As you enter Reimag(in)ing the Victorians, a quote from Oscar Wilde faces you from across the room: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” Wilde’s statement draws the attention of visitors to two things. First, the fact that history is an ever-changing form of representation. And second, that it is form of representation produced by us.
One of the most significant – and perhaps unexpected – impacts of the Black Lives Matter movement has been an increased public understanding of history as a subjective representation of the past. The “contested history” debates that have raged over the past few years are evidence of this. And the vicious antagonism that they have provoked gives credence to the work of late 20th century writers like Keith Jenkins, who argues that there is no such thing as an entirely “objective” version of the past.
Reimag(in)ing the Victorians, which is showing at Lakeside Arts in Nottingham, explores how recent artists have engaged with 19th-century historical accounts, media and crafts. From hand-tinted colonial photography to contemporary taxidermy, the exhibition celebrates and interrogates the cultural afterlives of Victorian Britain. But by examining how we “remember” the Victorians, the exhibition also probes into how and why the past is visualised and represented in the present.
The first room of the exhibition explores how the colonial past is remembered, and what impact it continues to have on identities around the world today. Sculptures by British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, swaddled in brightly-coloured Ankara fabric (synonymous with west African fashion), stand alongside Andrew Gilbert’s 2020 installation, Major General Andrew Gilbert Calls a Drone Strike on His Leek Phone, Magersfontein, 11th December 1899, Southern Africa.
A carnivalesque parody of how imperial events are “remembered” in fictional accounts such as the film Zulu (1964), Gilbert’s work draws attention to how colonial actions have been lionised in popular British culture. It also explores how deeply embedded this imagery has become in our collective historical imagination.
An era of change
Of course, the Victorians were not one thing or another. They may have overseen the largest empire in the world has ever seen, but activists including Henry Sylvester Williams and Alice Kinloch also founded the Africa Association and fought for the civil rights of colonised people from the streets of London – the heart of the empire. In this way the Victorian era is composed of multiple generations and viewpoints. And it was an era that oversaw huge social and political change.
One of the furthest reaching of these changes was the industrial revolution, which not only led to the urbanisation of British society but also mass production and consumerism. But rather than stimulating creative interest in mechanised forms of production, this technological turn encouraged a rise in artisanal practices and a passion for the handmade.
From the arts and crafts movement to amateur decoupage and experiments with the photographic plate, late-Victorian creativity demonstrates a collective yearning for unique objects produced from tactile processes of making.
In the early-2000s, a similar return to handmade processes could be seen in the work of artists such as Polly Morgan, Tessa Farmer and Kate MccGwire. Emerging alongside the rise of social media and an increasingly sophisticated digital landscape, their sculptures are meticulously constructed from animal body parts and found natural objects such as feathers and insect bodies.
A moment in time
Farmer’s 2007 installation Little Savages depicts the destruction of an English fox by a swarm of skeleton fairies. These beings are microscopically composed from fern roots, insect wings and soil, and colonise their victim’s soft tissue to harvest their species’ eggs. In this way, her work subverts taxidermy’s most important function: to preserve the animal body from defilement and mutilation from parasitic organisms.
As a key 19th-century form of preservation, taxidermy has sometimes been compared to photography. Both media operate by freeze framing their subject – by stopping time. Invented in 1839, photography runs through every room of this exhibition and includes the hand-tinted Valentine Days prints by Ingrid Pollard (2017) and Mark Dion and J. Morgan Puett’s series The Ladies’ Field Club of York (1998-9).
Both works draw attention to overlooked accounts of history and their anonymous subjects. Pollard’s tender hand colouring of Black Jamaicans “captured” by the photographic lens in 1891, restores a sense of individuality and dignity to subjects originally photographed to sell a servile and idyllic Jamaica to British and American investors. And her approach to the medium echoes the work of Victorian works included in the exhibition, such as photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron.
While it is crucial for us to agree that the past did exist – battles did occur, genocides were committed – how we represent it in “the present” is nevertheless a question of authorship. For the visual artists in this exhibition, the imagination and ideology involved in representing a past that no longer exists is embraced rather than denied: allowing them to explore the afterlives of the Victorians in original, powerful and poignant ways.
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Isobel Elstob does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.