EXHIBITIONS / By the people, for the people: The South London Art Gallery was founded by the Victorians for the working classes. So what was thought suitable for poor men's eyes?

'ART FOR the People: Culture in the Slums of Late Victorian Britain' is a melancholy and moving account of philanthropic enterprises that today seem utterly outmoded. Perhaps it's surprising to find a show about working-class art in the relatively aristocratic Dulwich Picture Gallery, but the director at Dulwich, Giles Waterfield, is an expert on museum history, and he has had the unusual idea of mounting a tribute to a neighbouring institution, the South London Art Gallery on the Camberwell Road.

This gallery, or Slag, as many people call it, is the quite large building at the side of Camberwell Art School. Opened in 1891, it was a very handsome affair for its time and situation, but for many years it was neglected. Student exhibitions were occasionally held there, but generally the doors were closed and one had the impression of a place that was both private and dead. Nobody ever saw the works that made up Slag's permanent collection, so their meanings were never considered. Waterfield now displays some of the Slag holdings, together with representative works from other galleries of the same sort, primarily the Ancoats Museum in Manchester, the Guild of St George Museum in Sheffield, London's Whitechapel Gallery and the Toynbee Hall. All of these were founded at the end of the last century in the belief that the study of art would enrich the lives of people whose social conditions were otherwise wretched.

The South London Art Gallery owes its existence to William Rossiter, hitherto an obscure figure. We learn that he was a student and later a teacher at the Working Men's College in Camden. Rossiter founded the first free library in south London before he turned his attention to art. Slag was his idea, intended to be an extension of the public library system, and he recruited a number of prominent artists to help in various ways, among them Watts, Lord Leighton and Burne-Jones. This show's catalogue, which I recommend for its scholarship, gives a fine account by Nicola Smith of Rossiter's career, while Leonee Ormond describes Lord Leighton's role in Slag affairs. She stresses that the German background of this somewhat aloof painter - though he was after all president of the Royal Academy - led Leighton to poor districts of south London, because he derived from Germany a belief in 'new museums and art galleries for the enlightenment of the general public'.

All this is well described, and on the Dulwich walls and in its cabinets there's an array of material showing Slag in its early days. But what sort of art did Slag think was appropriate for working people? Here we come across a melange of social and aesthetic attitudes. Rossiter dreamt of Slag being 'the National Gallery of south London'. Obviously this was a nave goal, especially since there were no funds available for purchases. In any case, classic European art (such as that found in middle-class Dulwich, down the road) did not seem appropriate for the slums. But workers should still have enlightening and beautiful art. Love of nature was to be encouraged. The civilisation most admired by many Victorian progressives, that of early medieval Italy, was to be studied in depth. All French art was wicked. Crafts were to be admired, and practised wherever possible. Religious painting should be symbolic and non-denominational.

Little wonder, with this set of ideals, that the art should be so lacking in individual vigour. The sadness of this fascinating exhibition is in the modesty and anonymity of its contributors. In painting, the dominant style is that combination of academicism and late pre-Raphaelitism that opposed the fresh naturalistic art of the 1880s and 1890s. One notices the low status given to portraiture. It's as though a direct response to another personality was somehow deemed a private irresponsibility. At the same time there's a stress on individual sacrifice as much as endeavour - nowhere more so than in Evelyn de Morgan's The Christian Martyr.

Watts called her 'the first woman artist of the day', but we can't see that de Morgan was either abundantly talented or a leader. The philanthropic galleries movement gave much new space to women, both as artists and as members of various governing councils. None the less, this previously under-represented force resembled their male counterparts in their acquiescence to higher authority. Much importance was attached to the copying of early Italian masters. Ruskin's assistant, Louise Blandy, shows what she can do in copying a Fra Angelico, but not what she can do by herself. Evelyn de Morgan was fatally trapped by the twin influences of Botticelli and Burne-Jones. Her martyr, delicately chained and with one naked breast displayed, might be the artist herself. Or the picture might have been painted by a man.

Useless to look for painting of the first class in this exhibition. That is not its point. I appreciate Leighton's intelligent little copy of a Veronese - so unlike Ruskin-inspired copying - and lament Ford Madox Brown's ugly studies for his rejected House of Commons decoration, The Body of Harold Brought Before William the Conqueror. Still, Madox Brown represents an odd corner of British 19th-century art and has admirers who will wish to see these drawings. And there are other surprises. I hadn't expected to find Henry Scott Tuke in this company, since he was so influenced by Parisian painting and specialised in naked males, studied from life. His Boy Drinking is the best piece of sheer painting in the exhibition.

By 'sheer' I mean uncluttered by obligations. Too much art of the philanthropic movement looks anxiously towards propriety, holiness, the spiritual values of labour and the general social good. By contrast, Tuke is an individual sensualist. I applaud him but don't wish to quarrel with the exhibition as a whole. It illuminates the period before liberalism became socialism and before modern art was genuinely modern. And the catalogue is a contribution to social history of a sort that we rarely see from art historians.

'Art for the People: Culture in the Slums of Late Victorian Britain': Dulwich Picture Gallery, SE21 (081-693 8000), to 26 Jun.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Arts and Entertainment

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment