ABSTRACT

O f all areas o f Victorian cultural achievement, the one that has taken longest to rehabilitate is that which is loosely and somewhat unsatis­ factorily called ‘the arts’ - painting, music, architecture, sculpture. Perhaps this is not surprising. The period’s output in these fields was so huge, and so eclectic in style and uneven in quality, that it was impossible for rediscovery to move confidently on a broad front. The process o f revaluation was not helped by what might be called the thin blue line o f aesthetic snobbery running from Matthew Arnold through Wilde, Pater, and the Aesthetes to Bloomsbury, for whom ‘Victorian’ was almost synonymous with bad taste. If any single figure may be said to have turned the tide o f appreciation it would be Sir John Betjeman, who made the British public aware o f the virtues o f Victorian architecture at the time when their city planners were pulling it down wholesale. Now there is an intellectual climate much more willing to do justice to Victorian architecture and painting, and positively enthusiastic in discovering the aesthetics o f a technological age, from railway building to photography. But one damaging label persists, at least among students o f literature: that the Victorian middle classes were ‘philistine’.