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Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain

Can art change the future? In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Victorian artists, viewers and critics began to believe it could. As poverty, hunger and disease all became increasingly urgent issues in industrial Britain, many artists began to question how their work could benefit society. Believing that art could create action, they produced paintings, prints and decorative objects that were designed not just to comment on social problems, but to actively participate in solving them.

Showcasing the range of strategies that developed during this period, Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain explores how art was used as a vehicle for social change from the 1840s through to the end of the nineteenth century. This exhibition reveals how, in the Victorian era, art came to be recognised as a powerful political tool – one that could change minds, inspire debate and even shape the future.

The 1840s and the 'Condition of England Question'

The so-called 'hungry forties' was considered to be the grimmest decade of the nineteenth century. As industrial progress continued to steam ahead, famine, unemployment, pollution and extreme poverty followed in its wake.

In response to these desperate circumstances, public enquiries and news reports began to actively investigate social issues, including dangerous working conditions, abuse in the workhouses and inadequate urban sanitation. A spirit of reform took root, and numerous social and political movements also began to call for wide-ranging change.

As Victorians became increasingly aware of stark social inequality, many began to question how such dire conditions could be permitted to exist in a seemingly prosperous nation. The philosopher Thomas Carlyle called this widespread concern the 'Condition of England Question'.

Social Subjects & the Arts

As public enquiries shed new light on Britain's social problems, authors and artists began to represent poverty more vividly than ever before. By focusing on the human narratives at the heart of industrial Britain, they placed issues of social inequality at the forefront of culture and society.

Stories of social injustice inspired the poetry of Thomas Hood and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and filled the pages of novels by authors including Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens.

Painters also began to represent society's most pressing problems. Among the era's most socially conscious artists were Richard Redgrave and the young George Frederic Watts.

Articles and Exposés

From the 1850s, publications exploring social issues became increasingly popular. Journalists used interviews and undercover reporting tactics in an attempt to document people living in poverty in Britain. While these articles and exposés were intended to inspire compassion and philanthropy, they often stereotyped their subjects as an 'Other' within British society.

Eagerly read by the upper and middle classes, these texts were often illustrated to enable readers to visualise the conditions in which many people lived and worked. Designed to appear factual, these images showed a clichéd vision of poverty that presented people as objects of curiosity.

From Print to Paint

In 1875, the critic John Ruskin wrote that every painting in that year's Royal Academy exhibition looked as though it could have been found in an illustrated newspaper. Scenes of everyday urban life began to disrupt conventional gallery displays of historical, biblical and mythological paintings. While some critics welcomed this development, others questioned whether these contemporary subjects had a place in fine art.

Artists used a variety of stylistic strategies to represent inequality, painting idealised depictions of poverty or harrowing scenes of deprivation. In bringing social issues to the public's attention, artists aimed to rouse support from audiences who had both the influence and the financial means to take action.

'Pictures for the People'

The social reformers Henrietta Barnett DBE and Samuel Barnett believed that art was critical to social change. The couple argued that increased access to the arts would improve lives and help to diminish inequality.

In 1881, they staged an art exhibition in St Jude's schoolhouse in Whitechapel, Victorian London's most deprived district. The Barnetts encouraged artists and collectors to lend their best works and invited the local community to attend. The exhibition proved so popular that it became an annual event for the next 20 years.

Some critics have asked whether the Barnetts' philanthropic eorts were a form of cultural imperialism, dictating to the working classes what they should value and enjoy. Others have suggested that they satisfied a genuine need. The annual exhibitions eventually led to the founding of a more permanent establishment: the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

Reviving Craft

At the end of the nineteenth century an estimated one in seven people in Britain worked in a factory, supporting the nation's growing manufacturing economy. Commentators including Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin argued that this pursuit of wealth exploited workers. Factory conditions were often dangerous, overcrowded and unclean, putting employees at risk of illness, injury and death. Critics of the factory system also believed that by repeating the same laborious tasks all day, every day, workers' individual creativity was being eroded.

Opposing the dehumanising eects of industrialised labour, artists sought to revive traditional craft practices, that they feared would otherwise be lost. They argued that craft production would provide improved working conditions, support local economies and create higher quality, more beautiful objects. This ethos underpinned the Arts and Crafts movement.

'Art for All'

In 1891, Mary and G F Watts established a studio-home, Limnerslease, in Compton, Surrey. Concerned by the impact that industrialisation had on rural life, the Wattses sought to use their art to establish new creative opportunities, which aimed to stimulate social change within the local community.

Having previously taught clay modelling in Whitechapel, Mary Watts set up free weekly classes for the villagers of Compton. Based in the drawing room at Limnerslease, participants created decorative terracotta tiles for the exterior of the Compton Cemetery Chapel. Building on the success of this enterprise, Mary Watts established the Compton Pottery or Potters' Arts Guild, an initiative that provided employment and a creative outlet for the local community for over 50 years.

In founding Watts Gallery, Mary and G F Watts strove to expand public access to art beyond Britain's urban centres. Designed by a local, emerging architect, Christopher Hatton Turner, the Watts Picture Gallery first opened on 1 April 1904. Today the building remains a testament to the couple's belief in the value of art. In the words of G F Watts, art plays a key part in 'the world's well-being… [and is] more than ever valuable, and even necessary, in an age, like the present'.

Following the recent national lockdown, our Historic Galleries and temporary exhibition are temporarily closed. Ahead of reopening, we hope that you will enjoy this virtual curator tour of the exhibition, available on YouTube and the Smartify app

Click here to discover Smartify

Photography by : Luke Hayes Photography

Artwork credits:
The Condition and Treatment of the Children employed in the Mines and Colliers of the United Kingdom, Parliamentary report, compiled by Richard Henry Horne, 1842, photographic reproductions. National Coal Mining Museum of England

Song of the Shirt, G F Watts OM RA (1817 – 1904), c. 1847, oil on canvas. Watts Gallery Trust.

Old Age: A Study at the Westminster Union, Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1849 – 1914), 1877, mixed media on board. Private Collection.

Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, Sir Luke Fildes KCVO RA (1843 – 1927), 1874, oil on canvas. Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Pinch of Poverty, Thomas Kennington (1856 – 1916), 1891, oil on canvas. Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum, London.

Time, Death and Judgement, Cecil Schott (life dates unknown), after G F Watts OM RA (1817 – 1904), c. 1884, watercolour on paper. Watts Gallery Trust.

G F Watts Mosaic on the exterior of St Jude's Church, Whitechapel, unknown photographer, photographic reproduction. Hampstead Garden Suburb Archives Trust.

Castle Leslie Pot and Cobra Pot, Compton Potters' Arts Guild, c. 1900, terracotta. Watts Gallery Trust.