Victoriana: The Art of Revival – Preview Review

Art Macabre’s Nikki Shaill shares her thoughts fresh from last night’s preview of the Guildhall Art Gallery’s innovative new exhibition…

Victoriana: The Art of Revival is a carefully curated cabinet of creative curiosities; tentacled ladies, a death moth disco, insect-fairies, doily follies and a hairy wedding cake. Featuring 70 works by 28 contemporary artists who reflect, reference and revive Victorian ideas and themes, but with a distinctly 21st century twist,  the exhibition offers ‘a retrospective on a retrospective’ as curator Solicari puts it. Indeed, I came away not looking back to the past but looking forward to the future- my head bursting with new ideas and inspiration for our salon at the Late View: Guildhall Gothic ball next month.

You can’t have failed to notice lately the growing trend for all things neo-Victorian, which we at Art Macabre are not only big fans of but also inextricably part of. Curator Solicari has over the past 5 years been gathering together her observations and research on the enduring strong influence of the Victorians on contemporary British design and culture for this enlightening exhibition that features artwork created within the past 20 years.

I whole bloody-heartedly recommend enough that you check out the exhibition for yourselves (and come along to the event on 25 October, of course!) but without spoiling the surprises for you that you can discover for yourself beneath the Guildhall, here are some of my highlights and thoughts on the exhibition.

As I made my way up the staircase to the drinks reception, the first thing that caught my eye was not the dapper gentleman in a top hat, nor the rest of my Art Macabre team who were already tucking in to the complimentary fizz and crisps, but instead I was drawn to one particular flame-haired beauty awaiting me. People were stood casually chatting in front of a Rossetti redhead. A real Rossetti! I was delighted to be able to get up close and personal to her, as I sipped my drink. Those who attended last year’s Dead Red event will know what a fan of the flame-haired muse I am.


Spot the difference…Rossetti painting on exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery (image copyrights apply) and our own Art Macabre model Ruth looking suitably Gothic enjoying a post-exhibition drink with us.

Admiring this classic painting was a great start to the evening, and I shall return soon to view more of the Guildhall’s main gallery collection, but it was by no means the main event. I was eager to descend to the depths under these main galleries, to view the contemporary artwork inspired by and presenting echoes and contrasts to the original Victorian artwork of these main galleries.

I was delighted to hear my Art Macabre friends regale tales of the history of the spaces beneath the main galleries as we entered them Ava (Art Macabre model and previously an archeologist) and Lou (our Victorian strongman with encyclopedic brains) painted a picture for me of the blood sports and public executions that would have taken place within the ruins of London’s Roman Amphitheatre we stood next to. I felt bad that I had no idea this existed in London, but it turns out neither did anyone else until 1988 when it was rediscovered. A gladiatorial games themed future Art Macabre salon has been inspired…

Spread across several different spaces, the exhibition features work from several of my all time favourite artists (Chantal Powell, Dan Hillier, Kitty Valentine) but also plenty of names new to me that were a delight to discover. I once again coveted Chantal Powell’s ‘Sirens’ creations using feathers, fake flowers and lace doilies. Her work is on the surface striking in its apparent simplicity and symbolism. I can imagine her work featuring hair (see photo below) also  fitting well within this exhibition, in keeping with the Victorian fascination with hair and its symbolism of sexuality, femininity, remembrance and status.  Hair was however represented in a witty twist on a traditional tiered wedding cake by Jane Hoodless.

The original queen of taxidermy art Polly Morgan was rightly represented with a piece from 2006, featuring a tiny bird nestled perfectly in a dripping silver spoon. It demonstrated that there may be many imitators who’ve since been inspired to turn their hand to the art but her attention to detail and poignancy is rarely matched. We’ll be featuring several pieces of taxidermy fashion in our London Fashion Week inspired Morte Couture event on 17 September, which itself reflects the revival of this Victorian practice which is now reaching its peak in popularity and the mainstream.

The fox-featuring wing-back chair by Miss Pokeno is sure to prove a very popular piece within the exhibition, but the  artwork that most caught my attention actually featured the wings of many preserved insects. Tessa Farmer’s Swarm features her characteristic magical yet macabre microscopic sculptures (fairy creatures with tiny ribcages, an army of ants, suspended bees) and animal skulls that although each painstakingly fragile make a big impact one this scale. I can only imagine how much time and patience the creation and installation of this piece took. To you, Tessa, I doth my cap…


Tessa Farmer’s Swarm 2004 at Victoriana, as photographed by Nikki Shaill (c)

As to be expected, there were strong threads running between the works that looked at political issues related to Victoriana as well as the more whimsical, witty pieces. I particularly struck by the recurring themes of femininity, sexuality and death- and the strong links made between these ideas and both anthropomorphism and technology. As contemporary artists, these works can effectively reveal the darker, sinister or simply surreal elements of Victorian social orders and traditions that lie beneath the layers of lace and petticoats.

Above: Aimee Mullins for Dazed and Confused by Nick Knight, Dan Hillier’s Mother & Yumiko Utsu’s Octopus Portrait

It was fantastic to discover Dan Hillier’s artwork brought to life in the music videos of Riz & Envy. There are several artists who use original Victorian portraits and prints to create their own work, adding on their own layers to these historical productions, from Kitty Valentine (below- further anthropomorphism) to Dinos Chapman. Definitely food for thought for us to explore at our salon at Guildhall Gothic.


Kitty Valentine- copyright artist’s own.

victoriana montage

Clockwise from Bottom: amusing, macabre moving diorama from Mechanical Cabaret, Su Blackwell’s While You Were Sleeping, one  of my favourite prints of a Victorian alphabet & Chantal Powell’s installation of angels and doilies.

Right, I’m off to start constructing a bone crinoline for our Victoriana inspired salon as part of the Guildhall Gothic ball on 25 October. The exhibition has left us bursting with ideas for how we’ll dress and pose models for this event. Will you be there to join us?

You’ve got until 8th December to see the exhibition for yourself and there are a series of connected film screenings and events (Elephant Man on my birthday is in the diary). For insights from the curator, Sonia Solicari, Time Out have published a nice little interview here.


About Art Macabre Drawing Salons (formerly known as Death Drawing)

RIP LIFE DRAWING. 2011 is the year of ART MACABRE.
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1 Response to Victoriana: The Art of Revival – Preview Review

  1. Chantal says:

    Thanks for the great review! See you at the ball! 🙂

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