How to be an art critic. A Victorian guide (tips from PUNCH). Part 2

This is Part 2 of my guide to art criticism based on the original article “Articles and Art” from Punch (volume 8, 1845). (My comments are in black.) Read Part 1 here.

In this part you will learn how to criticise four popular Victorian painters.


  1. To criticise a Picture by Turner – Begin by protesting against his extravagance; then go on with a “notwithstanding.” Combine such phrases as “bathed in sunlight,” “flooded with summer glories,” “mellow distance,” with a reference to his earlier pictures; and wind up in a rapturous rhapsody on the philosophy of art.

This is about J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Probably one of the best known British landscape painters.

Some good observations from Punch, notwithstanding, less useful for Turner’s later paintings of shipwrecks. Or this avalanche scene.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; Somer Hill, Tonbridge
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) – Somer Hill, Tonbridge (1811) (Photo Credit: National Galleries of Scotland)
  1. To criticise a Picture by Stanfield. – Begin by unqualified praise; then commence detracting, first on the score of “sharp, hard outline;” then of “leathery texture;” then of “scenic effect of the figures;” and conclude by a wish he had never been a scene-painter.

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1793-1867). Victorian painter best known for his marine scenes.[1] I think I can see that scenic effect of the figures here, but unfortunately not a trace of leathery texture.

Stanfield, Clarkson Frederick, 1793-1867; Ancona and the Arch of Trajan
Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1793-1867) – Ancona and the Arch of Trajan (1851) (Photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
  1. To criticise a Picture by Etty. – Begin by delirious satisfaction with his “delicious carnations” and mellow flesh-tones.” Remark on the skilful arrangement of colour and admirable composition; and finish with a regret that ETTY should content himself with merely painting from “the nude Academy model,” without troubling himself with that for which you had just before praised him. – N.B. Never mind the contradiction.

William Etty (1787-1849) was a Victorian painter who specialised in the nude. In this bit Punch might be referring to the fact that such paintings were going out of fashion at the time.[2] Nevertheless a true Victorian (male) Art Critic could still appreciate those classy nudes (especially the female nudes, naturally).

On a side note, it was always better if a painting of a nude had a mythological or biblical title. Can’t have Victorian painters painting pictures of regular Victorians without clothes. That would be immoral…

A delicious example of an admirable composition.

Etty, William, 1787-1849; Aurora and Zephyr
William Etty (1787-1849) – Aurora and Zephyr (exhibited 1845) (Photo Credit: Lady Lever Art Gallery)
  1. To criticise a Picture by E. Landseer. – Here you are bound to unqualified commendation. If the subject be PRINCE ALBERT’S Hat or the QUEEN’S Macaw, some ingenious compliment to royal patrons is expected.

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802/3?-1873), the favourite painter of Queen Victoria. He was famous for his representations of animals.

Look at this fabulous portrait of Eos, the favourite greyhound of Prince Albert (pictured alongside Prince Albert’s hat and gloves). I am afraid I cannot find an ingenious enough compliment to the royal patron or indeed words to describe this masterpiece of a hat.

261054-1331571101 landseer eos greyhound
Edwin Henry Landseer (1802/3?-1873) – Eos (1841) (Photo Credit: Royal Collection Trust)

Punch will be happy to supply newspaper critics with similar directions for “doing” all the principal painters in similar style. Unfortunately the author of the original Punch article is no more around, but if any readers have such requests they can leave comments below and I will try my best to supply suitable directions in similar style.

And here are a few excerpts from a very serious review of a painting by John Rogers Herbert published in The Morning Post on 14 May 1845, as quoted in Punch. Victorian art criticism at its best.

“There is a want of modulative melody in its colours and mellowness in its hand, pushed to an outré simplicity in the plainness and ungrammatical development of its general effect. The handling is firm and simple, though in the drapery occasionally too square and inflexile.”

“An ungainly group of sharp colour and clumsy forms, excepted by a few passages of natural grace.”

“The light and shade is neither scientific nor unaffected, and pure in its want of breadth.”

This is the canvas in question. If I understand this reviewer correctly, I disagree with him, I think… Hard to tell… But I like the painting.

Herbert, John Rogers, 1810-1890; Saint Gregory Teaching His Chant
John Rogers Herbert (1810-1890) – Saint Gregory teaching his Chant (1845) (Photo Credit: Royal Academy of Arts)

The article in Punch concludes:

We feel sure that, when the criticism of Art has reached its present high position, Art itself cannot long lag behind at the immeasurable distance which now separates the artist from the judge.

I am not sure if we are quite there yet.

I hope you enjoyed this guide.


This blog post and the original article on which it was based were written purely for entertainment purposes. I kept the original spelling and punctuation. All my comments are in black. I also added examples of paintings (image credits as indicated in the captions).


[1] Clarkson Frederick Stanfield had a son – George Clarkson Stanfield (1828-1878), also a painter, who was exhibiting at the Royal Academy since 1844 until 1876. As George was only 17 in 1845, when the article was published, Punch must have been referring to the father.

[2] Source:


Links, sources and further reading:

This is a link to RA website where you can access yearly catalogues of exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Victorian Web website has tons of useful information about painters of the period

Nancy Langham-Hooper has a very interesting website dedicated to John Rogers Herbert. Check it out to learn more about this very talented but not well known Victorian painter.

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