Culture & Creative IndustriesNews

Can art change the future? In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Victorian artists, viewers and critics increasingly believed it could. Opening at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village on 17 November, Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain will be the first exhibition to focus on the Victorian roots of art activism.

From the 1840s, as issues of poverty, hunger and disease all became increasingly urgent in industrial Britain, a number of artists began to question how their art could benefit society. Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain explores how artists sought not only to comment on social problems but to use their art to actively help solve them.

The exhibition features key works by Sir Luke Fildes, Thomas Kennington and William Morris, which will be exhibited alongside G F Watts’s radical series of early social realist works (Found Drowned, Under a Dry Arch, Song of the Shirt, all 1847, Watts Gallery Trust). Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain reveals how, in the Victorian era, art came to be recognised as a powerful tool that could enact social change, improve lives and ultimately shape the future.

Often working in conjunction with social movements, Victorian artists were at the frontline of reform efforts. From harrowing scenes of deprivation to idealised, sympathy-inducing images of suffering, artists believed in the power of art, which they hoped would have direct emotional effects on their viewers and ultimately lead to policy changes.

Such stark contemporary scenes were painted and exhibited on an unprecedented scale in British art of the period. The exhibition includes Sir Luke Fildes’s Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874, Royal Holloway, University of London) – one of the most celebrated works by one of the foremost social-realist artists in Victorian Britain. While many praised the painting, recognising it as a significant call to arms, some took offence at this panoramic portrayal of destitute families queueing for overnight accommodation in a workhouse. One critic from the Saturday Review deemed it ‘too revolting for an art which should be to please, refine and elevate’.

Exhibited alongside works including W A Atkinson’s The First Public Drinking Fountain (1859-60, The Museum of the Home, London) and  Thomas Kennington’s The Pinch of Poverty (1891, Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum, London), the exhibition considers how artists worked both within and outside of the boundaries of what was considered ‘acceptable’ in order to make their art constructive to their chosen cause.

From major Academy oils to graphic illustrations in the contemporary press, Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain considers how and why artists chose to circulate their art across Victorian society in different ways. Emerging in the later nineteenth-century, the discourse on access to the arts led to significant changes to Victorian exhibition culture. Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain examines the motivation behind Samuel and Henrietta Barnett’s project to bring annual exhibitions to London’s poverty-stricken East End – a practice that ultimately culminated in the foundation of Whitechapel Art Gallery. The exhibition explores how this was shaped by a belief that improved access to the arts could help to eliminate social inequality – a topic that continues to be just as poignant today.

Finally, the exhibition considers how changes in art production, promoted by artists like William Morris and the wider Arts & Crafts movement, advocated for a return to traditional craftsmanship in a stand against the dehumanising conditions enforced by factory labour. Here the spotlight also turns towards the practice of the artist and designer Mary Watts. In response to the significant rural decline that surrounded her in Surrey, and inspired by her involvement with the Home Arts and Industries Association, Watts founded the Compton Potters’ Arts Guild providing a significant source of creative and economic support in Surrey for years to come.

The exhibition culminates with Watts Gallery’s founders, G F and Mary Watts. This artist-couple were united in their shared belief that art had the power to create significant social change. Looking at the strategies that they employed, from community-based projects to the founding of their very own picture gallery, the exhibition considers how they strove to ensure that art and art practice could be made accessible for future generations – a legacy that continues to underpin Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village today.

Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain is co-curated with Dr Chloe Ward, Senior Lecturer in the History of British Art at Queen Mary, University of London. This exhibition forms part of Dr Ward’s AHRC funded research project From Protest to Propaganda: A History of Activist Art in Britain, 1845–1918.

Dr Chloe Ward, guest co-curator of Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain says:

“Victorian social painting represented harrowing scenes of poverty and inequality, but what did it actually do to remedy these pressing issues? This exhibition recovers art’s direct political contribution, revealing how it operated in conjunction with social campaigns to drive public awareness, debate, and reform.”

 Abbie Latham, exhibition co-curator and Curatorial Trainee at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village says:

 “From exploitation to epidemics, the objects in this exhibition address a number of pertinent issues that remain acutely relevant to audiences today. Visitors will have the opportunity to explore how our present day understanding of visual activism stems from these significant Victorian art practices.”

Alistair Burtenshaw, Director of Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village says:

“GF and Mary Watts believed that art could be a catalyst for social change, and Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village was created here in Compton to achieve exactly that.  Today, Watts Gallery Trust upholds its founding ethos and, through our Art for All learning programme, we work to ensure access to art for those who might not otherwise have this opportunity”.

A programme of special events will run at Watts Gallery—Artists’ Village throughout the exhibition.

For further information:  @WattsGallery   Facebook/wattsgalleryartistsvillage


Image: Sir Luke Fildes (1843-1927), Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, 1874, Royal Holloway, University of London