Teachers' resource: Victorian social life from paintings

'The Village Choir' by Thomas Webster RA, about 1847, Museum no. FA.222

'The Village Choir' by Thomas Webster RA, oil on panel, England, about 1847, Museum no. FA.222

The Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the best museums in the world for learning about the Victorians. This resource contains an introduction to some of the Victorian paintings in the V&A and suggests ways of using them as sources of historical evidence. It aims to help teachers of History at Key Stages 1 and 2 to use these paintings with students as part of their work on Victorian Britain.

The pictures in the Paintings galleries (Rooms 81, 82, 87, 88, 88a), as well those in Room 122 on Level 4 of the British Galleries, are a rich source for the study of social life in 19th century Britain. From their observation of these paintings, students can learn more about the period and assess the usefulness of paintings as historical sources. The paintings can also be used to show how different types of evidence can lead to different interpretations of the past. This resource focuses on five paintings, chosen because they exemplify Victorian concerns that are likely to be relevant to history work at this stage. It suggests specific questions relevant to each painting. In answering these, students will have to gather together information and ideas from the paintings. Background information about each painting is provided and there are also ideas for other activities and work back at school. The approaches used here can be easily adapted to other paintings.

This resource includes:

  • Introduction to the Victorian paintings at the V&A
  • Suggestions for teaching from painting
  • Activities based on the five paintings
  • Reading list

To book a visit please call the Bookings Office on +44 (0)20 7942 2211 or email bookings.office@vam.ac.uk

'Portrait of John Sheepshanks at his Residence in Old Bond Street' by William Mulready RA, 1832-34, Museum no. FA.142

'Portrait of John Sheepshanks at his Residence in Old Bond Street' by William Mulready RA, oil on panel, Great Britain, 1832-34, Museum no. FA.142

The Paintings Galleries

These galleries (Rooms 81, 82, 87, 88 and 88a on Level 3) were built during the 1850s to house the Museum's collection of paintings, but after 1939 they were used for other displays. They have now been refurbished as picture galleries. They now show over 200 oil paintings and watercolours, many of them cleaned and restored so their quality and colours can be fully appreciated. More paintings are displayed elsewhere in the Museum.

The British Galleries 1500-1900

If your students are studying Victorian Britain we strongly advise you to visit the British Galleries, Level 4. Many teachers divide their classes into two groups, with half the class carrying out activities in the Paintings gallery, while the others work in the British Galleries. The groups can then swap over.

The Victorian paintings in the V&A are arranged in the manner that the Victorians would have displayed them. Some of the paintings may be difficult to see because they are high up or glazed. Tell students that they should move around to get the best view and avoid reflections. They will need to look hard and take time to find the clues that help interpret the message of each picture.

In Room 82, in the Paintings gallery, you will find a small picture now entitled John Sheepshanks at His Residence, 172 New Bond Street. This is a portrait of Mr John Sheepshanks, who gave his collection to the Museum. It was painted by William Mulready in 1832.

John Sheepshanks (1787-1863) was born in Leeds, the son of a wealthy cloth manufacturer. He was a partner in the family business until he was about 40, when he retired and moved to London in order to indulge his love of collecting. One of his great early enthusiasms was for copies of old masters, but the foundation of the National Gallery in 1824 probably convinced him that there was little more he could contribute in that field. He then concentrated on modern British art, specialising in work by Landseer, Collins, Leslie, Callcott and Mulready, among others. He formed strong friendships with some of these artists, dining and drinking with them. As well as buying their paintings from salerooms and from the Royal Academy summer exhibitions, he also commissioned works directly from the artists.

In 1857 Sheepshanks gave his collection of 233 oil paintings and 298 drawings to the South Kensington Museum, as the V&A was then called. The gallery built at that time to house the collection was the first permanent structure on the V&A site. His donation, known as the Sheepshanks Gift, encouraged many other collectors to make donations and bequests. It is the foundation of the V&A's British oil paintings.

The portrait of John Sheepshanks reflects his status, character and tastes, and his role as a patron of the arts. It presumably shows him as he would have liked to be remembered: at home, looking at a portfolio of prints or drawings while the housekeeper brings his post and tea.

'The Opening of the Great Exhibition' by Henry Selous, 1851-1852, Museum no. 329-1889

'The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851' by Henry Courtney Selous, oil on canvas, London, 1851-1852, Museum no. 329-1889

The use of paintings as primary historical source material raises particular issues. They do not always provide reliable evidence of what people or places looked like at a particular time. Artists have to consider such matters as aesthetic effect and composition, and they are often not interested in producing an accurate documentary record.

The artist may have chosen to exaggerate or rely on generalisation to get the message across. The viewer needs to be aware of contemporary stylistic conventions that may have been used.

Many of the paintings in the V&A are scenes from ordinary life. They feature people and frequently have an anecdotal or narrative theme.

The French word 'genre', derived from 'gens', the word for people, is used to describe pictures of this sort.

'Sickness and Health' by Thomas Webster RA, 1843, Museum no. FA.219

'Sickness and Health' by Thomas Webster RA, oil on panel, England, 1843, Museum no. FA.219

Recurrent themes include childhood, the plight of women, rejected love, poverty and old age. Because of the openly emotional way in which these subjects are handled, Victorian genre paintings have come to be seen as sentimental. In the Victorian period, artists and writers appealed in a very direct and emotive way to their audiences. Paintings and novels were intended to involve their audience in the way that films or soap operas do today. But art and literature were not just for entertainment. Many artists, such as writers Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley, had a reforming mission. They set out to evoke compassion and sympathy in the public and bring about a humanitarian response to the evils they saw in their society. Paintings and novels provided examples of good and bad behaviour, supplying ideal characters to be imitated and showing the grievous effects of not following society's rules. The Victorian enthusiasm for displaying paintings to the general public and encouraging the poor to visit art exhibitions stemmed from this.

Learning to look at genre paintings and gather historical information

As preparation for their visit to the V&A and their work with original paintings, students should become familiar with genre paintings and develop confidence in generating their own questions about them. They can do this by using reproductions of paintings in books and postcards, or online images from the V&A's database, Search the Collections.

Asking general questions of the kind below will help students to develop ways of extracting information to use critically.

The people

  • How many are there?
  • What are they doing?
  • What is their relationship to each other?
  • Are they all of equal importance?
  • Which one is higher up, nearer the front of the picture or most centrally placed?
  • What are they wearing?
  • What do their clothes tell you about them?
  • Who is wearing the most eye-catching outfit?
  • What is their mood or emotional state?
  • How do you know?

The surroundings

  •  Where are they? If inside, describe the room, objects, animals and furniture. If outside, describe the environment.
  • Is the lighting trying to make you look at one particular area or person?
  • Has a certain time of day or weather been chosen?
  • What do the surroundings tell you about the people and the picture as a whole?
  • Is there a storyline? If so, what's going on?
  • Can we tell from the painting what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future?
  • Why do you think the picture was painted?
  • What was the artist's motivation or intention?
  • Where was the picture likely to be hung and who might be expected to own it or see it?
  • Might this influence the style or content?
  • What would it mean to its owner today?
  • How can you test or evaluate the information extracted?
  • Are there always answers to the questions posed?
  • What other sources of information might be helpful?

Activities based on five paintings

These activities are designed to help your students gather information from paintings following a set of questions. To answer them, they can work in pairs or groups of three. Students should reply to the questions only by observation and by discussing their personal responses to the paintings. Some background information about each painting is provided, but students should not be given this until they have each tried all the questions. The background information may help students to evaluate or test the reliability of the information they have gathered from their observations and discussion.

Teachers may find it useful to work through the questions for the first painting with the whole group before allowing students to tackle the other pictures in small groups on their own. Some questions require students to describe what is shown and others call for speculation and opinion.

Rustic civility

'Rustic Civility' by William Collins RA, 1833, Museum no. FA.27

'Rustic Civility' by William Collins RA, oil on panel, England, 1833, Museum no. FA.27

Because of its location, this activity should be carried out by a maximum of 3-5 students at one time.
  • What have the children been doing?
  • What is the oldest boy doing?
  • Who are they looking at? (The painting gives a clue to this)
  • What do you think they might be feeling and thinking?
  • Do you think the children are rich or poor? How can you tell?
  • Depending on the age and ability of your class you could ask what the painter is saying about poverty. Is it acceptable to be poor?
  • What does the title mean? (You may need to explain these terms)
  • What do you think the rider's view of the children might be?
  • Would the people who owned or looked at the painting in Victorian times be of the same social class as the rider and view the children similarly?
  • Do you view the children in a similar way?
  • What is the message of this picture?

This picture provides evidence about manners, education, childhood, rural life and class structure. Childhood was a recurrent theme in 19th-century paintings and William Collins was one of the most successful artists to deal with it. This painting is one of Collins' most famous works. It was commissioned by Sheepshanks and cost £157 10s. In the painting we can see three ragged, barefoot children who have been gathering firewood. Nervously, they hold a gate for a man on horseback to pass through (we see only the shadow of the rider and his horse falling across the path in the foreground of the picture). The eldest boy is touching his forelock as a sign of subservient respect for the rider and perhaps also in the hope of earning a few coppers for opening the gate.

Like many of Collins' works, this painting shows an idealised countryside very different from the busy, sooty world of Victorian cities. Collins is suggesting here that life was better in the old days, before the arrival of factories and industrialisation. He shows us a world in which even very poor children showed respect for their social betters, for which they were rewarded by charitable gifts.

During the early 19th century, attitudes towards children underwent considerable change. Writers such as Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley described the horrors of child labour and evoked a compassionate response in society. The government introduced legislative measures to deal with the problem.

The Governess

  • 'The Governess' by Richard Redgrave RA, 1844, Museum no. FA.168

    'The Governess' by Richard Redgrave RA, oil on canvas, Great Britain, 1844, Museum no. FA.168

    Who is the main person in the painting?
  • What can you see in the painting to help you find out the young woman's job?
  • What lessons were taught?
  • The young woman is holding a letter with a black edge. What sort of news would come in a letter like this?
  • What is the piece of music on the piano?
  • In what ways has the artist contrasted the young woman with the girls?
  • What do you think the young woman is feeling?
  • Do you think it possible that the girl sitting with the book might end up like the young woman?
  • What might this painting tell you about the lives of some women and girls in the 19th century?

John Sheepshanks commissioned this picture in 1844. He asked the artist, Richard Redgrave, to produce an alternative version of his painting The Poor Teacher. The original picture showed the same pale woman seated in a schoolroom holding a black-edged letter and looking sad and forlorn, but Sheepshanks objected to the 'terrible loneliness' and asked Redgrave to add students in a sunlit background.

Subjects like this, and others showing women as the victims of rejected love, or as young, unmarried mothers thrown out by their families, are unfamiliar to us today. To fully understand them we have to remember that the Victorians had very different beliefs about the role of women. Middle-class women were not expected to work outside the home, but had to content themselves as daughters, wives or mothers. Marriage was the most important moment in a woman's life, and unmarried women were considered unfortunate, especially as they became older.

If a middle-class woman had to make her own living, because her family had died or could not afford to support her, she would have to become a governess - a private tutor for girls. Unlike boys, girls were often not sent to school but were taught at home. Their governess would live with the family, in a position more like that of a servant than a guest. To be a governess was considered a most undesirable fate. Charlotte Brontë's most famous novel, Jane Eyre, which is written from the point of view of a governess, gives a very clear idea of many of the problems a governess faced.

Richard Redgrave was also a respected art historian and critic, and played an important part in building up the collection of paintings at the V&A. He pioneered the painting of subjects with a social purpose, called 'social teachings' by critics of the period. When judged by the criteria of its own times, his work can be seen as the expression of a sensitive man with an alert social conscience.

An Anxious Hour

  • 'An Anxious Hour' by Alexander Farmer, 1865, Museum no. 541-1905

    'An Anxious Hour' by Alexander Farmer, oil on panel, England, 1865, Museum no. 541-1905

    Who are the two people in the painting?
  • What is happening?
  • Look at all the different kinds of textiles in the room. What information might you get from them?
  • What food is on the table by the bed?
  • What do you think the woman is feeling? What do you think the artist felt? How does the picture make you feel?
  • What do you think the painting tells us about the lives of women in the 19th century?
  • Do you think the title fits the picture?
  • Why do you think the artist chose this subject?
  • Why do you think the person who owned it wanted a painting like this?
  • Would you choose to have this painting hanging up in your home?

The theme of childhood illness was of particular interest to the Victorians. Infant mortality was high and diseases such as cholera, smallpox and typhoid fever claimed the lives of many children, particularly in families that could not afford any medical services. Almost everyone, rich or poor, would have had experience of the death of a child, so a painting on this theme would probably have brought back painful memories for viewers. Many artists took sickness and death as a subject, for example Sir Luke Fildes in his painting 'The Doctor' (1891), which you can see at Tate Britain. Writers also described death and dying, for example Charles Dickens in the death scene of Little Nell in 'The Old Curiosity Shop' (1841) and the decline of Paul Dombey in 'Dombey and Son' (1848).

Census returns and burial registers of the time provide factual evidence about life expectation and could usefully be investigated as another source of evidence on the same subject.

The Stone Breaker and His Daughter

  • 'The Stonebreaker and His Daughter' by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer RA, 1830, Museum no. 508-1882

    'The Stonebreaker and His Daughter' by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer RA, 1830, Museum no. 508-1882

    Before telling your students the title of the painting, ask them what they think the relationship is between the two people in the painting. How has the artist linked them visually? How are they different?
  • What do you think the man is thinking and feeling? What about the girl?
  • What time of day do you think it is? What has she brought him in the basket?
  • On a rock beside the stonebreaker, there is a snuffbox made from a ram's horn. What is snuff? Why would the stonebreaker carry some with him?
  • What kind of job was stonebreaking? Was it an easy job? Are there any jobs like it today?
  • What can this painting tell you about the life of a 19th-century working man? How does it compare with the life of adults you know?
  • What can you see in the background? Do you think the artist is painting a scene from real life? Is the setting an important part of the painting? Does it affect the way you look at the characters?
  • How would this picture compare with a picture of life in the industrial cities at the time?
  • Why do you think the picture was painted? What was the artist's intention? Do you think the style and subject were affected by the buyer's taste and preferences?
  • Would the owner of this painting have been rich or poor? How might that affect how they see the stonebreaker? How do you feel towards him?
  • Look at the picture frame. Do you think it suits the painting? Would you use this kind of frame? Why?

Landseer went to the Royal Academy at the very young age of thirteen. He became an associate of the RA in 1826 at the age of twenty-four - the youngest age permitted by the rules of the Academy. He was made Royal Academician in 1831 and knighted in 1851. His early career predates the reign of Queen Victoria, but her patronage established his reputation and popularity. It was Landseer who designed the bronze lions around the foot of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.

The artist specialised in pictures of animals and people in everyday situations, as well as scenes of Scotland - Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were very attached to the life and landscape of the Highlands. Indeed, this painting is probably set in Scotland. Landseer made a number of trips there and helped to set the trend for Highland scenes.

Like Webster's 'Contrary Winds', this painting is a sentimentalised view of the working poor. It reflects the early 19th-century moral theme of happy domesticity in rural poverty (represented here by the cottages with chimneys smoking in the background).  People, especially those who were not aware of the harsh reality of rural life, liked to think that the poor led simple, upright lives. The poet Robert Burns wrote, 'The honest man, though e'er sae poor, is king o' men for a 'that'.

The central figure of the weather-beaten labourer, surrounded by fragments of granite, is the earliest of several sympathetic depictions by various artists of this backbreaking and poorly paid work. Despite industrialisation, the late 18th- and early 19th-century improvements to roads in England and Scotland still required hard manual labour by individuals such as stonebreakers and 'navvies'.

Here, the artist contrasts the innocence and vitality of youth with the exhaustion of the older man. The girl is probably bringing her father his lunch. The stonebreaker has a rough-haired terrier for company, and there is some snuff (powdered tobacco) beside him, which he would probably have taken while resting from his work.

Contrary Winds

'Contrary Winds' by Thomas Webster RA, 1843, Museum no. FA.223

'Contrary Winds' by Thomas Webster RA, oil on panel, Great Britain, 1843, Museum no. FA.223

Because of its location, this activity should be carried out by a maximum of 3-5 students at one time.

  • Who are the people in the painting? Do you think they are all from the same family?
  • If this was meant to be a portrait of the whole family, who would be missing from the painting?
  • Do these people look rich or poor? How do you know?
  • How is this home different from the types of homes we live in nowadays? How is it similar?
  • What is the old lady doing? What about the children?
  • Can you see any toys or games anywhere?
  • What do you think childhood was like for Victorian children? Did they have televisions, computers or video games? Would they have had to work?
  • The boy at the front is quite smartly dressed. Could he be in uniform? What for? How old do you think he is?
  • The word 'contrary' means opposite. Why do you think this painting is called Contrary Winds? (Clue: It has to do with what the children are doing.) If you could change the title, what would you call it?

Webster specialised in pictures showing children at play, as well as scenes of school and village life. His paintings were very popular and he also made engravings (prints) of them, so lots of cheaper copies were available.

This is an idealised image of rustic domesticity and cottage life. The cottage interior is over-stylised, indicating that Webster probably painted it from a studio set and from studies of cottage interiors he had made in the past, rather than from life. Since the image has probably been patched together from various sources, it is not a true representation of a cottage interior at this time.  

The boy at the front is possibly wearing school uniform. The hat on the floor could belong to him, but seems rather large. Alternatively, it could have been left by the man of the house, who is out at work.

The old lady is possibly a grandmother, though whether all of the children in the painting are her grandchildren is not certain. On the table beside her are what look like a glasses case and balls of wool, as well as a spinning wheel in the far corner. There is a book, probably a Bible, on the table, and more books or pamphlets on the right of the mantelpiece. Books were expensive and not every family could have afforded them. This leads us to believe that the family here was not the poorest of the poor. Also, the children also seem healthy and content. The artist has added homely details (the tablecloth, the arrangement of objects on the mantelpiece and the bottle of flowers on the windowsill) to make the scene less bare than a rural home might have been. This would make the picture more appealing to the art-buying public.

On the floor in front of the tub, a knife and some whittled wood indicate that the children have made their own toy boat using a kitchen utensil. The shuttlecock on the floor also suggests that the children have been playing.

The title of a genre painting usually provided a key to its narrative. However, at the time the title of this painting caused some dismay with at least one critic. He considered it neither descriptive nor illuminating.

Other activities in the paintings galleries

'Going to the Fair' by Thomas Webster RA, 1837, Museum no. FA.220

'Going to the Fair' by Thomas Webster RA, oil on canvas, England, 1837, Museum no. FA.220

Listed below are some other activities that you may like to get your students to do while in the Paintings Galleries.

Activity 1

Ask students who have examined the paintings to find two other paintings in the same manner that interest them.

Activity 2

Divide students into small groups. Then give them the role of representatives of a museum researching the type of paintings hung in Victorian homes in order to construct some period rooms. Students will need to have a general look in the Paintings galleries and try to make some assessment as to the range of subject matter represented in the collection and the number of paintings of each type. They should select five paintings to use.

Activity 3

Ask students to imagine that they are 19th-century art collectors who wish to choose four or five other paintings to reflect the tastes and concerns of the time. They should work in groups and try to reach a consensus. Once a selection is made, they should note the title, artist and date for each painting, and then write a short justification for their choice. These selections might be used for discussion in a follow-up activity back at school when a final selection of paintings could be made.

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Event - Victorian London: High Culture and Low Life

Mon 21 July 2014 11:00

3 WEEK SHORT COURSE: Learn about the world-changing cultural, social and political history of the 19th century’s largest metropolis: London.

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