The Victorians - Towards the Modern World

Marching backwards into the Future: the Arts

We have seen how men like Pugin and Morris hated the ugliness of the new Victorian city and how, for the latter at least, this ugliness represented the ugliness of social injustice as well. The first signs of a reaction to the world being created by the Industrial Revolution - its rationalism as much as its obsession with material wealth - comes in the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827). Largely ignored in his own time Blake wrote the most transcendental attack on the spiritual poverty of his age:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountain green...
And was the holy lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem, builded here
Amongst these dark Satanic mills?

In contrast to Blake who never saw the worship of Nature as an alternative to materialism, there were poets like Wordsworth (1770-1850) who made Nature into a kind of god. This idea was also to be found in the work of the 18th Century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who coined the idea of the natural man - a 'noble savage', born free but everywhere in chains.

Alas, the French Revolution showed what 'natural' man was capable of when the restraining forces of community and tradition were swept away. But the 'back to nature' movement did not disappear. It is present in the paintings of Constable and Turner and even more so in those of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Millais, Rosetti, Holman-Hunt etc) although their inspiration came as much from literature as from life.

Pre-Raphaelite paintings illustrate an obsession which underlies all Victorian art: to teach, to warn, to improve. Even simple landscapes can contain a hint of fate or time passing, some reminder of the consequences of neglect or sin. It is often impossible to understand the picture without knowing the story it represents - a complete contrast to the narrowly visual impact of much modern art. Skill was also highly regarded: a society which had built the London sewage system or the Great Western Railway was unlikely to respect an artist who couldn't draw.

By the end of the century some Victorian artists had almost lost contact with reality, preferring a dream-world filled with symbols, like that of Edward Burne-Jones, or archaeologically correct re-creations of the past like Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Others, as we have seen, took their love of the past in a political direction. William Morris looked forward to the return of the pre-industrial world, ironically rejecting technology at just the same time as men like Jules Verne and H G Wells were imagining what it might achieve.

Like Karl Marx, Morris thought that capitalism would be destroyed by its own internal contradictions. The workers would eventually seize the means of production and distribute the products of their labour to each according to his need. Few people shared his view: many more believed in the truth of the old saying: give two men ten pounds each and within a year one will have twenty and the other none. Modern governments have resolved this issue by redistributing wealth through the tax system but it is a process that can only be taken so far. Just how far remains the point of division between the modern Conservative and Labour parties.