Aspects of Victorianism

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, June 10, 2010 , , , ,

Tory Historian spent a good deal of today within the Victorian sphere. First a visit to the newly reopened Leighton House Museum, once home of Frederic, Lord Leighton RA, the only artist to have been ennobled. Sadly, he did not have children so the title died with him.

Leighton is not Tory Historian's favourite artists, being somewhat on the lush side of the Pre-Raphaelite movement but his drawings, watercolours and, even, portraits are well worth looking at. The large historical, mythological and Biblical paintings tend to reduce TH to helpless giggles. The house, however, is something to see.

Its refurbishment has not made any real changes (though one would like to know what happened to the De Morgan tiles that used to be displayed in a cabinet on the stairs, which now houses some very fine Iznik tiles on loan) and the contrasts between the study, the plush dining room and the Arab Hall (see picture) are fabulous to see.

The problem is that the newly reopened house, which has an interesting website (though at least one visitor was complaining about misleading information, so it might be worth telephoning before a projected visit), a wonderful display of paintings, drawings and furnishing, a varied programme of events but, also, a very annoying booklet.

Its condescending tone (both towards the visitors and about Lord Leighton) set one's teeth on edge and there seems little point in starting the information with the words "Frederic Leighton was one of the most famous British artists of the nineteenth century". Do we really need to be told that the fine peacock in the front hall was "a symbol of a Victorian art movement that Leighton is often associated with - the Aesthetic Movement"? This booklet is not for schoolchildren but for all visitors who might be expected to have found out something about Lord Leighton and his circle of friends. This, too, is curious: "The aesthetes were appalled by the ugliness of Victorian Britain and wanted to re-introduce a sense of beauty into the world through their art." It is as if the likes of John Betjeman had never existed.

All Tory Historian can suggest is a visit to Leighton House and a complete lack of interest in the booklet at the entrance desk.

Away from Leighton House Tory Historian investigated the bookshelves of the local charity shops (the only second-hand bookshops that seem to be around these days in most parts of London and the country) and found two treasures. TH's copy of North and South, one of the greatest of the Victorian novels, has long gone AWOL. It was, therefore, pleasant to be able to replace it.

Another book was the 1998 reprint of the fifth Earl of Stanhope's Conversations with the Duke of Wellington. This counts as Victorian history as the conversations took place between 1831 and 1851, the Duke's death.

Reading Elizabeth Longford's Introduction and looking up details about the Earl of Stanhope made Tory Historian realize that he, too, was a fascinating man, one of those exhausting Victorians who seemed to achieve a great deal both in public and personal terms.
Stanhope's chief achievements were in the fields of literature and antiquities. In 1842 took a prominent part in passing the Literary Copyright Act 1842. From the House of Lords he was mainly responsible for proposing and organising the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1856. A sculpted bust of Stanhope holds the central place over the entrance of the building, flanked by fellow historians and supporters Thomas Carlyle and Lord Macaulay. It was mainly due to him that in 1869 the Historical Manuscripts Commission was started. As president of the Society of Antiquaries (from 1846 onwards), he called attention in England to the need of supporting the excavations at Troy. He was also president of the Royal Literary Fund from 1863 until his death, a trustee of the British Museum and founded the Stanhope essay prize at Oxford in 1855. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1827.
Apart from all this he managed to write a number of serious historical works as well as his notes on the conversations with the Duke. The question really is why has nobody written a biography of this outstanding politician and historian?


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. I too have recently visited Leighton House and agree it was well worth the visit. However I must disagree in regard to the booklet. I thought it was beautifully presented and the black and white photos were fascinating to me... and yes I did need to be told that the peacock was a symbol of the aesthetic movement! For me it was not condescending but perfectly pitched and I still have my booklet as memento. A wonderful refurbishment of a unique house that is accessible to all.

  3. Tory Historian stands corrected on the subject of the booklet (though with reservations) but agrees about the refurbishment.

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