Monday, 16 February 2009
To be honest, the box usually leaves me cold, but last night I caught the first of Jeremy Paxman's programmes on the Victorians and was wowed by it.
The Victorian era is not a hugely popular one in the British consciousness, as is witnessed by the uphill struggles of the Victorian Society and SAVE to preserve and protect so many of its buildings. Paxman makes a persuasive case, however, and one can only hope that his splendidly Reithian series goes some way to instilling a new sense of pride and wonder in the achievements of the era and does something to sweep away the misconception of the age as one of ugliness cloaked under cloying sentiment.
He makes his own case rather well in a piece in The Times.
One reason for me to like the programme was the lavish attention paid to Ford Madox Brown's social-realist painting Work, long a favourite of mine. In a sad, spoddy way, its details appeal to the builder in me; the sand-screen in use for grading the aggregate, the shallow wooden barrow, the hod with the leather shoulder-pad and the intense, almost homo-erotic physicality of the workers in the pre-machine age of civil engineering. Wonderful stuff (And Heath Street is still largely recogniseable today, thanks in part to the actions of the effete intellectuals being subtly slighted in the painting...).
Brown wrote in his own 1865 catalogue notes,
'At that time extensive excavations, connected with the supply of water, were going on in the neighbourhood, and, seeing and studying daily as I did the British excavator, or navvy in the full swing of his activity (with his manly and picturesque costume, and with the rich glow of colour which exercise under a hot sun will impart), it appeared to me that he was at least as worthy of the powers of an English painter as the fisherman of the Adriatic, the peasant of the Campagna, or the Neapolitan lazzarone. Gradually this idea developed itself into that of Work as it now exists, with the British excavator for the central group, as the outward and visible type of Work.'
Quite why Carlyle and FD Maurice are standing by so idly is anyone's guess - if one didn't know better one would think Ford was having a dig at them as well.
But back to the prgramme. If nothing else. Paxman's series certainly makes for a bracing antidote to the mawkish travesty of Flora Thompson's wonderful trilogy that precedes it - the execrable Lark Rise.