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Tuesday, 3 April, 2001, 16:35 GMT 17:35 UK
Conflicting visions of the Victorians
painting by Thomas Jones Barker, 1863
The Secret of England's Greatness by T Jones Barker
By BBC News Online's Olive Clancy

A new exhibition opened by the Queen at the Victoria and Albert Museum aims to "reassess" the image we have of the Victorians.

The exhibition - which marks the centenary of Queen Victoria's death in 1901 - consists of some 400 works from the era.

Exhibition curator Paul Atterbury invites visitors to "check your prejudices in with your coats and look at the Victorians anew."

Brick makers by Ralph Hedley
During Victoria's reign, the revolution in industrial practices changed British life
It is true that there are a variety of points of view on Queen Victoria and her reign.

It is likely that the Queen has a positive image of her direct ancestor, who restored the monarchy to public esteem and affection during her rule.

And monarchists in general will relish the exhibitions of regal paintings, diamonds and Victoriana from a time when the empire was all powerful.

Cultural exchange

There are exquisite textiles from India, bronze artifacts from Benin, engineering from the Americas.

As Atterbury points out the V&A was not a design museum, it was a museum of inspiration for British industry.

The latest products from the empire were put on show to stimulate new products, new machinery, new engineering in Britain.

Anti-masturbatory device
Prudish Victorians? Anti-masturbatory device circa 1890
For anybody interested in the growth and spread of technology there are bits of the first ever transatlantic cable, encrusted with shells.

Or there's the bumper telephone directory from 1896, showing the prevalence of telephone usage at the time - though not for private use.

Design

Sadly the layout of the exhibition does not do justice to the items on show.

The Victorians, with their keen interest in design, would not have been amused.

"The Victorians were fascinated by cultural items and it was a world driven by colour, a time of cultural exchange," said Atterbury, who is also a member of TV's Antiques Roadshow team of experts.

The cultural riches are here and the colour, but I didn't see much evidence of exchange.

Rewarding

A small gold and diamond snuff box on display was given to the American explorer Henry Stanley by Queen Victoria for "opening communication with Dr Livingstone".

Stanley is famous for have made his way up the Congo river and striking the disastrous deals with tribal chiefs that led to the decimation of that country from ivory, rubber and slave trades.

The V&A is anxious to say it wants people to see the material and make up their own minds about the Victorians.

This in itself is a laudable notion - and the material is hugely rewarding.

Argyll Voiturette motor car, Hozier Engineering Company, 1900.
It was a time of technological and engineering excellence
Where else could you admire the slippers the explorer Sir Richard F Burton wore when he was the first Westerner - in disguise - to visit Mecca?

Where else could you listen to a recording of Florence Nightingale or see short films of Brighton Pier in 1898?

But it is not enough to tell the world about the brilliance of British explorers without looking at the havoc they brought in their wake.

Inventing New Britain: The Victorian Vision is at the V&A Museum, London 5 April - 29 July.

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See also:

21 Jan 01 | UK
Victorian values at 100
22 Jan 01 | UK
Queen Victoria remembered
22 Feb 01 | Entertainment
V&A plans new image
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