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1881 God, Kittens, and Empire

W.P. Frith’s painting A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 (1883) famously devotes more attention to high society viewers than the paintings on display. But what other audiences did the Royal Academy attract, and what did they make of the show? To glimpse responses from beyond the mainstream art criticism, one can look to more niche presses, whose readerships shared particular values and points of view. The popular evangelical press is a distinct example, offering an alternative means of reconstructing the 1881 Summer Exhibition. Here we can encounter  reviews by teen contributors to The Girl’s Own Paper (one “A.M.J., Leicester, aged 16”), and recommendations for religious viewers by its Religious Tract Society sibling The Boy’s Own Paper, and The Monthly Packet of Evening Readings for Members of the English Church.1 They also prompt new questions, namely, how did these widely circulating publications shape ideas about the Summer Exhibitions for the large sections of the populace unable to attend?2 As The Boys Own Paper noted in its account of the 1881 Exhibition, this readership spanned “busy country towns and quiet villages, to say nothing of subscribers in the Colonies and on the Continent.”3 

Explore the 1881 catalogue

Taken together, these three Protestant publications devoted the most space and enthusiasm to paintings whose subject matter forms my title: God, Kittens, and Empire. They include Edwin Long, Diana or Christ? (Fig. 1), Briton Riviere, A Roman Holiday, Frank Paton, Winter Quarters, Frank Dicksee, The Symbol, and Richard Caton Woodville, Candahar. These images diverged substantially from the art press’s selections of the most significant paintings. There were, however, differences in emphasis across the three publications under consideration. The Girl’s Own Paper and The Boy’s Own Paper select and examine paintings along predictably stereotypical gender lines, while The Monthly Packet, founded as a girl’s magazine but by the 1880s aimed more generally at “young readers”, combined kittens and battle scenes. All of these publications foreground images of Christian martyrdom in Roman imperial settings, which had been almost entirely written off by the art press. The Girl’s Own Paper and The Monthly Packet fixed on Edwin Long’s Diana or Christ?; The Boy’s Own Paper fixed on Briton Riviere’s A Roman Holiday. The subject matter of Christian martyrdom undoubtedly recommended these images to religious publications. It is perhaps obvious why “the Constancy of the Maiden Martyr”, as contemporaries described it, appealed to The Girl’s Own Paper, and that the muscular Christianity of the tiger-smiting Christian gladiator might be targeted at the readers of The Boy’s Own Paper.4 Less predictably, religious publications also discussed and praised the aesthetic qualities of Long’s Diana or Christ?. However, unlike art critics, they explored the ways in which the painting’s composition and facture roused religious emotions in viewers.5

In these publications, images of putative Christian martyrdom such as Diana or Christ? become distillations of God, Kittens, and Empire, combining sentimentality with a reading of history where Christianity was destined for global pre-eminence. Both are positioned as appropriate means of contemplating Christian duty for Victorian men and women, attributing a specifically religious function to a viewing experience at the Summer Exhibition. The paintings’ historical setting in the Roman Empire was a complex point of comparison for British imperialism; depictions of Christian resistance to Roman rule might be understood as challenges to colonisation. The Boy’s Own Paper, however, co-opted Christian resistance to Rome to explain why British imperialism was superior to its failed Roman counterpart, concluding that “Happily, Christianity has done what a much-belauded civilisation failed to accomplish, and banished—may we not hope for ever?—such terrible scenes as these.”6

The relationship between some of the paintings on show at the Academy and these illustrated publications is more complicated than the latter simply reporting on the former. The Boy’s Own Paper’s Exhibition review focused not just on paintings “which would be sure to possess peculiar interest for our readers”, but also on what it called “Boy’s Own Artists”, that is, artists who regularly contributed illustrations to the publication, such as Richard Caton Woodville. His Afghan War scene Candahar was, with Riviere’s Roman Holiday, the centrepiece of a montage engraving accompanying the text in The Boy’s Own Paper (Fig. 2). The desire to foreground the work of artists commissioned regularly by The Boy’s Own Paper perhaps explains the inclusion in the publication’s highlights of the less obviously swashbuckling Wandering Thoughts, an image of a small girl reading, by “another Boy’s Own artist”, one James N. Less.7 The Boy’s Own Paper arguably supported and enabled artists like Caton Woodville to specialise in military painting, bringing such scenes to the Academy walls, and emphasising and endorsing in print their “spirited” work.8 Such battle scenes went largely unremarked upon in the art press, who preferred more detailed expositions of the works of Frederic Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema—also “history paintings”, but of a very different variety.

In British and North American religious journals, paintings like Diana or Christ? and A Roman Holiday lived on for decades after their summer of celebrity at the Academy; Diana or Christ?, for example, was widely circulated as a print, and inspired novels and short stories, also published by the Religious Tract Society.9 By following these images in such publications through the years, it is possible to uncover untold legacies of the Annual Exhibition. Paintings that were largely rejected by the art press were used within religious communities as living guides to morality, thought, and religious doubt.

It is not surprising that religious publications would have different approaches and preferences to increasingly professionalised art critics (although there were numerous similarities, which I’ve not discussed here). Even this cursory glance at three periodicals offers an insight into the varied visitors and modes of art appreciation present at the Summer Exhibition, and might cause us to reflect on the many whose voices we haven’t yet heard, or been able to access. They are a reminder of the need to think more carefully about whose responses we prioritise when we attempt to recreate historical exhibitions. Such publications are becoming increasingly known and used by art historians thanks to digitised nineteenth-century periodicals and newspaper databases, suggesting ways to incorporate these “un-professional” perspectives into histories of the Academy Summer Exhibition.

  1. “The Academy Pictures of 1881”, The Monthly Packet of Evening Readings for Members of the English Church, 1 November 1881, 513; “The Royal Academy”, The Girl’s Own Paper, 3 September 1881, 780; “A Day at the Royal Academy”, The Boy’s Own Paper, 6 August 1881, 722.↩︎

  2. In the 1880s, The Boy’s Own Paper, founded in 1879, had a circulation of 200,000 per week; The Girl’s Own Paper, founded in 1880, had a circulation of 250,000. Recorded reading habits suggest that many girls preferred The Boy’s Own Paper. See Joseph McAleer, Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain, 1914–50 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 208–213.↩︎

  3. “A Day at the Royal Academy”, The Boy’s Own Paper, 722.↩︎

  4. D. Alcock, “Aut Diana Aut Christus”, Sunday at Home: A Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading, 2 June 1894, 486.↩︎

  5. See further Kate Nichols, “Diana or Christ?: Seeing and Feeling Doubt in Late-Victorian Visual Culture”, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 23 (2016),↩︎

  6. “A Day at the Royal Academy”, The Boy’s Own Paper, 722.↩︎

  7. “A Day at the Royal Academy”, The Boy’s Own Paper, 722.↩︎

  8. See further Tom Gretton, “Richard Caton Woodville (18561927) at the Illustrated London News”, Victorian Periodicals Review 48 (2015): 87–120.↩︎

  9. See Nichols, “Diana or Christ?”.↩︎

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Explore the 1881 catalogue