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Friday, December 20, 2013

Victorian Art Has a Message and so much More


After reviewing Russian Lacquer art, Victorian art seems like child’s play. When the Pilgrims made their trip to America and cut off ties with their European forefathers, they also cut themselves off from the depth of culture and training that had inspired previous generations. Except for memories, many of them had no books or paintings until later immigrants brought them.

There is an innocence about their first efforts at duplicating what they saw; although, drawings from the Lewis and Clark expeditions are fairly detailed and accurate.

Children's books were not only written to entertain, but to teach values and principles.
During the Victorian era, the drawings appear playful and somewhat unskilled. Many scenes are detailed, but the characters seem misshapen or top heavy. Perhaps this was part of their naivety and charm.

At a garage sale a few years back, I purchased an old book titled: “Little Wide Awake, an anthology of Victorian Children’s Books and Periodicals,” by Leonard De Vries. Printed in 1967, the description states: "an authentic and fascinating panorama of the world of the children of a bygone era.”


“Little Wide-Awake” was one of the most popular children’s periodicals of the 19th century. It reveals shocking details of life in the Victorian world. The stories contain surprising grimness and more stark realism than many of the children’s stories of today.

These black silhouette drawings were a favorite!
In contrast, there is also a cloying sweetness in many stories and poems that many may find “sappy” and sentimental. To quote from the cover: “The religious ideas of the period are expressed in selections from publications of the Religious Tract Society. Also included are fine examples of books of instruction, alphabets, and forerunners of the comic strips.”


Nevertheless, there is humor and lightness in rhyme, as well as superb examples of poetry and “early art nouveau illustrations.”

Young women were taught to mend. Imagine having to darn socks, but it was economical.
The author, Leonard De Vries would be worth one blog on his own. While studying physics and chemistry in Amsterdam, his education was brought to an end when the Nazis overran Holland. De Vries was born in 1919 in Semarang, Indonesia, and considered life a voyage; a discovery full of adventures and surprises. This attitude helped him get through the war and inspired him to write children’s books.

I loved the composition of this drawing.
In 1957, when looking in the attic of a children’s library in Amsterdam for pre-war juvenile books  on science experiments, Leonard found some 18th century children’s books. These were the basis for this anthology and for many of the over two dozen children’s books that he wrote.

His experiences during the Nazi persecution, and a stay in Israel in 1953 helped him write “The Land is Bright.” In 1960, De Vries made a trip around the world, wandering many months through Thailand and Ceylon, to write a book about the inspiring work of UNICEF. 

Whether you like Victorian art or not, the appealing characters and stories of the period give us a glimpse into the past.

The last painting below is my favorite in the book for its overlapping elements.