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Victorian Neoclassicism and Romanticism - Art History Information

The Victorian era of the United Kingdom marked the height of the British Industrial Revolution and the apex of the British Empire. Although commonly used to refer to the period of Queen Victoria's rule between 1837 and 1901, scholars debate whether the Victorian period as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians actually begins with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency era and succeeded by the Edwardian period.

Queen Victoria had the longest reign in British history, and the cultural, political, economic, industrial and scientific changes that occurred during her reign were remarkable. When Victoria ascended to the throne, Britain was essentially agrarian and rural; upon her death, the country was highly industrialised and connected by an expansive railway network. The first decades of Victoria's reign witnessed a series of epidemics (typhus and cholera, most notably), crop failures and economic collapses. There were riots over enfranchisement and the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had been established to protect British agriculture during the Napoleonic Wars in the early part of the 19th century.

Discoveries by Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin began to examine centuries of assumptions about man and the world, about science and history, and, finally, about religion and philosophy. As the country grew increasingly connected by an expansive network of railway lines, small, previously isolated communities were exposed and entire economies shifted as cities became more and more accessible.

The mid-Victorian period also witnessed significant social changes: an evangelical revival occurred alongside a series of legal changes in women's rights. While women were not enfranchised during the Victorian period, they did gain the legal right to their property upon marriage through the Married Women's Property Act, the right to divorce, and the right to fight for custody of their children upon separation.

The period is often characterised as a long period of peace and economic, colonial, and industrial consolidation, temporarily disrupted by the Crimean War, although Britain was at war every year during this period. Towards the end of the century, the policies of New Imperialism led to increasing colonial conflicts and eventually the Boer War. Domestically, the agenda was increasingly liberal with a number of shifts in the direction of gradual political reform and the widening of the franchise.

In the early part of the era the House of Commons was dominated by the two parties, the Whigs and the Tories. From the late 1850s onwards the Whigs became the Liberals. Many prominent statesmen led one or other of the parties, including Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Derby, Lord Palmerston, William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. The unsolved problems relating to Irish Home Rule played a great part in politics in the later Victorian era, particularly in view of Gladstone's determination to achieve a political settlement.

In May of 1857, the Indian Mutiny, a widespread revolt in India against the rule of the British East India Company, was sparked by sepoys (native Indian soldiers) in the Company's army. The rebellion, involving not just sepoy's but many sectors of the Indian population as well, was largely quenched after a year. In response to the Mutiny, the East India Company was abolished in August 1858 and India came under the direct rule of the British crown, beginning the period of the British Raj.

In January 1858, the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston responded to the Orsini plot against French emperor Napoleon III, the bombs for which were purchased in Birmingham, by attempting to make such acts a felony, but the resulting uproar forced him to resign.

In July 1866, an angry crowd in London, protesting Russell's resignation as prime minister, was barred from Hyde Park by the police; it tore down iron railings and trampled the flower beds. Disturbances like this convinced Derby and Disraeli of the need for further parliamentary reform.

During 1875, Britain purchased Egypt's shares in the Suez Canal as the African nation was forced to raise money to pay off its debts.

In 1882 Egypt became a protectorate of Great Britain after British troops occupied land surrounding the Suez Canal in order to secure the vital trade route, and the passage to India.

In 1884 the Fabian Society was founded in London by a group of middle class intellectuals, including Quaker Edward R. Pease, Havelock Ellis, and E. Nesbit, to promote socialism. George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells would be among many famous names to later join this society.

On Sunday, November 13, 1887, tens of thousands of people, many of them socialists or unemployed, gathered in Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against the government. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren ordered armed soldiers and 2,000 police constables to respond. Rioting broke out, hundreds were injured and two people died. This event was referred to as Bloody Sunday.

Culture
This inescapable sense of newness resulted in a deep interest in the relationship between modernity and cultural continuities. Gothic Revival architecture became increasingly significant in the period, leading to the Battle of the Styles between Gothic and Classical ideals. Charles Barry's architecture for the new Palace of Westminster, which had been badly damaged in an 1834 fire, built on the medieval style of Westminster Hall, the surviving part of the building. It constructed a narrative of cultural continuity, set in opposition to the violent disjunctions of Revolutionary France, a comparison common to the period, as expressed in Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History and Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Gothic was also supported by the critic John Ruskin, who argued that it epitomised communal and inclusive social values, as opposed to Classicism, which he considered to epitomise mechanical standardisation.

The middle of the century saw The Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World's Fair and showcased the greatest innovations of the century. At its centre was The Crystal Palace, an enormous, modular glass and iron structure - the first of its kind. It was condemned by Ruskin as the very model of mechanical dehumanisation in design, but later came to be presented as the prototype of Modern architecture. The emergence of photography, which was showcased at the Great Exhibition, resulted in significant changes in Victorian art. John Everett Millais was influenced by photography (notably in his portrait of Ruskin) as were other Pre-Raphaelite artists. It later became associated with the Impressionistic and Social Realist techniques that would dominate the later years of the period in the work of artists such as Walter Sickert and Frank Holl.