Pop goes the colour.  

21 September 2023 until 18 February 2024, an exhibition revealing 19th-century Victorian life as one of colour bringing together various artistic practices such as textile, painting, fashion design, sculpture and jewellery.

As a child and even a tween, I had an obstinate belief that Victorian photographs were monochrome because the world was. I even thought that the sun was black and white. Most view Victorian Britain with smog-clad stereotypes, possibly not quite to my extreme, but no one could have predicted the reality this exhibition unearths. It turns out that Victorian Britain was awash with colour. The only evidence to suggest otherwise is Queen Victoria’s mourning dress which hangs in a Victoria and Albert Museum cabinet like a leather-carved iron maiden/judge kept company by a cheerfully dreary Hard Times quotation. They’d be laughed out of court. 

We begin the exhibition with John Ruskin, a pioneering patron, who was certainly fruitful in his desire to return to mediaeval art, in which depicting colour (faithfully) was highly prized. As we know, he was not very fruitful in his personal life, having failed, from 1848 to 1854, to consummate his marriage to Euphemia, ‘Effie’, Gray… maybe this is why. He had his own crack at colour with some rather sweet calendar-style pictures but the better are by his protégés, members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood such as John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal. Looking at their paintings, you’re in a pinball machine viewing the colour parallels between the influencers and influenced, the curators controlling your speed and direction. 

There are a few loose threads in the entrance and the first room. Despite ‘COLOUR!’ kind of being the idea, the lights are rather dark. Yes, this was probably done for conservation and to make the colours zing, but it’s a stitch worth questioning. The family-fun trail of aggressive yellow dots with prompts such as “If you could step into this painting, what would you see and hear and smell?” — a question directed towards Turner’s work which he would not be best pleased about — also comes off as slightly too garish. Cue unintelligible words, grumbles and grunts. The dots should be restricted to National Trust territory. ‘Just ignore them,’ you might say — but despite being lowly positioned for the kiddies, they lurk in your peripheral like they’re part of an optician’s test. Millais’ delightful work of childhood innocence, The Woodsman’s Daughter (1851), fills the kid quota. Let’s leave it at that.

The exhibition soon picks up in the Colour for the Masses section, and not just because it isn’t so clad in dark light. Here we can learn how colour wasn’t just for the period drama elites grâce à William Henry Perkins who synthesised violet dye. We could now add an e to dying. Just to prove they weren’t colour hallucinating, two fashion cabinets are brimming with synthetic dyes including a sexy crimson Ann Summers/VS-style corset and a gown that looks like Violet Beauregarde stretched out (didn’t you ever wonder what happened to her?) Britain’s ‘colourful’ past is rightfully explored with the middle section focusing on international expeditions, the archaeological part of the exhibition. From North Africa and the Middle East, objects were “bought, gifted, and looted”, giving further rise to this colour obsession but also the disparaging views the ‘Western’ world had — see Exoticism and Orientalism — which the captions rightfully contextualise. Read these. Ignore the gimmick with the fun-fair attraction “Can you see the images in 3D?”. Just imagine penny-dreadful equivalents. 

The previous rooms have rather felt like making the garment with Sewing Bee’s Sarah Pascoe counting you down, but the garment is finished in the final room; Patrick thinks it’s made to perfection and even Esme isn’t requesting a bow. All’s good with the world. Why? Enter the Colour for Colour’s Sake section, which certainly doesn’t elicit the reaction ‘for god’s sake’. Here we see the Decadent movement of the 1870s, where colours weren’t deified but used for ‘artistic or sensual effects’. The curtains are a nice touch, too. There’s a woman slumped on the sofa drowning in blaring arsenic, not quite as toxic as the hangover she seems to have. You yourself might start acquiring a hangover from The Yellow Book magazine (an early The Sun) but you can always calm down with Japanese Blues where we discover ‘Western’ artists’ association of Japan with the colour blue provided a springboard for their own experimentations such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne paintings.

The fantastic phrases continue with The Tanagra Craze. It’s not a newly hyped drink — not yet anyway — but 4th-century BCE figurines popular with cool kids like Wilde and Whistler. The last stations are Sarah Angelina Acland and Loie Fuller. The former was a vanguard of experimental colour photography, the latter a designer who made her own costumes, dubbed ‘The Electric Fairy’. Though, as interesting as these figures are, they slightly feel like excess fabric here. 

Overall, as Wilde says of colour in the final room, this exhibition “speaks to the soul in a thousand different ways”. It’s certainly covered the culture in every medium, French seams, backstitches, steaming and all. Maybe just don’t look too closely at the hems.