The Victorians: Britain Through the Paintings of the Age, By Jeremy Paxman

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The Independent Culture

This enjoyable book, written to accompany the BBC series of the same name, doesn't challenge too many of our assumptions about the Victorians. We know now that a stuffy exterior hid many a seedy life, as Jeremy Paxman illustrates with the life of one popular and populist painter, William Powell Frith: he managed to father 12 children with his wife, and seven with a mistress he kept hidden in another part of London.

We also know – largely thanks to Charles Dickens – that the Victorian city was an over-populated, unhygenic and damaging place, full of poverty-stricken beggars, underage chimney sweeps and prostitutes. In fact, Paxman argues that writers led the way in describing the troubles of city expansion, and it was the artist who had to play catch-up, which led perhaps to the most representative type of painting of any age we have. The Pre-Raphaelites may have embraced symbolism, but it was realist art, as it was realist fiction, that dominated.

Each age gets the art it deserves, and the Victorian era of colonial oppression and work-houses got some real stinkers – but probably not as much as it should have.