A dear friend gave me as a present Jeremy Paxman’s book The Victorians: Britain through the Paintings of the Age (2009), a very refreshing volume which is by no means a history of Victorian painting but a look at the Victorian age through its pictorial obsessions. The volume, it turns out, is a tie-in of Paxman’s own BBC 4-episode documentary series (also 2009). This, having much enjoyed the book, I had to see and, well, I’m just done. I can only say I have been thinking of my students all the time, envious that they can now use DVD (or YouTube) to learn about Victorian times in an exciting way that was not available to me or my peers back in the prehistoric 1980s.
Paxman is a journalist backed by a good team of documentary researchers but by no means an academic specialist in painting. Perhaps that’s an advantage in this case. His choice of paintings and artists is decidedly heterogeneous and eclectic, depending possibly too much on the Victorian issues he wants to illustrate and not the other way round. Dissatisfied viewers/readers can, of course, check more advanced introductions to the not too highly regarded Victorian painters. Yet, thinking as a non-British teacher of Victorian Literature for foreign students, and also as an individual simply interested in Victorianism, I found Paxman entertaining, didactic and quite ambitious in his wish to present an overall picture of Victorian Britain. I found also his method, and in general that of the BBC’s best documentary work, quite congenial with Cultural Studies, which is possibly why I found book and DVD rewarding.
Reading through a couple of reviews I realise that there is indeed a touch of the Arnoldian philistine in Paxman’s approach and in my own appreciation of it. Yes, John Ruskin, the leading Victorian art critic is disregarded, all questions of aesthetic criticism are dismissed with a simple shrug and, in the end, the message, which seems endorsed by the National Trust, is to go and see for yourself where the paintings are hanging in Britain. It’s a populist approach with no excuses, yet I wish we had something remotely similar in Spain (or Catalonia), where despite El Prado none seems to have thought of producing documentary work in the same vein. And what for, at any rate? To bury it in a corner of La2?
Paxman insists several times throughout the series that Victorian painting was the cinema of the time and, indeed, his last comments are to the effect that, somehow, cinema did away with the need to document contemporary life through pictorial realism (or wild illusion). Photography is present in the series, particularly as regards portraits yet I find it peculiar that he thinks of cinema as painting’s great rival. I should think that his series highlights in the end something else: the impossibility of ‘reading’ 20th century life through its pictures and, thus, photography’s final victory over the documentary value of painting (at least until the advent of video).
I do feel a bit of a philistine, yet being quite happy with the amount of new learning I have got from book and DVD I can only recommend them. Do judge for yourself.