Exhibition: The Perez Simon Collection

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888)The interiors of the grand new houses of wealthy late-Victorian industrialists were designed to impress, their crowded walls vying with recently established public galleries. Many of these rooms are recorded in contemporary photographs, which remain as witness to the twin activities of collection and display. In the exhibition, Victorian Obsession, we have an opportunity to view a selection of works from a recent collection, assembled since the 1990s by the Mexican businessman, Juan Antonio Pérez Simón. The handsome exhibition catalogue contains well-informed essays by the curators Daniel Robbins and Véronique Gerard-Powell, who contextualise the collection and supply comprehensive accounts of each painting.

Hung in a domestic setting – the home of one of the featured artists – the paintings regain some of the presence they had in the houses of their original owners. The exhibition suggests that brief period of the late-19th century in which buying contemporary art was, for the wealthy, a paradigm for the prodigious consumption of material culture. Those hastily assembled collections were just as hastily dispersed by the 1920s and the rooms that contained them demolished throughout the rest of the 20th century. 

The selection on display avoids genre and history subjects, emphasising instead the subjectless, aestheticised pictures appropriate for display in the studio and home of Leighton, who was a master of this mode. A shared feature of the majority of this selection is the female figure in various stages of reflection, reverie, or grief. Leighton’s Antigone (1882) is a fine example of the emotion with which he could imbue the female head and bust. His Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea (1871) is all rhythm and colour without a moral story in sight. Three examples of Albert Moore’s work include the reduced version of Shells (1875), the larger and differently coloured version of which is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. In contrast, the less well-known J.W. Godward has a different, more populist effect. His pictures reveal that intersection between a rarefied aestheticism and the Victorian commercial art market; they are bright in colour and hard-edged; the decorative objects that surround the blushing young ladies who lounge around in classical settings suggest Victorian country house bric-a-brac.  

One of the several pictures by John Melhuish Strudwick, Song without Words (1875), represents perfectly the ambitions of the enervated ‘new painting’ that had followed in the wake of Pre-Raphaelitism. The London vogue for Strudwick was short-lived, coinciding with the Aesthetic Movement enthusiasm for previously overlooked Italian Renaissance painters, such as Botticelli and Crivelli. The Pérez Simón collection contains several examples of this rare artist, who rose from being Burne-Jones’s studio assistant to having a successful independent career of his own. 

Although, for the most part, storytelling has evaporated in these works there is a strong interest in surface realism and in representing ‘stuff’. Highly elaborated fabrics, glass, marble, gold, silver and cloisonné confuse or engage us. Inlaid and polished, these surfaces confront the viewer with kinds of visual puzzles in which slivers of lustre and iridescence get confused with the glint of the sea or a corner of summer sky. The paintings are frequently like pieces of intarsia or mosaic, put together in paint rather than in wood or glass. They are much more beguiling than their 20th-century critics admitted, but clearly a desire for illusion triumphs over formal qualities throughout, Moore’s work excepted. 

Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888, pictured above) it is the most impressive work here in scale and pictorial ambition and the only one in a conventional museum presentation, hung as a showpiece in the exhibition annex to the house. Around it is displayed contextual material borrowed from the Alma-Tadema archive in Birmingham University and beside it is a revealing study for the finished picture. Otherwise, the works are hung around the rooms of Leighton House as if they might always have been there, contributing to the atmosphere of an exhibition that is both rewarding and revealing.  

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection is at Leighton House Museum, London, to March 29th, 2015.

Colin Cruise is Reader in Art History at Aberystwyth University and author of Pre-Raphaelite Drawing (Thames & Hudson, 2012).