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.