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.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
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.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003