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“A Must-See”: Colour Revolution at the Ashmolean

I did not know what to expect when I arrived at the Ashmolean to preview their newest exhibition, Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion & Design. When I think of the Victorian era, I think of darkness, depression, and disease–so you can imagine my shock when I left with a new perception of the Victorians, unlike anything I had thought before.

The curators play on the traditional image of the Victorian era that most of us have today when you enter the first room. The walls are grey; the lights are gloomy. The sparsity forces you to focus on the single piece in the room, Queen Victoria’s iconic black silk mourning dress. You cannot help but feel the weight of the period epitomised in this one item recognisable to most, if not all.

As you turn the corner, you are met with an array of light and colour. Your first introduction is to a series of artworks by John Ruskin, who helped pioneer changes in attitude towards colour during this period along with artists like J. M. W. Turner–whose ‘Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute’ (c. 1835) is placed among Ruskin’s paintings in a vibrant celebration of colour in art.

The following room juxtaposes art, science, and religion to reflect the growing tension between them as colour came to symbolise progression and modernity. Collections of pre-Raphaelite art sit across the room from images of scientific discovery and a bizarre, but relevant, glass case of hummingbirds. The pre-Raphaelite movement attempted to redefine the use of colour as a medium for
glorifying God, yet received a mixed reaction from contemporary audiences due to the conflation of colour in art with Roman Catholicism and idolatry. Whilst breakthroughs in physics and biology served to cause even greater confusion: Sir Isaac Newton’s work on rainbows and the spectrum of colour came to symbolise the covenant between God and man, reaffirming pre-Raphaelite use of colour, but Charles Darwin’s theories on sexual selection de-sacralised colour as seductive and impure.

The next room offers a brief intervention with the history of dyes, providing relief from the artwork to briefly showcase some fashion. However, the central room is emphasised by the curators as the most important. They have reunited multiple pieces of art for the first time since being showcased at the International Exhibition of 1862. This room is impressive in terms of its historical significance but less in its artistic meaning compared to other rooms.

The room on Orientalist art is undeniably beautiful, with the portrait of ‘Scheherazade’ by Sophie Anderson (1870-1880) standing apart from the rest. It is a shame they did not do more with it, but it certainly strikes a chord regardless of its brevity.

The final room combines a series of artistic mediums in a final push to display the changing attitude towards colour in the wake of modernity. Your attention shifts to a series of artworks that signal a shift away from the pre-Raphaelite movements of the earlier nineteenth century towards the Aestheticism of the later years. Here you can enjoy pieces such as Ramon Casas’ ‘Jove Decadent, Despres del ball’ (1899) and Duchess Louise’s Queen Zenobia fancy dress (1897) in a display of decadence and decay reflecting the moral corruption caused by modernity but making for some fantastic works of art.

This exhibition challenged my understanding of the Victorian era by placing it in the context of a ‘colour revolution.’ I was charmed by its theatrical nature and the journey it took me on from start to finish despite my initial uncertainty that I would enjoy what I was going to see. It is a must-see for anyone living in or visiting Oxford over the next few months.

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