Victoriana | Pushing the Wave


James Laver

Ward Lock & Co. Limited, 1966.

Vintage Books #10
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Victoriana - Cover
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Victoriana - The Angle at the Sepulchre
Victoriana - Faust-Henry Irving
“The Victorian Age

Forty years ago, the word “Victorian” was simply a term of abuse; it stood for all that was stuffy, heavy, and overladen with ornament. Lytton Strachey, in his wickedly urbane Eminent Victorians, had just demonstrated that the Victorian Age was not only all of these things but ridiculous as well. No one dreamed of collecting “Victoriana”, no one, that is, except Arnold Bennett, who was thought extremely eccentric and even a little perverse, for his interest in papier-mâché furniture with scenes of Balmoral by moonlight in inlaid mother-of-pearl. Now, a generation later, all that is changed. Today paper-mâché tables and chairs command high prices in the sale-rooms; ball-fringes can sometimes be seen on the most sophisticated curtains; even wax fruit has come back into favour. All these, together with bead-embroidered footstools, japanned ink-stands and paper-lace valentines, have acquired a “period charm”. People are even beginning, with a certain wry smile, to admire examples of Victorian anecdotal painting: shaggy dogs gazing mournfully at the coffins of their dead masters, angelic infants giving away their dolls to ragamuffins, the wives of fishermen (or the mothers of prodigals) eternally gazing out of windows into the darkness, pink angels, old women in church, gamblers’ wives, fallen idols, thatched cottages, dying children – those are beginning to be treasured once more.

This raises one of the most difficult questions in the psychology of taste. We like to think that taste is static, and what we admire today would always have been admired id only our ancestors had been educated up to it. We like to think that beauty and ugliness are objective realities, eternal in the heavens, unchanging although the skies should fall. The truth is, unfortunately, very different.

It is very instructive in this connection to study the history of feminine fashion; that is, the department of the applied arts which is most easily and most visibly, influenced by “Fashion”. It seems to be a law of our own minds that the fashions of our mothers are hideous, the fashions of our grandmothers quaint, the fashions of our great-grandmothers charming, and the fashions of our great-great-grandmothers beautiful. Anyone can check this for himself by looking through a historical sequence of fashion-plates. But the same law operates, at a slightly larger remove, in all the other applied arts. It is equally true of furniture and interior decoration. There is an incapacity to appreciate what lies immediately behind us and a readiness to accept (and even to pay highly for) what lies further back. The “second-hand” and the “old-fashioned” gradually take on the patina of the “antique”.”
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Victoriana | Pushing the Wave