Wednesday Book: Obsessions of a queen's reign

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BATTLE PICTURES, cattle pictures, fairy painting, marine painting, topography, mythology, low life, high life, fantasy and realism; as collectors and taxonomists the Victorians have only themselves to blame for the visual indigestion that is the first effect of opening these large, lavishly illustrated volumes, which aim to cover and classify the entire range of 19th-century British art.

Where to start? Portraiture, panoramas, Pre-Raphaelites. frescoes, flowers, fishermen. Angels, animals, aristocrats. Is style, genre, subject or school the better organising principle? Generally speaking, Christopher Wood opts for the last, with diversions into genre and subject. His Pre-Raphaelite preferences are plain to see.

Lionel Lambourne prefers subject - landscape, children, crowds, nudes - with afterthoughts on Aestheticism and Symbolism. Both include short chapters on women artists, without which their meagre representation would be virtually invisible (28 out of 500 illustrations in Wood, 39 out of 626 in Lambourne).

A former curator of painting at the V & A, Lionel Lambourne scores in the number of pictures and length of text while Christopher Wood includes the boldest work - John Collier's naked Lilith, erotically entwined with a giant snake. Seven feet tall, and improbably owned by the municipal gallery in Southport, she is a veritable stunner.

More familiar are Ophelia and Derby Day, the Monarch of the Glen and The Last of England. When Millais's Bubbles faces Fildes's Admission to the Casual Ward, or Edwin Long's Babylonian Marriage Market is shown alongside Simeon Solomon's Love in Autumn, the variety of the field sometimes mimics the random hanging of the Royal Academy in its heyday. It reminds us of the rich visual culture of the age, with painting only the top deck, so to speak, of a vessel that also carried photography, illustration, decoration and advertisement.

Neither book delves into the material conditions that produced such a wealth of portable pictures, much for private rather than public ownership, or into the patterns of purchase. But there is much here to ponder, including the long-enduring popularity of juxtaposing "fallen women" with the river Thames, as in Found Drowned. And why, given the Victorian cult of masculine prowess, does the heroic male not make a stronger appearance? Omissions are equally stimulating. Where, for example, is the religious art so favoured by the century that so spectacularly lost its faith?

British painters were apt to complain of the dearth of public patronage, in contrast to the situation in France where major works were bought by the state. As consort, Prince Albert aimed to improve things, both by promoting great public commissions such as the elaborate, never-finished mural schemes for the Palace of Westminster, and by royal purchases from the RA Summer Show. The restored Albert Memorial, in all its gilded glory, would have been an appropriate, albeit sculptural, illustration here.

The liveliest images are of urban crowds and seaside holiday-makers, occupying acres of canvas. Weston Sands in 1864, A Family Picnic in 1857 and Skating in St James's Park 1858, all by lesser-known artists, are as historically specific as Turner's The Fighting Temeraire or Elizabeth Thompson's Roll Call in the Crimea. Wood gives us Clausen's fieldworkers as well as Allingham's cottagers, while in a welcome overseas excursion Lambourne includes Robert Dowling's group of native Tasmanians as well as Remington's more familiar Wild West.

Lambourne also pairs Lost and Found (William Macduff's tribute to Lord Shaftesbury, showing two street urchins before a print shop) with Bastien Lepage's fine portrait of a London shoe-black from the Paris Musee des Arts Decoratifs.

Wood is strong on the Olympians and late Romantics, as well as including a pair of debutantes driving to Court, floating on white tulle, which would have made a jacket image had not both publishers preferred the perennial Waterhouse (Pandora and The Lady of Shalott respectively).

The forerunner of these two books, the catalogue to the exhibition The Victorians: British Painting 1837-1901, organised by the National Gallery in Washington two years ago, had a couple of Tissot's fashionable young ladies on its cover. Major exhibitions in recent years have brought once- ridiculed artists such as Leighton and Alma-Tadema back into eminence, while the V & A is currently planning a blockbuster to commemorate the end of the Victorian age in 2001.

Once, we knew what "Victorian" signified. Now, we are sometimes overwhelmed by quantity as well as diversity - not to mention the literal weight of volumes that cannot comfortably be held. Both, however, represent the revaluation of an artistic era at the end of a century in which its reputation sank almost to extinction. If - just suppose - the same fate were to befall Modernism in the next, what kind of painting would take its place?

Jan Marsh