously respectful to its subject, a girl carrying stones in her apron, and with them her opportunities in life. So is Thoughts of the Past, by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, which depicts a young woman whose gown and features both signify an exquisite balance between dissolution and classical beauty. Her situation is conveyed with elaborate discretion: the man’s cane on the floor, the harbour scene through the window, the moderate disarray of her effects, the clues undramatically adding up to suggest that she lives by selling sex. Her life may be a mess, but it is not a catastrophe. Paintings like these push the sentimental spaniels and even the Monarch of the Glen (displayed courtesy of UDV, United Distillers and Vintners) into the shadows.

A more selfish sympathy is apparent in the bust of African Venus. Her angles and her shock of spirals would propel her post-haste into today’s fashion pages, and we can take it that Venus was not intended ironically.

The caption notes that images of other races became uglier later, referring vaguely, and somewhat off target, to the emergence of eugenics (which is not the same thing as race science). And here the strategy of The Victorian Vision is apparent. It refers but doesn’t display. There are no examples of the caricatures depicting the Irish as gorilla-featured subhumans. In fact, there is next to nothing about the Irish at all. It would have been a different story if they had worn tartan.

One is hard put to find negative depictions of anybody else, either. Even in a painting of Europeans fleeing the Indian Mutiny, the only native is a loyal servant. The exhibition is, we’re told at the beginning, about how the Victorians saw themselves. This implicitly benign perspective excludes the unkinder lights in which they saw each other. A cartoon or two from Punch, that fount of over-rendered snobbery, would have been a salutary corrective here.

Instead, courtly standards of manners prevail. Royalty has the first section of the show to itself, and also sets the tenor of the ‘World’ section, which is largely about treasures and souvenirs. This is the most traditional, object-centred part of the exhibition; and the objects overshadow the relationships they represent, blurring the distinctions between diplomatic exchange, imperial tribute, and looting. Victoria herself is present throughout, her remarks prominent among the many quotations blown up into epigrams. Her comment upon communication, technology and power is particularly apposite: “I touched an electric button, by which I started a message that was telegraphed throughout the whole Empire.”

She also started a tradition of monarchical button-pressing which has obliged the present Queen to launch every grand technological slam short of the H-bomb. But it would be unfair to Victoria and to her husband to dismiss their participation as gesture. They were early adopters of the telegraph, which appeared the year before Victoria’s reign began. Later the widowed Victoria became, the exhibition tells us, an ‘enthusiastic’ phone user. Albert’s passion was the promotion of science and technology, his major achievement being his role in the Great Exhibition of 1851. As James A. Secord’s book Victorian Sensation recounts, among the texts that Victoria and Albert read to each other in the evenings was the bestselling evolutionist book Vestiges of Creation.

A royal telegraph machine is almost the first object in the show. Almost the last is a device whose significance is conveyed by the lines from Hilaire Belloc on its glass case: “‘Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not’.” Who ‘we’ and ‘they’ are is not elaborated, but the answer is given in John Ellis’s Social History of the Machine Gun. The killer application for the first fully automatic machine gun was to counter the advantage native armies had in numbers. In Hiram Maxim’s own words, it was for “stopping the mad rush of savages”. Its industrial effectiveness was confirmed at Omdurman, where the British achieved a kill ratio of 11,000 to 28.

Not only is it detached from this history, but it is kept well away from the Army section altogether. The Maxim is safely isolated in Technology, among the early movie clips and jolly advertising posters. Pointing towards the exit, it could be said allude to the ensuing century of mechanised slaughter. Somehow it looks more like it’s aimed at the gift shop.

Marek Kohn’s <marek.kohn AT> books include As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind (Granta), Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground (Granta), and The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science (Vintage).

'The Secret of England's Greatness', by Thomas Jones Barker, 1863. Oil on canvas. © National Portrait Gallery