‘You ought to love colour, and to think nothing quite beautiful or perfect without it.’ John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing, 1857
The exhibit at the Ashmolean is aptly named ‘Colour Revolution’; this was not just a passive display of pretty colours, but a tearing down of social expectations, both that the Victorians had of colour, and the expectations we have of the Victorians.
The exhibit teases us first with Queen Victoria’s black mourning dress. It is tragic, unadorned, and for something so unexpectedly tiny, it seems to encapsulate the entire Victorian period. This myth is quickly derailed as the exhibition plunges us into the world of John Ruskin, which is full of colour and movement. The first room introduces us to some quintessential Victorian painters; besides Ruskin, there is John Brett and John Everett Millais, both with paintings of varying styles and composition and both of whom showcase colour in all its glory.
The following room has an information board called ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ which highlights the links between art and science. There are many pieces that specifically feature nature, with beautiful feathers and depictions of beetles on display – and rainbows!
There is a mix between artefacts, textiles, and paintings throughout the exhibit, and the following rooms have bright dresses and other decadent pieces of clothing which greatly contrast the black dress at the start.
The last two rooms feature Victorian art influenced by internal cultures, particularly from Greece and Rome but which also includes influences from the Middle East and North Africa. The second to last room could be seen as troubling; the colours and landscapes are vivid and brilliant but the subject matter acts as an uncomfortable reminder of colonialism. As the title of the exhibit suggests, this is a ‘revolution’, not just a presentation, and with it also comes implications of violence which occurred in the process to progress.
The final room is the exhibition’s crowning moment and shows the transformation of Victorian colour. Crucially, it also features art outside of England; art that is truly international instead of just internationally influenced. Now colour is used for all sorts of different things. Eugène Grasset’s La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict) (1897) is jarringly modern, with black, white, and yellow emphasising the extremity of her situation. Yellow is featured again in James McNeil Whistler’s The Yellow Room (1883-1884) which is meant to show how an ideal house is like the ‘inside of an egg’, and once more in Aubrey Beardsley’s Keynote Series Poster (1896). This is an advertisement to a series of short stories which feature liberated women and focuses on their growing emancipation.
Besides the section on the ‘Yellow Nineties’ – yellow was extremely popular in the 1890s -, there is also a section on the ‘Japanese Blues’. This section shows complicated, brilliant Japanese pieces of art such as Utagawa Hiroshige I’s Fireworks of Ryōgoku bridge, Edo (1858), but also the familiar blue that features in other Victorian artefacts and art.
The exhibition closes chronologically and brings us to the pictures of Sarah Angelina Aclland, a pioneer of colour photography. Happily, one of her photographs does feature a rainbow; I suppose it is hard to have a colour revolution without them! The photography may be considered a disappointing end for a 21st century audience. Although the exhibit is chronological, and so this order makes sense, the photographs do not match the drama of the mourning dress or the assaulting brightness of some of the other works. This is especially because of how easy it is for us to take pictures. Nevertheless, there is also something exciting in this final exhibit: it contains the promise of something new, and we can look back and admire the start of a grand adventure.
Like the November Rainbow streaking across Alfred William Hunt’s otherwise bleak depiction of the Dolwyddelan Valley (1866), the exhibit proved to be provoking, surprising, and delightful.
For more info on the exhibit, check out Madeline Hewitson’s (Research assistant for the exhibition) article: https://www.ashmolean.org/article/the-colour-revolution-in-victorian-fashion