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Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Victorians Decoded at the Guildhall Art Gallery

Hello all our lovely followers! It's officially autumn - the days are cooler, the leaves are starting to turn, and most importantly, it's a new season for exhibitions! Hooray! There are so many exciting things to see over the next few months - but as you must know by now, we are very partial to the Victorians and anything Victoriana. So first on our list has to be The Victorians Decoded at the Guildhall Art Gallery. We fell in love with the gallery a few years ago during their Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition, so we were very excited for some more 19th century fun. This time teemed up with KCL and the Courtauld Institute the exhibition aimed to incorporate science and technology (namely the laying of the Transatlantic Cable) into how we see Victorian art. But does it succeed? 

In 1858, the first Transatlantic cable was laid, which allowed Queen Victoria and the President of the United States, James Buchanan, to exchange the first ever official transatlantic telegram. Unfortunately the line went down a few weeks later, but finally in 1866, a more permanent cable was established. Telegraph technology was not only handy for heads of state to exchange formalities, the speed of information sharing had significant effects on the world economy and the way everyday life was experienced. The Victorians Decoded sets out to discover how telegraph technology revolutionized life in the nineteenth century, and how this was captured by art. The exhibition is structured around four thematic focuses: Distance, Transmission, Coding and Resistance. 

We love exhibitions which combine art and science. Having King's College London as a partner not only contributes to the research aspect, but allows KCL to show off some of its impressive object collections. Your first real 'wow' moment on entering the exhibition is a striking collection of Daniel cells which, together, form an early battery. This metal behemoth was used to send electrical impulse down the miles of transatlantic cables. The first room themed around 'distance' is filled with seascapes, including some impressive Henry Moore paintings. Personally, the most exciting were the large maps visualizing the rapidly increasing networks of telegraph lines over the closing decades of the nineteenth century. 

In the main exhibition space, two small cases of objects are surrounded by large scale paintings. I particularly enjoyed the case featuring books of code, showing how the use of codes became a part of everyday life. But this is kind of where the literal connection between the cable and the art kind of comes to an end. The paintings in each thematic space link only really metaphorically to the endeavour of the cable, and some more tenuously than others. This work by Tissot (above), called The Last Evening, and appropriately set on a ship, considers the social codes which governed Victorian interactions. A beautiful piece by Frederick Leighton called The Music Lesson, considers how the vibrations of the guitar into music can be related to the passing of electrical signals along the cable. We kind of doubt Leighton was thinking about telegraphy when he painted this, but we definitely get the comparison. More tenuous might be the piece about the constructions of the pyramids in which the effort is compared to the difficulty of laying the cable. Or in which the Mayor's Parade is seen as a 'transmission of tradition'.

You do get the sense that themes were selected, and curators trawled through the collections of the Guildhall, the Courtauld, and Royal Holloway for things even loosely linked to what was being discussed. So - distance, the sea, a seascape by Henry Moore. I had maybe expected to see more art directly influenced by improved communications, maybe something slightly more about travel, or even set in telegraph offices. But then again I'm just a very literal person, and not an art historian, so perhaps I'm just too literal for this exhibition. Then again, if the purpose was to show off the spectacular Courtauld and Guildhall collections of late nineteenth century art, it certainly does that to excellent effect.

In the end, Victorians Decoded is a bit more art than it is science, so it depends on what exactly you are after. As an exhibition of nineteenth century painting, it brings together a diverse and fascinating collections of works for you to consider in a new light. I can't help but wish there was a bit more of an object focus to it, but then again if you wanted to see that you would probably be in the Information Age Gallery and not the Guildhall. In either case, the artworks are stunning, and the rationale behind it, to think more broadly about the influence of telegraphy, is certainly original. All in all, Victorians Decoded is definitely worth a visit as a celebration of an important milestone as well as the chance to see some iconic nineteenth century paintings in a new light. Worth the trip just for the giant painting of attacking polar bears, because, why not. 

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