Exhibition review: ‘A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection’

Highlights from the Pérez Simón collection of British Painting reminds Matthew Dennison of Victorian artists' obsession with feminine good looks.

Dexterity without intimacy was one contemporary’s verdict on Frederic, Lord Leighton, the colossus of the Victorian art world: ‘The art was there, but the heart that should have glorified it was hidden, and the doors were locked and barred.’ Some 52 paintings currently on loan to Leighton House Museum, the artist’s Holland Park home, from the private collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón include works by Leighton himself and a number of his contem-poraries, most of them known personally to Leighton.

Viewed against late-19th-century interiors intended specifically for the display of such works, they demonstrate a seductively somnambulant vision in which technical prowess and aesthetic considerations of composition and tonality overwhelm discernible emotional content: a hegemony of art over heart.

Female beauty is the focus of most of these paintings, from the chocolate-box simpering of William Clarke Wontner’s Valeria and John William Godward’s Classical Beauty to the plush eroticism of Leighton’s own pearlescent seminude, Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle, and John Melhuish Strudwick’s compellingly peculiar Song without Words, with its Burne-Jones-influenced image of maidenly sexlessness.

None of these pictures offers the viewer insights into women’s nature or the female condition, nor even invites speculation. Instead, they essay generic female perfection, captured in oil and watercolour as a spectacle or an imaginary ideal. All the artists included in the present exhibition, in works dating mostly from the last decades of Queen Victoria’s reign, sought to create a template of beauty in a manner they considered truthful.

Some used Bible stories for inspiration, some ancient mythology (it is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, that inspired and also legitimised Sir Edward Poynter’s stupendous small-scale nude, Andromeda). Other artists, chief among them the Dutch-born Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, embraced a deliberately historicist idiom, in which Classical roleplay and archaeological detailing enabled the artist to free his models from the constraints of Victorian corseting and come closer to exposing the female silhouette in a variety of contour-hugging, diaphanous garments.

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Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea (1871) by Frederic, Lord Leighton, whose Holland Park home is the exhibition's setting

Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea (1871) by Frederic, Lord Leighton, whose Holland Park home is the exhibition’s setting

For today’s audience, these are paintings to admire and absorb. They fail to invite any active engagement on the viewer’s part. Possessing neither narrative nor emotional content, they make no demands on us beyond a willingness to acknowledge their pretensions to loveliness. They are static, remote, and it is the exceptions, such as Leighton’s Antigone and Charles Edward Perugini’s equally theatrical But, O, for the touch of a vanished hand and sound of a voice which is still!, that suggest ambiguity or appear to encourage personal interpretation.

More often, it is colour harmonies and quality of draughtsmanship that claim our attention. In Albert Moore’s A Quartet: A Painter’s Tribute to the Art of Music, the extreme order-liness of Moore’s composition its uninterrupted harmony of light and colour successfully dispels the viewer’s reservations about muscle-bound men dressed as ancient Greeks playing violins in a state of near nudity, while their audience of pretty maidens treat us to peek-a-boo glimpses of rounded buttocks and a vast double bass overshadows everything.

There are surprises along the way. Henry Payne is a mostly forgotten figure. He worked mainly in stained glass and devoted 20 years to frescoing the chapel at Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, later immortalised by Evelyn Waugh as the supposed model for Brideshead Castle. His best-known painting, The Enchanted Sea of about 1899, was acquired by Mr Pérez Simón in 1994 and illustrates an incident from George Meredith’s riposte to The Arabian Nights, The Shaving of Shagpat: An Arabian Entertainment.

Payne chose to depict a princess and a falcon sailing in a cockle-shell across a dark sea full of sleeping figures. It is a richly eccentric image, in which the princess’s sumptuous garments suggest the work of Frank Cadogan Cowper and yet the poignancy of her unhappy gaze is sufficiently powerful to draw and hold the viewer’s gaze. The painting’s story will be unfathomable to the majority of exhibition goers: Payne’s jewel-like colour pairings remain potent.

That assessment rings equally true for the best-known painting in the show: Alma-Tadema’s tour de force, The Roses of Heliogabalus of 1888. No matter that few people are familiar with the life story of the 3rd-century Syrian emperor Heliogabalus. In Alma-Tadema’s treatment, the suffocation by rose petals of the emperor’s victims is sim-ultaneously decorative, orgiastic and vicious, and the emperor and his cronies regard this flower-strewn scene with decorous impassivity much as today’s viewers engage with the bulk of these beautiful, considered but largely passionless images.

‘A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection’ is at Leighton House Museum, 12, Holland Park Road, London W14, until March 29
020–7602 3316; www.rbkc.gov.uk/LeightonHouseMuseum