Ashmolean Brings Colour to Victorian Art

Lady Granville’s beetle parure and case, 1884–5. British Museum, London

Colour Revolution, the autumn exhibition at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, presents a dazzling version of the Victorian world, perhaps unexpectedly one of the most colourful periods in art history. The exhibition dispels the myth that the Victorian era was a dreary landscape of ‘dark Satanic mills’ and cities choked with smog. Instead, it shows how developments in art, science and technology resulted in an explosion of colour that was embraced by artists, designers and regular people of the 19th century.

The exhibition reveals a spectacular and flamboyant array of artworks, costume and design that sprung from this ‘colour revolution’. It features 140 objects from international collections ranging from Ruskin’s exquisite studies, Turner and Whistler’s experiments with colour harmony, and Morris & Co.’s elaborate designs, to fashion, jewellery and homeware that enlivened the streets and homes of Victorian Britain and Europe.

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The Ashmolean exhibition opens with an evocative object, encapsulating our dark preconceptions of the period: Queen Victoria’s mourning dress. Victoria herself has skewed our view of Victorian Britain with the 40 years she spent in black following Prince Albert’s death in 1861. But examples of Victorian fashion show people of the 19th century embracing the products of the Industrial Revolution, no more so than new aniline dyes.

Queen Victoria’s mourning dress, c. 1898.  Historic Royal Palaces, London

While the coal industry blackened Britain’s landscape, aniline, a by-product of coal-tar, introduced a rainbow of possibilities to Victorian wardrobes. On display will be a purple dress, crinoline and shoes dyed with the first aniline colour, Mauvine, all retaining their shocking brilliance. As production increased, the price of dyes reduced, making bright colours available to the masses. Racy dyed stockings and underwear were available to working class women – for better or worse: striped socks left striped rashes on women’s legs from toxic anilines. Undeterred, men too took advantage of the new possibilities. While formalwear and tailoring grew more conservative over the 19th century, within the confines of their own homes, men indulged in colourful smoking jackets and slippers.

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