History Group Papers: 2001

Read an outline of the talks and papers from the National Gallery History Group in 2001:

Meeting Six: 6 February 2001

To Polish or Police? The National Gallery and the “Improvement” of the Working Class, 1824-1860 – Jonathan Conlin, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
A paper or related publication is available for consultation in the National Gallery Archive.

Claims for the moral power of art to civilise the uneducated viewer have a long pedigree. However, given government reluctance to devote sources to the fledgling National Gallery, its advocates felt the need to spell out its utility for working class improvement.

The Gallery was presented as replacing violent working-class pastimes with the ‘polish’ gained by viewing the nation’s pictures. Yet at the same time it was viewed as a police measure, designed to counteract Chartism. This seminar explored how the working-class crowds within its walls became a reassuring spectacle of social cohesion in a troubled century.

Meeting Seven: 3 April 2001

The Academy of Filth: Gender, Space and Obscene Displays in Mid-Victorian London – Lynda Nead, Birkbeck College
The National Gallery Archive does not hold a copy of this paper.

Moving out of the space of the Victorian art gallery and onto the streets, this seminar considered the kinds of visual culture which were sold in the public spaces of the city and asked who saw these images and who bought them.

The paper focused on the issue of obscene images that were considered by some to be the paradigm of mass urban culture in the period. It traced the attempts to regulate obscenity and the wayward images and audiences being created by the Victorian city.

Meeting Eight: 12 June 2001

Imagining the community of culture: the National Gallery and the public body in Victorian London – Colin Trodd, University of Sunderland
A paper or related publication is available for consultation in the National Gallery Archive.

Long before Matthew Arnold’s dictum that culture suggests the idea of the state, the relationship between governance and cultural representation had been a matter of some concern for many Victorian commentators. This relationship was of particular concern to those interested in patterns and practices of public recreation, popular education and the development of systems of polite culture for the urban masses.

If the formation of such public spaces as the National Gallery and the V&A had involved complex networks of relationships between forces and pressures emanating from civil society and the Victorian state, how can we address the process by which the ideas and values of the aesthetic were institutionalised from the 1830s?

Rather than see-in the formation and development of cultural institutions’s signs of the ritualised display of power – as if such spaces were forever determined by the workings of a ‘dominant ideology’, or that they were sites in which social control was legitimated – this paper suggested that public art galleries and museums were places where the performance of culture was always in the process of slipping away from the control of social experts and cultural managers.

It was suggested that the Victorian institutionalisation of the aesthetic – the need to find in cultural institutions a way of registering a body of citizens who comprise the ‘national community’ – was generated from competing elements, processes and forms which tended to work against the materialisation of any unitary system.

Meeting Nine: 9 October 2001

The introduction of artificial lighting and its impact on public access to collections – Geoff Swinney, National Museums of Scotland
A paper or related publication is available for consultation in the National Gallery Archive

The developments in gas-lighting during the 19th century offered the potential to open public collections to the working people by allowing museums and galleries to remain open into the evening. While some museums embraced the new technology, others resisted its use on fire safety and conservation grounds and also because they feared that opening after dark might attract the wrong sort of public.

The National Gallery became embroiled in this debate, especially over the exhibition of the pictures of the Vernon gift and Turner bequest. This talk examined the Gallery’s attitudes towards artificial lighting and public access to the collections in the latter half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.

Read further papers from the National Gallery History Group