Victoriana: The Art of Revival, the Guildhall Art Gallery’s first exhibition of contemporary art, isn’t the nostalgia fest the title suggests. Sure, there are Staffordshire dogs (not to be confused with Staffies) arranged on a mantlepiece in a room that, on first impression, looks like the kind of crib in which great-great granny may have learned to crochet. But check out the lamp, a moth-speckled hallucination by YBA provocateur Mat Collishaw. And the wallpaper – ‘Devil Damask Flock’ by Timorous Beasties, which was last seen adorning Irene Adler’s bedroom walls in ‘Sherlock’. Clearly there’s a fevered narrative beyond the frills and chintz.
Sonia Solicari (pictured above), head of Guildhall Art Gallery and London’s Roman Amphitheatre, has taken five years to bring her haul of vintage-inspired goodies to view. ‘It was a case of seeing more and more Victorian-inspired art and design around,’ she explains. ‘Everything from things you can buy in shops through to fine art. I thought it was time to do a retrospective on a retrospective.’
These neo-Victorians aren't really a group – 'they don't have a manifesto,' says Solicari – but the show is full of artists who look back to the nineteenth century with wary eyes. ‘There’s sentimentality to neo-Victoriana’, Solicari says. ‘But also a political and psychological side to it, full of tensions about the social issues of the digital age and how these relate to conditions during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.’
There won’t be any actual Victorian art in the exhibition. In fact, the show will be staged in a series of atmospheric spaces deep beneath the Guildhall’s main galleries. The idea is that, having gorged yourself on contemporary, Victorian-inflected art, you’ll feel inspired to explore the Guildhalls collection of Victorian art to sample gems by the likes of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. ‘Although there are a lot of serious issues tackled in the show,’ says Solicari ‘the ultimate aim is to create a fun experience. I hope people will be pleasantly surprised to see all these layers of history and neo-Victorian themes bubbling away.’