In his concluding notice of the annual Royal Academy exhibition of 1863 for the Times, the art critic Tom Taylor singled out for discussion the work of George Elgar Hicks, including the artist’s masterpiece Woman’s Mission 1862–3. Woman’s Mission was in fact a triptych; Taylor described the work as a picture ‘in three compartments’, while other critics described three ‘tableaux, set in one frame’.1 The three canvases were given the titles Guide of Childhood (fig.1), Companion of Manhood (fig.2), and Comfort of Old Age (fig.3) by Hicks.2 In each of its compartments, Woman’s Mission depicts a young woman – the same woman in all three images – fulfilling her responsibilities as mother, wife and daughter: clearing her child’s path of brambles and guiding his steps, supporting her husband in a moment of overwhelming grief, and ministering to her ailing father in his final years.
Taylor observed that the triptych represented ‘woman in three phases of her duties as ministering angel’. He lamented, however, that ‘very “fine”’ subjects could be ‘intensely vulgar’, and opined:
Mr Hicks’s pictures are precisely of the kind to please unformed tastes. They are ‘domestic’, pretty, skilful, and highly finished … every face, if sentimental, is excruciatingly pretty – if plain, excruciatingly funny. The result is something excruciatingly painful to all well regulated minds. Mr Hicks is, in short, Mr Frith gone to wreck on the shoals of prettiness and sentimentality … If Mr Frith were less manly, his work would tend more and more to faults which it is a duty to warn people off from in that of Mr Hicks – all the more because the crowds round his pictures show how attractive they are.3
Woman’s Mission and Taylor’s comments thereon have received some critical attention within the context of a burgeoning interest in the representation of women in Victorian culture and the history of sexuality, but it is the notion of the ‘domestic’ embedded in the passage above that is of interest here and on which this article will focus.4 What did domestic mean in this context? What was ‘domestic’ art?
The moment at which Taylor was writing was, not coincidentally, that in which domestic art was formalised in English art discourse as a recognisable category of pictorial production. This was not a sudden occurrence, but rather the apex of a long crescendo starting from the beginning of the nineteenth century. While a substantive discussion of the evolution of domestic art in England is beyond the scope of this article, an outline of the development of the discourses of the domestic in writing about English art and the emergence of this descriptive category is necessary to understand the unique cultural moment in which Hicks’s triptych was created and exhibited.5 The reasons for the crystallisation of the cultural discourse of the domestic in 1862–3 may then be explored and Taylor’s commentary reviewed in light of his other activities at the time.
An 1827 edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language gives the following definition of the term ‘domestic’:
- Belonging to the house; not relating to things publick.
- Private; done at home; not open.
- Inhabiting the house; not wild.
- Not foreign; intestine.6
Later Victorian editions of Johnson’s Dictionary maintain comparable definitions.7 In this period, the domestic was identified not just with the private setting of the house or home but also with the nation, and this identity was rooted in the oppositional negative: ‘not foreign’. An important sense of ‘domestic’ art was that of an English art as contrasted with that of other nations.8 The two principal strands of the domestic – identification with the home and national identification – did not coalesce fully in English art discourse until the years around 1860, but they may be tracked in their ascent and eventual consolidation through the first half of the nineteenth century.
The discourses of the domestic may be considered ‘emergent’ in the pre-Victorian nineteenth century. 9 The word ‘domestic’, once absent, then rare in art theory and criticism, began to be used occasionally and by the end of the 1830s was used regularly.10 The rigid hierarchy of genres that characterised the eighteenth century – in which large-scale historical painting destined for public display was privileged above all other art forms – did not disappear, but it began to come under scrutiny and was sometimes explicitly undermined. To summarise in a general way, two camps began to emerge in this period. One was rooted in the civic humanist tradition and wedded to the Grand Manner, the artistic principles officially promoted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), and the ‘higher’ genres of history and characteristic portraiture.11 The other saw William Hogarth (1697–1764) as the nation’s premier domestic artist, the ‘firstborn of [England’s] spirit’, an artist whose small-scale scenes of familiar life were seen to be synchronised with national feeling and character.12 The Hogarth camp proclaimed the presence of an ‘Englishness’ in art production that was closely allied both with the benefits of Protestantism and with a naturalism that contrasted with the mannered artifice thought to have characterised Reynolds’s practice; the type of art advocated by Reynolds was associated with the ‘derivative’ (and Catholic) continental schools, whereas the approach to art typified by Hogarth was seen to be original and intrinsically native.13 It is this second camp that identified and promoted a domestic art, both in the sense of being quintessentially English and therefore emblematic of national character, but also, increasingly, as a recognisable category of production. By the end of the 1830s the camp of Hogarth began to dominate that of the Reynoldsian traditionalists in writings about art, although an ingrained opposition between ‘domestic art’ and ‘high art’ remained in place at the beginning of the Victorian period.14
The rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament – destroyed by fire in October 1834 – provided, at last, the opportunity to test the viability of government sponsored high art in England. Originally hailed as ‘the first chapter of a new edition of British art’, the commissioning of frescoes for the Westminster project ended ultimately in disappointment due to the obvious deficiencies of the work and the almost immediate physical deterioration of the frescoes.15 The failure of the scheme constituted the death knell of the English quest for a native school of large-scale history painting, and prompted the espousal of the domestic that set the pattern of development for the virtual apotheosis of domestic art in the 1860s.
Writings on art in the 1840s reflect a virtual tug-of-war between the residual discourses of the civic humanist tradition and the emergent discourses of the domestic. A review of the Royal Academy exhibition in the spring of 1842 mirrors this general divide, noting ‘ecstasies on the part of some, at the domesticity of subject agreed in by our painters – lamentations from others at the absence of a single grand historical picture’.16 There were also two highly visible paradigmatic testing grounds for both factions available to the British public in the early 1840s: the exhibition of the cartoons for the new Houses of Parliament held in Westminster Hall in 1843, and the retrospective exhibition of Sir David Wilkie’s work held at the British Institution in 1842, the year after the artist’s death. The overall quality of the cartoons did exceed expectations, which had prudently been set quite low.17 However, the assembled works of Wilkie – mostly small-scale genre paintings depicting scenes of familiar life – were classed as ‘among the greatest Collections, for magnitude and merit, which England or Europe has … consisting in pictures by a single Modern Master’.18 The art-going public was presented with a viable native alternative, in what was called the ‘domestic style’ of Wilkie, to the foreign tradition of art emulated in the lacklustre cartoons.19 This juxtaposition took root in the English mind, so that amid the disappointments of the later 1840s and 1850s surrounding the Westminster project, it became logical to gloss over the failings of the high art tradition in England in favour of that alternative tradition embodied by Wilkie.
These developments were underpinned by contemporary publications that mapped this alternative tradition and that theorised ‘domestic’ art. In his three-volume Life of Wilkie published in 1843, for example, the critic Allan Cunningham for the second time positioned Wilkie as Hogarth’s successor and in this way plotted the footings of what might be referred to as the trajectory of the domestic.20 This course of art production, from Hogarth to Wilkie and on to the Victorian domestic artists, is rehearsed continually in writings about domestic art in the 1860s. Cunningham’s Life of Wilkie also incorporated the artist’s ‘Remarks on Painting’ (c.1836), which proposed that the taste for art in England was ‘of a domestic rather than a historical character’.21 Wilkie celebrated art’s role in the domestic environment and embraced private patronage, rejecting the biases of the civic humanist tradition and providing a theoretical way forward for ‘domestic’ art: private, not public; belonging to the house; indigenous rather than foreign. Crucially, these traits were seen by Wilkie to be valuable, even if they were not quite lauded as yet.22 Wilkie’s ‘Remarks on Painting’ were reinforced by intellectuals at this date including John Ruskin, undoubtedly the most important theorist of British art in the Victorian period. While in the eighteenth century Sir Joshua Reynolds had claimed that the great painter ‘must divest himself of all prejudices in favour of his age or country’, in the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), Ruskin insisted that:
whatever is to be truly great and affecting must have on it the strong stamp of the native land. Not a law this, but a necessity, from the intense hold on their country of the affections of all truly great men. All classicality, all middle-aged patent-reviving, is utterly vain and absurd; if we are now to do anything great, good, awful, religious, it must be got out of our own little island, and out of these very times, railroads and all; if a British painter … cannot make historical characters out of the British House of Peers, he cannot paint history; and if he cannot make a Madonna of a British girl of the nineteenth century, he cannot paint one at all.23
While many critics in the 1840s, still firmly attached to the ideas and ideals of the civic humanist tradition, derided this kind of locality as being inimical to the aims of great art, by the 1850s the understanding that great art must reflect the character of the nation and the times in which it was produced had taken hold.24 Charles Robert Leslie, Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy, quoted the whole of the passage cited above in his Hand-Book for Young Painters (1855) and remarked, ‘To this I heartily subscribe’.25
By the 1850s it had become clear that the talents of England’s artists were for something other than the traditional forms of high art. To all but the most steadfast critics, a continued pursuit of monumental history painting in England seemed pointless; the future of the English school lay elsewhere. A continual struggle towards a terminology of the domestic remained evident throughout the decade, although this category was codified, gradually, year by year. In an article published in 1855 devoted to the painter Thomas Webster, for example, Webster’s small-scale genre scenes were seen to be archetypical of that ‘class of Art’ (the still-unnamed ‘domestic art’), which had not a ‘counterpart in any nation of Europe’, and seemed to be ‘indigenous to the English soil’.26 A growing recognition of genre painting as the national art of England was pronounced in reviews of exhibitions in the 1850s.27 This embrace of the domestic and developing commitment (albeit grudging) to a subordinate genre of painting necessitated a theoretical re-dressing of the conventions of high art and a realignment of the hierarchy of genres. Consequently, where the 1840s saw an almost equally weighted struggle between the residual discourses of the civic humanist tradition and the emergent discourses of the domestic, the most significant discussions about art in the 1850s demonstrate a presumably conscious attempt to place the forms of art associated with those two sets of discourses on an equal footing. This was achieved by simultaneously elevating domestic art and its practitioners while systematically undermining, and in some cases specifically unravelling, conventional academic ‘high art’ orthodoxies.28
The Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1855 was instrumental in solidifying English conceptualisations of domestic art. The exhibition forced a side-by-side comparison of the productions of the English school with those of its continental rivals in a way that had not been seen before, as the fine arts had been specifically excluded from the Great Exhibition in 1851.29 This juxtaposition proved revelatory, immediately sparking commentary from both French and English critics as to the marked differences between the British and continental schools of painting. Richard Redgrave, Special Commissioner for the Fine Arts at the Exposition and one of England’s most prominent arts statesmen at the time, brought his own experience of the event to bear when handling the Sheepshanks bequest to the nation in 1857. John Sheepshanks’s collection was exclusively British, containing mostly domestic art from England’s leading modern artists, including Redgrave himself.30 Both Sheepshanks and Redgrave intended the bequest to provide the foundation for a ‘National Gallery of British Art’ to rival the Luxembourg in Paris.31 The representative nature of the collection, therefore, and its national significance, were of the utmost importance in the verbal packaging of the collection for the public. In his introduction to the catalogue of the collection, Redgrave recalled that at the Exposition:
To pass from the grand salons appropriated in the Palais des Beaux Arts to French and Continental works, into the long gallery of British pictures, was to pass at once from the midst of warfare and its incidents, from passion, strife and bloodshed, from martyrdoms and suffering, to the peaceful scenes of home; – it was said of our pictures that they reflected the life of a people who had long been permitted to dwell safely.
Redgrave offered a series of explanations as to why British art was so markedly different to that produced by the French. These reasons were, first, the Protestant religion; second, the absence of state patronage; and third, extended peace. Redgrave observed that in France,
the Church and State are the great patrons of art, and pictures are largely commissioned for town halls, palaces, and churches. These are constantly of large dimensions, and calculated by their mere size to make an impression on those who do not reflect that all the highest qualities of art may be contained in pictures of moderate size.
Whereas, in England, according to Redgrave,
Art … has flourished from the demands of those who love it as a home delight, therefore our pictures are small, and suited to our private residences, while the subjects are such as we can live by and love; and hence, they have been largely illustrative of the feelings and affections of our kind.32
The mature conceptualisation of the domestic is encapsulated within these excerpts. Redgrave defined the domestic against a (French) foreign Other. That Redgrave’s engagement with the discourse of scale preceded and, clearly, superseded his consideration of subject matter is striking; this demonstrates just how central notions of relative scale were to the conceptualisation of domestic art. Inherent within this scalar abstraction was the idea of the domestic setting for art and, indeed, English domesticity – inextricably intertwined with national identity at this date. This was a common theme throughout the criticism published in France surrounding the fine arts portion of the Exposition, re-printed comprehensively in the English periodical press.33 In a review that was quoted in England well into the 1860s, for example, the critic Théophile Gautier, writing for the French government journal Le Moniteur Universel, emphasised the ‘thorough concentration at the domestic hearthstone’ of the English existence.34 This domesticity was seen to be mirrored by the scale and content of English art, especially genre painting.35 So geared was Sheepshanks’s collection for the domestic environment, in fact, that he had suggested opening his home to the public for the permanent display of his collection.36 While this idea was ultimately rejected, the perceived suitability of a private home for a national gallery at this date is revealing.37 The implicit reversal of the established hierarchy of genres contained in Redgrave’s introduction is consistent with the discernible push towards genre realignment manifest in the writings of even the most conservative critics in this period.38
Importantly, Redgrave conceived of the British nation in terms of the influence of the Reformation, and the intervention of a divine Providence that had bestowed upon a chosen people the blessings of a lasting peace, envisaged as security from both within and without, in the form of seemingly impenetrable boundaries and an absence of internecine conflict (i.e. revolution). This conception of the English as a chosen race, blessed and burdened with unique privileges and responsibilities, had arguably been in place since the seventeenth century, but it gained in strength after 1848 when England was left singularly unscathed as revolution swept through continental Europe.39 As the historian Boyd Hilton has observed, immediately after 1848, ‘the myth of the country’s essential soundness began to be cultivated, a belief … that revolution was a foreign disease’.40 Domestic tranquillity was closely associated with English constitutional and religious liberty, and, increasingly, with the national character.41 Domestic art became infused with all of these ideas.
Seven years after the Exposition Universelle, a similar opportunity for the juxtaposition of cultural artefacts and identities was presented by the International Exhibition of 1862 held in London. It was also at this time, of course, that George Elgar Hicks was painting Woman’s Mission.
Events in the second half of the 1850s and early 1860s had ‘told emphatically on the temper of the English people’.42 After the ‘euphoria’ that surrounded the Great Exhibition of 1851, England had endured the Crimean War in 1854–6, followed by an unforeseen economic downturn in 1857.43 Close on the heels of war in the Crimea came the Indian Mutinies of 1857–8, an experience that has been called the ‘supreme trauma of the age’.44 The mutiny has been shown to have had a profound effect on the English psyche and, indeed, on English literature and art, both in its immediate aftermath and in the decades that followed.45 The death of Prince Albert in December 1861 was perceived as a terrible blow both for the Queen and for the country. Albert’s death cast a pall over the International Exhibition as he had essentially conceived the triumph of the Great Exhibition; his absence in 1862 was felt keenly and sparked concerns that the event would not be a success. Furthermore, there were fears that England would soon (if unwillingly) be drawn into the American Civil War, then raging. Articles published in the periodical press in the first half of 1862 contrasted the atmosphere of peace and optimism that had pervaded the Great Exhibition with the real sense of danger that filled the air at the time of the International Exhibition; this was an anxious time for England.46
It has been argued that ‘affirmation’ was inevitably ‘shadowed by insecurity’ in the production of domestic imagery in Victorian culture.47 It seems likely that the ‘moral panic’ triggered by the catastrophic events of the later 1850s precipitated, at least in part, the emphatic acclamation of what was seen to be a uniquely English art form and way of life.48 Certainly, in the year of the International Exhibition and in the year that followed, domestic art – and the notions of the domestic associated with it – found its apogee.
The display of fine arts in the International Exhibition of 1862 cemented finally the affiliation between England’s domestic art and England’s domestic character. The critic for the Athenaeum, for example, proposed that on viewing British art at the exhibition, the eye could ‘not fail to recognise the peculiarly domestic character of the nation and the school’.49 The ‘homely’ nature of the English was contrasted, as it had been in 1855, with the militarism of the continent. ‘One would think we were the most peaceful people in the world’, wrote the Athenaeum reviewer, perhaps consciously echoing Richard Redgrave’s polarity between the ‘peaceful scenes of home’ and the warfare, strife and suffering of continental art.50 The Exposition Universelle and the 1862 International Exhibition were complementary in this way; critical impressions from the Exposition were distilled and fused with the new understanding of the English school engendered by the display of English art at the latter exhibition, greatly expanded from 1855 to include the work of deceased as well as living artists. For the first time within the context of an international competition, artists such as Hogarth, Wilkie, Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner could be seen alongside England’s contemporary artists.51 This enlarged view of English art led to the construction of a connected narrative of the school that developed into a linear history, in keeping with the Whig model of ‘Progress and Continuity’ dominant in nineteenth-century English histories.52 The notion of the ‘century’ of British art sprang up around the 1862 exhibition, a construct that was formally inscribed into history with the publication of Richard and Samuel Redgrave’s Century of Painters of the English School in 1866.53
The English school was seen to have started with Hogarth and to share the artist’s most salient characteristics, especially originality and independence, the hallmarks of Protestantism. All that in the history of British art could be considered ‘essentially indigenous in character’ was seen to emanate from Hogarth; as the critic for the Illustrated London News put it, it was Hogarth who ‘gave the domestic character to British art’.54 Moreover, the many facets of Hogarth’s art, including ‘his invention of the English genre’ were accepted as the ‘chief characteristics’ of the English school of the 1860s. Such art was seen to have a ‘hold upon the national mind’, thus guaranteeing its endurance. In an extraordinary reversal of the entrenched hierarchy of genres, Hogarth’s work was categorised as historical art.55 ‘So-called high art’ was positioned as a false goal that had obstructed English progress; the few extant large-scale English pictures were perceived as failures; and artists such as Benjamin Robert Haydon and James Barry who had pursued history painting to the point of self-destruction were portrayed as deluded unfortunates.56
However, not all commentators in the wake of the International Exhibition embraced this radical reorganisation of the hierarchy of genres in favour of domestic art. In mid-1863, at nearly the same time that he penned his critique of Hicks’s Woman’s Mission quoted above, Tom Taylor wrote an extended article for the newly inaugurated Fine Arts Quarterly Review entitled ‘English Painting in 1862’.57 Taylor devoted much of this piece to a plea for public patronage in England and an indictment of the failings of the Royal Academy, then under parliamentary review. As he had done in his Handbook to the Pictures in the International Exhibition (1862), Taylor recalled sympathetically the figures of Haydon and Barry, resuscitating their language in his praise for the ‘masculine style’ of art of a ‘large and public character’.58 Taylor reserved particular vitriol for the new power of the picture dealers and the ‘irresistible influence of “the demand” in art’, which prompted artists to seek ‘a story that admits of pretty dresses and pretty faces for the next Academy exhibition’. Elsewhere, Taylor sneered at the ‘sentiment’ of ‘domestic drama’, ‘pretty draperies’ and ‘pretty groupings’ and other ‘immediate and obvious sources of pleasure in minds of no high or special culture’. He deplored the ‘uncultivated’ taste of the new class of picture buyers and questioned their intelligence.59 The scorn for the ‘pretty’ and the clear biases of class and gender in this article – especially the notion of effeminacy – echo exactly the thrust of Taylor’s attack on Woman’s Mission cited above. Embodied in this line of criticism are the residual discourses of the civic humanist tradition, activated against domestic art. The same biases of class and gender and the same irritants of prettiness and sentimentality shadowed domestic art during the course of its development and emergence.60 These residual discourses persist in writings about English art throughout the Victorian period.
Taylor recognised that the moment in which he was writing (and in which Woman’s Mission was exhibited) in 1863 presented a good opportunity for ‘taking stock’ of English painting. This was not only because of the experience of the International Exhibition just passed, but also because two Royal Commissions had recently been appointed; one to consider the position of the Royal Academy in relation to English art and another to enquire into the decay of the frescoes at Westminster. Taylor also noted that the year had seen ‘some of … the largest prices ever paid to English painters, and the most daring ventures ever launched … by some of our dealers’.61 This was a reference to William Powell Frith’s Railway Station 1862, which had been commissioned by the dealer Louis Victor Flatow and exhibited in his gallery with huge commercial success (Frith was paid handsomely both for the picture and for the copyright).62 Significantly, Flatow was also the dealer who purchased Woman’s Mission from George Elgar Hicks. It is not clear whether Flatow had already agreed to buy Woman’s Mission when Taylor saw it at the Royal Academy in 1863, but had he done so, and had Taylor been aware of this, it likely would have contributed to Taylor’s negativity about the triptych.63
Part of Tom Taylor’s vehemence in his writings at this date must have stemmed from the knowledge that he was swimming against the tide. Taylor suggested as much in ‘English Painting in 1862’, when he allowed that others might think the ‘private and bourgeois art’ he resented is the ‘proper and destined work of the English school’.64 This, of course, was precisely the view that was being expressed elsewhere. Domestic art – now a recognisable category of pictorial production – was heralded in the periodical press. In a review of the annual exhibition at the British Institution published in the Art Journal in March 1863, domestic art materialised under the heading: ‘THE DOMESTIC – BOTH SERIOUS AND COMIC’.65 Two pages later, in an article devoted to the domestic artist Joseph Clark(e), the category was elaborated:
pictures technically known as genre, or, as they are commonly termed, domestic subjects, seem to promise well for the future … [they] are unquestionably most popular with the public. The reason they are so is obvious enough. We are emphatically a domestic people; other nations may equal us in their love of country, but they have not the same regard for their homes. An Englishman … feels pride in his home and household, whether he be wealthy or in humble circumstances; his sympathies are in unison with everything which speaks of home-affections, home-influences, home-pursuits.66
Domestic art had crystallised around the impressions and elucidations of the International Exhibition; this synopsis of the category closely recalls criticism published in the Athenaeum at the time of the event.67 By June 1863, in the review of the annual Royal Academy exhibition, George Elgar Hicks’s Woman’s Mission was incorporated under the heading: ‘SCENES DOMESTIC – GRAVE AND GAY’. The description of this category, provided directly beneath the capitalised heading, captured the fully-fledged conceptualisation of domestic art:
England, happy in her homes, and joyous in her hearty cheer, and peaceful in her snug firesides, is equally fortunate in a school of Art sacred to the hallowed relations of domestic life. From the prince to the peasant, from the palace to the cottage, the range in rank is wide; yet the same sentiments – love to God, charity to neighbours, duties of parents and children … these principles and emotions, the outcomings of our universal humanity, have found earnest and literal expression through domestic pictures, which, both by their number and mastery, may almost claim to be national.68
The bonds between Englishness and English art that were finally systematised at the time of the International Exhibition had been picked up, amplified and inscribed into culture. Domestic art had become the national art of England. At the centre of these characterisations glows the English fireside; it was the domestic nature of the English people, and their material domestic surrounds, that defined this national art and unreservedly so – this outlook was absolutely ubiquitous at this date.69 The Art Journal critic adopted the basic elements of Richard Redgrave’s vision of British art as it was expressed in the Sheepshanks catalogue and enshrined them: the blessings of peace, and complete accordance with national feeling. It has been suggested that the use of the terms ‘sacred’ and ‘hallowed’ in this instance give this category of art a ‘special and elevated status’.70 In fact, domestic art had effectively become, to conservative critics, a religious high art for England.
The religious associations of domestic art had been in place since at least the 1830s. In his ‘Remarks on Painting’, David Wilkie described a fine (domestic) picture as ‘one of our household gods … kept for private worship’, and he conceived of the English home as a gallery-sanctuary: ‘a holy place, undisturbed by applause, unintruded on even by sympathy’.71 These links became more pronounced in the 1840s. But in the 1850s, for many reasons, it seemed imperative to identify a theologically appropriate Protestant religious art. This had to do with the intense debates at the time about religious painting, brought to the fore by the ‘Catholic’ art of the Pre-Raphaelites, a spike in the virulence of British anti-Catholicism prompted by the crisis of so-called ‘Papal Aggression’, and the requirements of the imperial project – the promulgation of empire demanded an exalt-able British art.72 With the dawning realisation that genre painting was becoming the national art of England, it became desirable to associate the sacred nature of the Protestant religion more explicitly with this art form.
In June 1857, in the address that he delivered at the opening of the Sheepshanks gallery at the South Kensington Museum, Richard Redgrave observed that when art in England had been ‘rejected’ by ‘our churches … it … sought a place in men’s homes, and addressed itself to their affections’.73 In other words, in Protestant England, religious art, displaced, became domestic art. Redgrave found the rejection by the church to be a source of regret, nevertheless he believed that English artists ‘[had] laboured in the cause of religion’, calling Hogarth a ‘deep and earnest “preacher of righteousness”’.74 The author of the Handbook to the Gallery of British Paintings at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857 furthered the position broached by Redgrave in the address. While admitting that ‘religious art’ had ‘never yet been engendered in a Protestant community’, the critic proclaimed:
But how much religion there may be even in art so divorced from the service of the altar, this English gallery furnishes abundant proof to those who are prepared to receive it. There is religion in the face of a good man; in the loveliness of every really beautiful woman … There is religion in the love of a mother for her child … All art that awakens the higher and holier affections in us … is, in a broad but sound sense, religious art.75
At this date the ‘domestic’ and the ‘holy’ were rapidly approaching symbiosis. In the 1840s the Anglican parson Charles Kingsley had preached that families had been ‘given us to teach us their divine antitypes’, and that in order to fully understand the ‘meaning of a “Father in Heaven” we must be fathers ourselves; to know how Christ loved the Church, we must have wives to love, and love them’.76 By the 1860s the subsumption of the moral and spiritual authority of the religious by the domestic was complete, as typified by publications such as The Home Life: In the Light of its Divine Idea (written by a Congregational minister), in which God was seen to have created the ‘first home’, like the first man, ‘after a divine original’.77 The elevation of the domestic to sacred status enabled a corresponding exaltation of domestic art to the level of religious high art. This is demonstrated by the critic Joseph Beavington Atkinson’s response to the painting called Rest, exhibited by the domestic artist Charles West Cope at the Royal Academy in 1860. Atkinson saw in this picture (which depicted a mother and child) the ‘rest as of a “Holy Family” by Raphael, Mother and Child blessed in unearthly love’.78 He informed his readers that:
Such pictures in our day not unworthily take the place of ‘Holy Families’, painted by the great masters, and might well be hung as altar-pieces in the shrine of domestic affection. English art … is greatest … when it is most true to that English home, which is not only a castle, but a fireside, and a family circle, and a sanctuary, and a house where grace is said before meals, and the day ended by prayer.79
Here is the apotheosis of domestic art. Not only had domestic art been elevated to be on a level with the old masters, it had now taken their place. The re-positioning of domestic art transforms the domestic sanctuary into a reliquary: these pictures, whose diminutive scale (and portability) were emphasised from the outset, act as Protestant holy relics within the sacred space of the home. The conceptualisation of England as the Protestant Israel nourished these notions of the holy domestic and enabled such a self-conscious aggrandisement; the antithesis between domestic art and high art was eradicated.
By the second half of the 1850s and early 1860s the religiosity of domestic art was ineluctable. Domestic pictures were frequently conceptualised as ‘sermons’ in paint.80 Critics of domestic art drew comparisons between the ‘poverty-stricken religious feeling’ of domestic pictures and religious tracts.81 In fact, domestic pictures often replicated exactly visualisations of the ‘happy home’ and directives for appropriate conduct contained in contemporary religious periodicals.82 Artists manipulated the language of old master religious painting in order to infuse ostensibly secular scenes with a sacred aura.83 Catholic iconography was theoretically neutralised so that it could be appropriated and re-deployed in ‘holy’ Protestant domestic pictures.84 Quotations from scripture were sometimes appended to these paintings, inscribed on their frames or printed in exhibition catalogues.
In 1862, when Hicks was at work on Woman’s Mission, Charles West Cope exhibited two paintings at the Royal Academy entitled Two Mothers. Perhaps for ease of reference, the Athenaeum critic assigned the pictures the titles of Life Well Spent and Time Ill Spent in his review of the exhibition; Life Well Spent is the title usually given to the one picture that survives (fig.4).85 According to accounts in the periodical press, the Two Mothers were ‘two companion pictures in one frame’.86 Cope himself described the paintings as being in ‘two frames screwed together’.87 Presumably, the pictures were hinged like a religious diptych. Appended to the Two Mothers were two quotations from the Book of Proverbs, revealing the contrasting types portrayed: ‘She openeth her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed’ (Proverbs 31:26–8), and ‘Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain’ (Proverbs 31:30).
In the painting that Cope referred to as the ‘Good Mother’ (Life Well Spent), an English mother – almost certainly Cope’s own wife – is shown together with four of her children in a comfortable middle-class interior.88 The ‘Good Mother’ acts as a religious instructor in the home.89 She sits, knitting, a prayer book open on her lap, listening attentively as her children recite their catechism. An elder daughter studies her own religious lessons as she rocks a cradle in which an infant sleeps. The image of the virtuous wife and mother contained in the verses of Proverbs 31 appended to Cope’s ‘Good Mother’ was often called upon in Victorian religious texts to signify the ideal home-state. Were English mothers and homes to approach the standard set out in this passage from scripture, not only would the ‘youth of the coming generation’ be the ‘boast of their country’, but the ‘golden age … of the millennium would be seen commencing its era of health, peace, prosperity, and piety, throughout the world’.90 While in Cope’s diptych the focus is on the mother, paternal behaviour was seen to be equally critical.91
Cope linked the directive for parental behaviour emblazoned in his ‘Good Mother’ with the broader mission entrusted to England by God. At the left of the painting the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is carved into the wall of the home and inscribed with Christ’s Charge to Peter: ‘Feed My Lambs’ (John 21:15–17). The table directly beneath the image of Christ is draped with a carpet that is covered with crosses. Lilies, symbolic of the Virgin Mother, are placed on top of the table, together with a large Bible and prayer books. Keys sit conspicuously in front of the Bible, symbolising the ‘power of the keys’, thought to have been entrusted to Peter by Jesus (Matthew 16:18–20).92 As already noted, this appropriation of Catholic iconography was typical of this date, and it conveyed England’s sense of her divine mission, as the Protestant Israel, to disseminate the Gospel throughout the world. Cope’s domestic picture confidently assumed the place of religious high art.
Given the unusual form of Cope’s diptych, its subject matter and its warm reception, it seems likely that Two Mothers inspired Hicks in the production of Woman’s Mission. Hicks appears to have remained something of an outsider in artistic circles, never becoming a Royal Academician or mixing particularly with his fellow artists, and there is no evidence of a social or professional relationship between Cope and Hicks.93 But it is unthinkable that Hicks would not have seen Two Mothers in the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1862. Furthermore, Cope’s diptych featured in the criticism surrounding the International Exhibition that year, being noticed at some length by the critic for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, for example.94 Hicks must have known the work. The deeply religious spirit of Cope’s diptych – its conceptualisation in terms of scripture, the strength it draws from contemporary religious discourses, and its overt use of religious symbol – is also enmeshed within Woman’s Mission.95
The triptych form of Woman’s Mission immediately suggests a religious altarpiece and imbues the subject portrayed with a sacred character.96 Hicks literalised Joseph Beavington Atkinson’s notion of an ‘altar-piece in the shrine of domestic affection’ and thus designated the scenes depicted those of a Holy Family. While Hicks did not append scriptural verse to the triptych, the title of Woman’s Mission would have at once conjured the divine mission with which woman was charged by God, brought to bear continually in debates in this period, whether religious or secular, on the appropriate role and position of women.97
The triptych could in fact be a pictorialisation of a contemporary sermon entitled ‘Woman’s Mission’, published in 1852 by the Reverend John Angell James, an evangelical nonconformist minister in Birmingham. James called ‘HOME’ the ‘proper scene of woman’s action and influence’, and visualised this ‘elysium’ as the ‘playground of childhood – the dwelling of manhood – the retreat of age’, echoing exactly the structure of Hicks’s triptych.98 The minister argued that the ‘greatest power in the moral world is that which a mother exercises over her young child’, and that the ‘dominant direction which is to determine the whole course of life’ was determined in early years by the mother. Guide of Childhood manifests this precisely, as the mother conducts her child along his path, directing his course and clearing his way. James sermonised that ‘Eve was designed exclusively for Adam’s comfort’, thus teaching us that ‘woman’s mission’ was ‘to be a suitable help-mate for that one man to whom she is united’. He elaborated that in the ‘companionship which woman was designed to afford to man’, it was her duty ‘when he is burdened by care, to lighten, by sharing, the load; when groaning with anguish, to calm … the tumult of his head; and act, through all his sorrows, the part of a ministering angel’. Companion of Manhood, both in its title and content, enacts the ideal of female companionship detailed by James; the woman supports her husband in his sorrow and anguish with her entire body, thus physically helping him to shoulder his emotional burden. Tellingly, too, it was a ‘ministering angel’ that Tom Taylor recognised in Woman’s Mission, as noted above. Finally, James proposed that:
One of the most hallowed … sights in our world is, woman at home; discharging with all the meekness of wisdom, the various duties of wife, mother, and mistress, with an order that nothing is allowed to disturb; a patience which nothing can exhaust, and affection which is never ruffled … in short, such a scene as that described by Solomon in the most exquisite chapter of his Proverbs.99
Hicks’s triptych seems the embodiment of James’s sermon. ‘Hallowed’ was also the word used by the Art Journal critic to characterise the nature of domestic art in the June 1863 review that considered Woman’s Mission. The chapter of Proverbs referenced by James is that appended to Cope’s ‘Good Mother’, and although it was not incorporated specifically by Hicks, it clearly would have been evoked by the subject matter of the paintings, together with the inviolable ‘order’, ‘patience’, and ‘affection’ which permeate the representation of the woman in the triptych.
Woman’s Mission pictorialises many elements of contemporary religious prescriptive literature. The physical conjoining of the husband’s and wife’s bodies in Companion of Manhood literalises the ideal of marital concord, in which the ‘two made one’ would act ‘in perfect harmony with each other, because in perfect harmony with the mind of God’. This construct was enshrined in religious texts, in which the ‘Home’ of such true ‘helpmates’ was envisaged as the ‘Eden of Eden’, an earthly corrective for the Fall that had been occasioned by the failings of Adam and Eve.100 The idea of comfort that pervades the triptych was a central theme in religious writings at this date, especially temperance literature.101 The trappings of domestic comfort (abundant in both Companion of Manhood and Comfort of Old Age) were a typical signifier of God’s providence, just as their absence usually signified godlessness in this period. The very notion of ‘comfort’ had religious overtones for a Victorian audience. According to the New Testament, earthly comfort derives directly from divine comfort, supplied by the ‘God of all Comfort’ (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). Fundamental to domestic comfort was the presence of the Bible. As an 1862 article in the Happy Home made clear, it was the Bible that was the ‘great home-maker’.102 In Comfort of Old Age, the daughter reads to her father from a leather-bound and hinged Bible that Hicks has placed conspicuously at the centre of the scene. This section of the triptych, unlike Companion of Manhood, is flooded with light, and Hicks has filled the room with shades of white, including the white pages of the Bible. In a prescriptive text called Home (1857), the Reverend William Tweedie, pastor of the Free Tolbooth Church in Edinburgh, urged the necessity of the reading of scripture in the home, and preached that ‘with the Word of God ascendant … Home becomes radiant with the light of Heaven … it is the abode of purity’.103 Comfort of Old Age would seem to illustrate such beliefs.
When Woman’s Mission was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863 the critic for the Art Journal read Comfort of Old Age as a scene of death rather than of illness, describing a ‘dying father, sedulously watched and waited on by a daughter’s affection’.104 It has been suggested that Comfort of Old Age may have been inspired by the death of Hicks’s father, Edward Hicks, in 1861.105 The woman in the paintings bears a striking resemblance to Hicks’s wife Maria, as depicted in an 1857 watercolour portrait, so it may be that there was a personal dimension to Woman’s Mission for Hicks.106 In the absence of Guide of Childhood, now known only through a small preparatory sketch, it is impossible to know exactly the order in which Hicks painted the three compartments of Woman’s Mission. What is known, however, is that Comfort of Old Age was completed the year before Companion of Manhood, as the two pictures are signed and dated 1862 and 1863 respectively. It seems probable that Comfort of Old Age was painted first, perhaps even conceived originally as a stand-alone work, and that the triptych (possibly inspired by Cope’s Two Mothers) expanded from there. The use of religious symbolism in Woman’s Mission appears to radiate outwards from Comfort of Old Age, which, taken as an image of death, visualises the transition to a heavenly state contained in the Book of Revelation.
The dying father in Comfort of Old Age does not look at his daughter, but beyond her, to something that the viewer cannot see. Behind him a door stands open, with a key turned in its lock.107 This may be related to Revelation 3:7–8 (‘These are the words of the holy one … who has the key of David … I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut’) and Revelation 4:1 (‘After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me, which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter’). The open Bible at the optical centre of Comfort of Old Age has already been noted; this may also represent the Book of Life, Revelation 20:12 (‘And I saw the dead … stand before God … and another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged out of those things that were written in the books, according to their works’). The painting of an almost featureless veiled bride that hangs prominently at the back of the picture invokes Revelation 21:2 (‘And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’). The plate of highly-coloured fruit on the table suggests the fruit of the Tree of Life in Revelation 22:2 (‘the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month’). The striking radiance of the room, flooded with light that emanates from no discernible light source, bespeaks the pure and ceaseless light of heaven in Revelation 22:5 (‘And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light’). It is from these scriptural referents that the true comfort of Comfort of Old Age derives: the promise of ‘no more death, neither sorrow nor crying … for the former things are passed away’ (Revelation 21:4).
Reading Woman’s Mission from right to left, rather than from left to right, a different sort of progression is suggested. If the death of the father comes first, as Hicks’s father’s death likely did in the conception of the triptych, then the scene of the receipt of the news of a death (the black-edged letter) in Companion of Manhood may be self-referential; perhaps this is Hicks himself, supported by Maria. The scene of childhood fits at either end of a chronology; this may equally be a vision of the eternal home, that ‘ultimate abode’ where man is again a child in his ‘Father’s House’, in the presence of the Blessed Mother.108 The brambles that feature in the image relate to the spoiling of Eden by sin, when God caused the ground to bring forth thorns and thistles because Adam and Eve had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:17–18). The placement of references to the two trees of the Garden of Eden (the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life; Genesis 2:9) at either end of the triptych reinforces the understanding of being fallen from and ultimately restored to paradise, the determined course of Christian existence.
The glimpses of paradise contained in George Elgar Hicks’s Woman’s Mission are visions of home. Victorian theologians proposed that while paradise could not be restored to man, God could ‘replace him in another Eden, and the nearest approach to that on earth is Home’.109 Individual English Edens such as those represented in domestic art were seen to constitute the larger elysium of England itself, conceptualised as ‘an Eden of green fields … and happy homes’.110 The apotheosis of the domestic enabled these effigies to function at all scalar levels, material and imagined, empowering domestic art to be truly national.