An exhibition of Victorian art inspired by music and poems has opened at the Guildhall Art Gallery, calling on the City of London’s permanent collection to look at how the muses inspired artists. The exhibition, Inspired!, is about the inspiration that lead to the work being created, from grand Greek epics to modern plays and even the newspaper trade.

Ranging from grand Victorian landscapes to small modern portraits, biblical scenes and wars, it’s a mix of a display, with paintings in almost every style and from every era, with sculptures dotted around the gallery. Sculptor Jaroslaw Gierrcarz Alfer commemorates Chopin’s last concert in London in 1848, which took place in the Guildhall.

Novels were increasingly popular during the 19th century and, in reaction to Industrialisation, many Victorians valued nostalgic and Romantic novels and poetry, looking to Shakespeare’s history plays, Tennyson’s poems, medieval folktales and Greek myths. This was reflected in much of the art of the time, and Guildhall Art Gallery dives into its renowned 19th-century collections to explore the dialogue between art and literature. Inspired goes even deeper to look at how theatre and music were additional sources of inspiration for Victorian artists.

The display is divided up into themes: Theatre & Theatricals, Music & Musicians, and  Novels & The Popular Press.

It’s the wide range that makes the exhibition interesting as you can compare so many different styles side by side in the galleries, and see how artists chose to represent their subjects. Some of the more modern abstract paintings stand in sharp contrast to the almost photographic attention to detail in the older works.

One painting which confused me greatly is the Burning of Drury Lane Theatre by Abraham Pether in 1809. It appears to show the Thames as seen from the Old Chelsea Waterworks, but if that’s the case then Westminster Abbey is on the wrong side of the river. Enlightenment comes when the river turns out to be the now buried Tyburn, and a bit of map squinting can sort of explain how the painter achieved this perspective.

But it’s quite the puzzle when you’re looking at it in the gallery.

Overall, it’s a buffet of art, linked with a theme, but very individualistic, and the variety makes it an enjoyable gallery to browse. There are very detailed explanatory boards explaining why the painting was chosen and what it represents, which is just as well, as the inspirations that were commonplace to Victorians are sometimes less familiar to us today.

The exhibition, Inspired! is open most days at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 11th September.

(UPDATE – exhibition extended to Friday 23rd December 2022)

Adults: £8 | Concessions: £6 | Children (<12): Free

Booking is recommended from here.

Free guided tours by Curator Katty Pearce will take place on the following dates:

  • 1 June
  • 6 July
  • 3 August
  • 7 September

These Curator tours take place at lunchtime (1pm, approx. 45 mins) and admission is included in the exhibition ticket.


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