Victorian Sentimental Prints, Drawings & Watercolours

'The Momentous Question', watercolour by Sarah Setchel, exhibited 1842. Museum no. 983-1900. Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan

'The Momentous Question', watercolour by Sarah Setchel, exhibited 1842. Museum no. 983-1900. Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan

Sentimental subjects span many genres of artistic expression, from highly finished exhibition watercolours to music sheet covers. In Victorian England these scenes of tender feeling became associated with the domestic sphere, as they were ideal for display in family rooms and traditionally female spaces such as the parlour. The popularity of sentimental pictures coincided with technological innovations in the print trade. This meant that images could be produced quickly and cheaply to maximise profit, thus opening the image market to a greater audience. Many works had mass appeal and were used in periodicals and advertising. This unashamed commercialism contributed to the reputation of sentiment as an expression of insincere emotion, and the popularity of such pictures was bound up in questions of taste.

The scene in Sarah Setchel's 'The Momentous Question' has been taken from the poem Tales of the Hall (1819) by George Crabbe. A poacher facing the death penalty has the chance of a reprieve if he permits his betrothed to marry his brother. This image gained great popularity as an engraving.

Love

Love is an obvious subject for the sentimental image. Rejection and disappointed love, especially that experienced by women, were themes that tugged at the heart-strings, and many of the artists were women themselves. Love was also exploited by the burgeoning trade in valentine cards and music sheet covers. Feelings could be easily represented through popular signs and symbols. The motif of the letter, the language of flowers, and the power of the downcast eye lent images an element of intrigue and mystery.

Nature, the Seasons and the Passing of Time

There was a great vogue in the 19th century for images that depicted idealised rustic or seasonal settings. This is often interpreted as an escapist response to the upheavals of urbanisation and industrialisation. Many Victorian artists also specialised in sentimental interpretations of the historical past, producing works that were emotionally resonant but rarely true to period. The concept of one's personal past also formed part of visual imagery, with a focus on the more poignant life events: birth, childhood, marriage and death.

Childhood

Paintings of children were thought to be intellectually undemanding and were often dismissed by critics. Yet some of the most acclaimed artists of the day took up the subject, and images of children proliferated across illustration and commercial graphics. The sentimentality and emotion of these pictures centre on a new, 19th -century conception of childhood as an innocent, separate state to be shielded and prolonged. They seek a protective, affectionate pang from the viewer and evoke nostalgia for the inevitably fleeting nature of childhood.

Death

Death was highly visible in Victorian culture. It was a time for communal feeling, studied response and ritual. People were encouraged to give public expression to their grief, and an industry of mourning dress and mementoes provided visible reminders of the dead. Texts, songs and objects used images to sentimentalise and codify death and mourning. Deathbed scenes moralised the 'ideal' deaths of saintly characters too good for this world. For artists, untimely death and bereavement offered powerful opportunities to explore pathos.

Urban tragedy

Heart-tugging depictions of destitute, exploited and suicidal women became symbols of the evils of urbanisation. Many were designed to arouse pathos rather than present social reality. Some, indeed, come close to the borderline between sentimental feeling and the thrill of voyeurism. The women are young and beautiful - suffering heroines displaced from the protection of the family home, and there is often a hint that they are genteel women who have fallen on hard times. This, for middle class viewers, increased the poignancy.

Sir John Everett Millais, 'The Bridge of Sighs', 1858. Museum no. E.464-1903
Sir John Everett Millais, 'The Bridge of Sighs', 1858. Museum no. E.464-1903
Richard Redgrave, 'Song of the Shirt', about 1845. Museum no. E.49-1889
Richard Redgrave, 'Song of the Shirt', about 1845. Museum no. E.49-1889
After Louisa Canziani, 'Hardly Earned', About 1875. Museum no. E.900-1965
After Louisa Canziani, 'Hardly Earned', About 1875. Museum no. E.900-1965

Sentimental response

Sentimentality touched many forms of Victorian art and entertainment. The works in thissection depict books, songs and images that stimulated sentimental feelings, pushing the recipients to emotional peaks. This sharing of emotion was important in Victorian culture. Artists and writers repeated instantly recognisable motifs and conventions, creating an exchange of emotional supply and demand, and fostering a sense of communal feeling.

George Cruikshank, 'The Sentimental Novel Reader', 1847. Museum no. 9809A
George Cruikshank, 'The Sentimental Novel Reader', 1847. Museum no. 9809A
George Baxter, 'Madelle Jetty Treffz', 1850. Museum no. E.2984-1932
George Baxter, 'Madelle Jetty Treffz', 1850. Museum no. E.2984-1932
Margaret Isabel Dicksee (1858-1903), 'My Jealousy', 1889. Museum no. E.353-1948
Margaret Isabel Dicksee (1858-1903), 'My Jealousy', 1889. Museum no. E.353-1948

A gift in your will

You may not have thought of including a gift to a museum in your will, but the V&A is a charity and legacies form an important source of funding for our work. It is not just the great collectors and the wealthy who leave legacies to the V&A. Legacies of all sizes, large and small, make a real difference to what we can do and your support can help ensure that future generations enjoy the V&A as much as you have.

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