Advice to aspiring artists. Tips from PUNCH. Victorian edition

Having mastered the art of art criticism, thanks to an 1845 article from Punch (1845, vol.8), it is now time for us to present a Victorian guide for aspiring artists, published in the same year (1845, vol.9). Unlike art criticism, which ‘requires no previous education’ (see my earlier blog post), artists usually learned their craft by following earlier models. In this guide you will also see some worthy examples provided by the caricaturists from Punch magazine.

Punch was a leading satirical magazine in the UK. Established in 1841, it run until 2002 (with a break between 1992 and 1996).[1] The artists of the day were often ridiculed in Punch during the Victorian period.

(As it is impossible to improve on this eloquent art guide, I merely provided additional notes with context. I left the original spelling. My comments are in black)


At the Palace of Westminster a clever artist has now a chance of a good job or two; and we especially address those who are desirous of that sort of employment.

This is a reference to the works which were taking place at the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster in 1845. The old building was destroyed in the fire of 1934. The new Palace of Westminster, designed by Charles Barry (1796-1860) and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), was built in the Neo-Gothic style, the first stone was laid in 1840. The interior was designed by Pugin, a recent convert to Catholicism, who was ardently promoting the Gothic Revival style (also known as Neo-Gothic) in art and architecture.

In 1943 the Royal Fine Art Commission presided by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, called for submissions from artists who wanted to decorate the interior of the Palace. It was hoped that the project would encourage the development of the national British school of history painting. Here are some thoughts on those developments in art from Punch experts written in 1845.

A Young Man About Town (Gothic.) Punch cartoon. (As everyone can see this is properly cramped, stiff and wooden enough for high art)

Painting being an imitative art, it behoves every painter to cultivate his faculty of imitation. He can do nothing without a model, and the best models that he can choose are the Germans. Accordingly, let him allow his hair to grow long, and let him also wear mustaches and a great beard. He will likewise do well to dress in the style of the middle ages; or if his clothes are not middle-aged, they should at least be old, and the dirtier and shabbier they are, consistently with common decency, the better. This is that judicious kind of imitation which, if not tantamount to originality, is the next thing to it, and is sure to gain credit for it at any rate.

As to copying RAPHAEL and MICHAEL ANGELO, he need take pattern from them in no respect except in his personal costume. It is now admitted that those individuals were very poor daubers, their style being a great deal too free and easy, and not at all cramped, stiff, and wooden enough for high art. They had, in particular, a certain bad knack of foreshortening, a process very allowable in a caricature, but which in all grand or serious subjects, ought to be avoided. Feet, in historical and sacred paintings, ought to be drawn, so that one may see the whole front of them; and with regard to hands, every figure that holds anything should be made to grasp it, as a bishop in an old church window, or on an ancient font, is represented clutching his crozier. […]

A scene from Gothic Life. Punch cartoon. (Notice that the bishop is clutching his crozier appropriately). 

Punch mentions Raphael and Michelangelo. The two masters of the High Renaissance were at the time falling out of favour with contemporary artists in Britain and Germany. In 1849, a few years after this article was published in Punch, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or PRB was established in London (the artist members included William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). The PRB was partially inspired by an earlier group of artists called the Brotherhood of St Luke, established in 1810 in Vienna, and the Nazarene Movement, which gained popularity in Germany in early 19th century. Like the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites drew their inspiration from the medieval and early-Renaissance art, specifically from the works of artists who preceded Raphael (1483-1520).

The old prejudice in favour of what was called the breathing canvass, is a fallacy; an artist should not depict life but marble, and then his pictures will be aesthetical. Neither should he, following Nature, affect a variety of tints; let him stick to one or two, and not attempt to advance in colouring till he has mastered form. He ought to consider Nature as opposed to Art. Indeed he should not go to Nature at all: he had much better go to barn-doors; for there he will be enabled to study Art in its rudiments – the chalk sketches of infant genius.

By following these directions he may displease English taste, and outrage English sense; but English sense is very common sense, and greatly inferior to German nonsense – at least in the opinion of certain patrons of the Fine Arts.

Certain patrons of the Fine Arts – this is most likely Prince Albert. Punch could not forgive Albert his German roots even though he actively promoted British arts and culture as well as British industry (he was behind the hugely successful Great Exhibition of 1851).

Canute reproving his courtiers. Punch cartoon. (Figures are admirably stiff and wooden, simply perfect)

In 1845 Punch Magazine was clearly less than enthusiastic about the Gothic Revival and all things medieval gaining popularity in British art. Punch loved to mock certain Victorian artists. The caricaturists working for Punch often poked fun at the PRB and the slightly later Aesthetic Movement (some of the former PRB artists were later associated with Aestheticism, most notably Rosetti and Burne-Jones). (See later examples of satirical cartoons from Punch: Pre-Raphaelite, Ye Aesthetic Young Geniuses, Burne-Jones)




Read more: Fantastic collection of cartoons from PUNCH In this online catalogue you can find digitized archive editions of Punch

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