The Victorians: Britain Through the Paintings of the Age by Jeremy Paxman

    What is it about art that makes every Tom, Dick and Jeremy so certain they have the right to comment upon it and be taken seriously? The BBC’s enthusiasm for clipping unqualified presenters onto the fronts of its arts programmes has already given us David Dimbleby absconding from Question Time to tour Britain in his Land Rover and waffle about landscape painting. Before Dimbleby, there was the gushing nun, Sister Wendy, for whom every art work was a chance to praise God.

    As far as I can tell, Jeremy Paxman’s only qualification for fronting a television series about Victorian painting, and writing this heavily illustrated tome to accompany it, is the fact that he occasionally asks questions about art on University Challenge and has some previous with Englishness. It is not enough. Would the BBC commission me to present a series about the civil-rights movement in America because I know a lot about abstract expressionism? I think not. Where politics is concerned, the BBC makes adult decisions based on the real levels of political knowledge required.

    Paxman himself is mildly aware of these horrid cultural paradoxes because he admits in his acknowledgments that his examination of Victorian painting “should not be about art appreciation” or “the finer details of brushwork”. What he is interested in are “the stories the pictures are telling”. Now, an art series that is not about art appreciation is like an interview with a politician that is not about politics, or a biography of Margaret Thatcher that concentrates on her hairstyles. The shallowness of such an approach would be immediately recognisable in other circumstances. Why is it not recognisable in these?

    Because poor old art has been kicked down the ladder of cultural values to a rung near the bottom. The Victorians is not an entirely worthless read because Paxman can turn a phrase, and some of the stories he tells about the paintings and their painters are entertaining enough. But it is a flimsy and unimportant book that trips through its material at Autocue pace and offers no semblance of deeper insight into the real issues of art. The “stories” Paxman is drawn to are racy rather than revealing, and an air of unseriousness clings to the project. The difference between this and a proper investigation of Victorian art is the difference between Newsnight and the 7pm bulletin on Five.

    Paxman contends that Victorian painting has been unfairly undervalued, and that we need to see it as the television of its times because its story lines tell us as much about the Victorians as our soap operas tell us about ourselves, which is twaddle. Far from being undervalued, Victorian art is now chronically overvalued and has been ever since Britain’s leading Victorian collector, Andrew Lloyd Webber, began lavishing the proceeds from Cats on it; 30 years ago, the discerning Victorian admirer may have been able to pick stuff up for a song, but not any more.

    As for the supposed neglect into which Victorian architecture has fallen – “entire streets of terraced houses were bulldozed” – that demolition is as nothing compared with the destruction that the Victorians themselves visited upon the architecture that preceded them. Out of the 51 baroque churches that Christopher Wren built in London, not one survived the Victorian era with its interior intact.

    Paxman’s second driving idea – that Victorian painting is the television of its times – is even more misleading. If Victorian painting is the television of its times, then it is the television drivel of its times: Big Brother, not Dennis Potter; Britain’s Got Talent, not a Howard Brenton play. An experienced cynic such as Paxman ought to have been able to spot the exploitative motivation behind the three-handkerchief poverty porn that made rich men of Sir Luke Fildes or Sir Hubert von Herkomer. Paxman himself has complained noisily about the trivialisation of television, yet here he is promoting sugary Victorian visions of childhood and trotting happily through the history of fairy painting without acknowledging the simple truth that a lousy painting is as worthless as a lousy soap opera.

    The book is divided into thematic sections that presumably correspond to different episodes in the forthcoming series. Part one, The Mob in the Picture Gallery, takes William Powell Frith’s famous view of Derby Day at Epsom as its exemplar and claims to note the arrival of city dwellers in art for the first time, which is untrue. If you want to see real people making their debut in a crowd scene, look at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Turning Frith into a pioneer involves disregarding all of Hogarth’s known oeuvre as well, and Frith’s bustling beaches and busy stations are far from being honest accounts of such places. Carefully building his pictures in the studio, orchestrating his clichés, detail by detail, Frith gives us an idealised image of the Victorian crowd that is as inaccurate and untrustworthy as any Royal Academician’s visions of Greece. The amusing revelation that despite painting the domestic bliss at his own dinner table, Frith was actually running two households simultaneously, and had fathered 20 children, ought surely to have prompted a further exploration of Victorian hypocrisy. Confronted by a politician, Paxman would have probed for the truth. Confronted by a Frith painting, he happily trusts the damn thing.

    In the section dealing with the royal image, great play is made of the fact that Victoria is shown at home with her children in what seems to be a relaxed family gathering recorded by Winterhalter. Paxman believes this royal informality to be new, but, of course, it isn’t. Van Dyck did the same thing to Charles I when he showed the king and Henrietta Maria clustered with their children in a painting that still hangs in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Far from being an innocent display of family life, Van Dyck’s image, like Winterhalter’s, was a carefully presented construct: a view of royalty designed specifically to ingratiate itself with the people. Gullibility is a surprising weakness to find in a Paxman text.

    The book’s final section, which deals with the impact of Darwinian doubts on the religious world-view of the Victorians, is the most regrettable. For once, the art we are looking at – William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay; Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat; John Martin’s The Last Judgement – is great art indeed. And huge social uncertainties are driving this Victorian descent into cosmic turmoil. But Paxman’s tum-ti-tum approach to such topics and his evident discomfort with matters of the sublime leave him entirely unsuited to the exploration of such aesthetic depths. His discussion of Hunt’s The Scapegoat is so glib, I find it hard to believe he has actually seen this intoxicating Victorian folly. So, in a television parallel of the kind we are being encouraged here to make, Paxman on Victorian painting is like Alexa Chung on Shakespeare.
    Jeremy Paxman’s series The Victorians starts on BBC1 on Feburary 15