THE ART OF EMPIRE: HOW VICTORIAN ART CHANGED THE WORLD
Hilary Hope Guise, professor of art history, Florida State University, lecturer and artist
When an eighteen-year-old girl took the throne in 1837 to become Queen of England and Empress of India, she would shape the values not only of the home territories, but also of the farthest reaches of the Empire. Perhaps never has there been a period in which the function of art was so actively harnessed to the needs of a growing and changing society.
The queen’s character and strength of purpose imbued an entire visual language that could be easily understood by the least educated people. It carried her Protestant Christian beliefs out into her Empire and served to build the foundations of a stable society. Story-telling narrative paintings, often with a double entendre, but about real people and real events that everyone experienced, such as loss through war, death and emigration, gripped the common imagination. These paintings that breathed Victoria’s own values were then copied as steel-faced copper engravings or mezzotints and shipped out in large numbers around the world by organisations such as The Art Union of London. They became the world’s first visual mass medium.
We see the heroism of women for the first time in art. War is not only about patriotism and glory in battle but about the love and endurance of those left behind. We see the courage of children, orphaned or blind, or sent away to run the Empire. We understand the Christian message more vividly through contemporary contexts. We see the growth of a social conscience leading to the founding of great philanthropic societies for the blind, the orphaned, those in prostitution, for the protection of animals against cruelty, and most famously for the abolition of slavery. Victorian artworks such as ‘The Hunted Slaves’ may have played a significant part in this great achievement led by William Wilberforce.
As the Empire grew to its dizzy heights towards the closing decades there was a flight from modernism – and artists were drawn to the fantasy of the Middle Ages, Arthurian legends, and the luxuriant decadence of ancient Rome.
1. A young queen takes the throne
2. The Empire strikes back
3. Escape from industrialism