My Thoughts on ‘The Victorians: Britain Through the Paintings of the Age’ by Jeremy Paxman


‘The Victorians: Britain Through the Paintings of the Age’ by Jeremy Paxman

WARNING: You do not need to be an art-enthusiast, or a Victorian Know-It-All, to be able to enjoy this book! If like me, you usually avoid art history like the plague and your knowledge of Victorian history is far from expert, then ‘The Victorians’ by Jeremy Paxman is the book for you.

Paxman is probably the only person (so far!), who has successfully presented art to me as an interesting subject. Undoubtedly Paxman’s career as a journalist and TV Presenter, which is made infamous by his wit and his ‘to-the-point’ attitude, helped achieved this. These renowned traits are mirrored within his writing style, which result in his book being incredibly fast-paced and engaging throughout. From the very first page Paxman had me hooked, and I found myself eager to read this book at any available opportunity.

‘The Victorians’ is pure genius, simply because Paxman presents Victorian art as the 19th century version of a modern day cinema. Not only are 21st century audiences gaining valuable insights into Victorian society through their artwork, but the Victorians themselves also used paintings as glimpses into their ever-changing society. Paxman relays how thousands of people would gather to view these paintings. In some cases barriers had to be installed and policemen stood guard to control the crowds!

Paxman strongly argues, that by analysing Victorian artwork we can gain a greater understanding into how the Victorians lived, what they believed in, what they admired, as well as what they feared. These paintings gives us a valuable insight into the dramatic changes that swept through Victorian society, whether it be cultural, religious or industrial transformations. Paxman’s concept is extremely unique and refreshing. Readers are able to view Victorians in a whole new light. Through their paintings, Paxman demonstrates that we can actually find out an awful lot about them! What’s more, you don’t have to be an art expert to do it!

All of British 19th Century society is covered in this book, despite its small size. The rise of the middle classes is talked about a lot in this book, as many successful artists of the age joined the ranks of the bourgeois due to their talents. Moreover, these middle-class artists recorded on canvas what other social circles were experiencing at the time, such as the average labourers’ working day, and how the upper-classes rubbed shoulders with the lower ranks. Paxman uses paintings of transport, landscapes and public events to discuss how society was rapidly transforming during this time. I also found the chapters focusing on immense poverty to be a particularly fascinating.

The lives of certain Victorian artists are also unveiled in this book. Although you may have never heard of them before, Paxman reveals that they were in fact amusing (and sometimes controversial) characters! One spent most of his life confined in Bedlam, yet continued to paint inspiring works of art. Another committed adultery, whilst trying to maintain an image of harmonious married life. Furthermore, one artist even went so far as to photo naked models, but only when his poor wife was out of the house and therefore completely oblivious!

All in all, Paxman’s idea to study Victorian art allows his 21st century audience to delve into the mindset of those complex Victorians. Paxman shows that 19th century paintings depicts the Victorians’ pride in their industrial revolution and developing Empire. However, their paintings also portray the Victorian’s fear regarding dire social issues, such as life-threatening poverty and the development of science. Paxman reveals how some paintings are attempts by the artists to escape reality, whether it be through fantastical scenes or images harking back to the ‘good ol’ days’.

As I mentioned before, ‘The Victorians’ is genus! it successively erased my fear that this subject would be disengaging. If anything I completed this book with a new-found appreciation for Victorians, their artwork and their artists. Whenever I next get the chance to view 19th century artwork, I will certainly take the time to study it and hopefully discover more about this impressive episode in British history.



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