Surrey Life|November 2020
Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village in Compton focuses on the Victorian roots of art activism
Tinx Newton

In the mid- to late-19th century, Victorian artists and critics increasingly believed that art could change the future. From the 1840s poverty, hunger, and disease became increasingly urgent issues in industrial Britain and a number of artists began to question how their art could benefit society and help solve social problems. Often working in conjunction with social movements, they portrayed scenes of deprivation and idealised, sympathy-inducing images of suffering.

“Victorian social painting represented harrowing scenes of poverty and inequality, but what did it actually do to remedy these pressing issues?” says Dr Chloe Ward, co-curator of Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain and senior lecturer in the history of British art at Queen Mary, University of London. “This exhibition recovers art’s direct political contribution, revealing how it operated in conjunction with social campaigns to drive public awareness, debate, and reform.”

In this fascinating exhibition, works by Sir Luke Fildes, Thomas Kennington and William Morris are exhibited alongside GF Watts’s radical series of early social realist paintings.

From arresting oil paintings to graphic illustrations in the contemporary press, Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain considers how artists chose to circulate their art across Victorian society in different ways. It also examines Samuel and Henrietta Barnett’s campaign to bring annual exhibitions to London’s poverty-stricken East End, a practice that culminated in the foundation of Whitechapel Art Gallery.


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November 2020