The lessons we learn today from Victorian painting are primarily of a documentary order; and the works in question should perhaps not be considered under the heading of painting at all, but rather as adjuncts and auxiliaries of the Victorian novel. New money from burgeoning industrial society was spent by the fistful on work perfectly adapted to current demand. Painters like William Powell Frith, G.E. Hicks, Frank Stone and Abraham Solomon knew what people wanted was to see the life of their own tim portrayed with as much as possible of identifiable detail.
The new generation of merchant collectors did not need to go on the Grand Tour to pick up Italian pictures in venice and Rome. They stayed at home and looked to the Royal Academy for reassurance that their own country and their own day could produce all they needed. The painters of the 1850′s-1870′s were not afraid any more than Dickens was afraid, of sentiments we might now consider uncomfortably obvious and broad, and these were the kind of trite, mundane subjects the public would line up to see. The level of pictorial quality was also pretty poor, even to be mentioned under the anesthetic of irony. Henry Blackburn’s picture of the year for 1876 was Luke Filde’s The Widower. ” the sombre interior of a laborer’s cottage. Mother dead; father, who has just returned from work, clay stained and weary, nurses a sick child.”
These were times of enormous prosperity for the admired artist. Whereas Turner for instance got piddling amount for his very best watercolors, the engraving rights alone for Holman Hunt’s Christ in the Temple fetched 5,500 in 1860; and Frith, for his railway Station, got 5,250 the same year. Painters like Millais and Landseer were as rich as many of their patrons, and when Millais was made a baronet in 1885 the social advancement of the profession seemed to have entered upon a new phase. These people may now seem to us to have been playing at art, but it was a game that brought the winner great profits. A part of reynolds grand design had been fulfilled as members of the Royal Academy took their place among the most respected of all citizens, and their way of life was as easy and grand as that of the Queen’s ministers.