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Edmund Gosse and the Victorian Nude

Jason Edwards takes a fresh look at attitudes to the nude in Victorian art, to coincide with Tate Britain's major exhibition on the subject opening this month.

In his 1907 memoir, Father and Son, the influential art critic and litterateur Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) recalled his Victorian childhood in Marychurch, Devonshire, during the 1850s and 1860s among the Plymouth Brethren. Although Gosse recognised that his family home was probably the 'most cultivated household in the parish', he could not recall seeing a single nude figure until he was thirteen. Then, his step-mother brought a 'gaudy gift-book ... containing a few steel engravings of statues'. These 'attracted him violently'.

With little accompanying information to go on, Gosse was initially somewhat baffled by what he saw. He therefore asked his father, the renowned natural theologian, P.H. Gosse, about the sculptures one morning over breakfast. His pater's response was 'direct and disconcerting'. He said that the Greek statues were the 'shadows cast by the vices of the heathen, and reflected their infamous lives'. It was for such things as these, Gosse senior warned,

... That God poured down brimstone and fire on the Cities of the Plain, and there is nothing in the legends of these gods, or rather devils, that it is not better for a Christian not to know. As he said these words, P.H. Gosse's face 'blazed white with Puritan fury', and Edmund thought that his father must have 'himself escaped with horror from some Hellenic hippodrome'.

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