- The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art: Fictional Form on Display by Dehn Gilmore
The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art takes a new and highly original approach to the study of Victorian fiction. Dehn Gilmore explains that her subject is not what the Victorians looked at, but rather how they looked at it. This involves an analysis of the effects of what Gilmore calls “exhibition culture,” a viewpoint which resulted in extensive literary reference to what could be seen in the ever expanding art world. In this volume “exhibition culture” takes several forms: reference to the works of art which characters see, or which they hang in their homes; the use of language normally associated with the fine arts; the growth of art criticism; and the discussion of the merits and disadvantages of restoration.
Gilmore specifically relates these issues, and others, to the work of four Victorian novelists, Dickens, Thackeray, Wilkie Collins and Hardy, although her study is by no means restricted to these four. One common theme runs through each section: the idea of expansion and crowding. In simple terms this refers to the ever increasing opportunities for the population to see the fine arts on display. The opening of the British Museum (1759) and the National Gallery (1824) made art works available to many people who would never have seen them in private collections. Various measures made it possible for poorer people to visit galleries, and the foundation of the South Kensington Art Gallery (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) in 1874 was specifically intended to introduce newcomers to artworks of all kinds. Gilmore does not explore the related opening of a number of smaller London galleries all aimed at educating those who lived in poorer areas of the city, largely funded by philanthropists and sometimes sponsored by artists like Frederic Leighton and George Frederick Watts. Among these were the Bethnal Green Museum, The People’s Palace in the Mile End Road, the South London Art Gallery and the Whitechapel Art Gallery. In Manchester the Art Museum (1824) was set up with similar aims. This attempt to widen awareness was the subject of an exhibition, Art for the People, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1994.
These were public collections, but, at the same time, there was a huge increase in the number of people attending the private views of the annual Royal Academy exhibition, where the works were on sale. Writers, critics and cartoonists commented on the difficulty of actually seeing the paintings in the Academy, hung closely together and from floor to ceiling. This was bad enough, but, even worse, the paintings were frequently obscured behind other viewers, often wearing hats. William Powell Frith’s A Private View at the Royal Academy, a detail of which appears on the cover of this volume, is a perfect choice to illustrate this aspect of the argument. Crowds of well [End Page 252] dressed men and women, several deep, peer at the works, one woman even sporting binoculars. The painting was to some extent an attack on the aesthetes, and it is noticeable, and somewhat ironic, that, in the chosen section of the painting, only Oscar Wilde, surrounded by admirers, seems to be able to study the paintings intently.
The Academy exhibition is not the only one discussed here. Dehn Gilmore makes a particularly convincing argument for the effect upon literature of the three “great” exhibitions, at the Crystal Palace in 1851, in Manchester for the Art Treasures exhibition in 1857 and in South Kensington for the International Exhibition in 1862. In chapter three Gilmore shows how these were mentioned in sensation fiction, and draws a convincing parallel between the bewildering and even shocking effects of the exhibitions and the “sensations” to be found in the fiction of such writers as Collins, Mary Braddon and Ellen Wood.
In writing about the work of Dickens in chapter one, Gilmore draws a parallel between reactions to his novels and those to the display of the arts. Some of the comments...