Victorian Era: A Colourful Revolution at the Ashmolean Museum

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is hosting a major exhibition that showcases the vibrant colours of the Victorian era. The exhibition, titled Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion and Design, features 140 objects from international collections that reveal how the 19th century embraced colour following developments in art, science and technology.

The Synthetic Dye Discovery

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a purple dress, petticoat and shoes that were dyed with the first aniline colour, Mauvine. This synthetic dye was accidentally discovered by an 18-year-old chemistry student, William Henry Perkin, in 1856. He realised that the intense purples produced by aniline, a derivative of coal tar, could be used as a dye. He quickly established a factory for his new “mauveine” and chemists across Europe soon followed suit, expanding the synthetic colour palette.

Victorian Era: A Colourful Revolution at the Ashmolean Museum
Victorian Era: A Colourful Revolution at the Ashmolean Museum

The exhibition curator, Matthew Winterbottom, said: “The modern world of ubiquitous colour begins at this point. London’s streets and train stations are covered in brightly printed posters. People wear brightly coloured clothes. Everything from books to postage stamps becomes colourful.”

The Fashion Statement

The synthetic dye revolution also had a profound impact on fashion and identity. Women asserted a more emboldened identity through colour, wearing loud dresses and flashing ankles sporting coloured and striped stockings. The exhibition features examples of these colourful garments, as well as accessories such as jewellery, hats and fans.

The exhibition also explores how colour was used to express social status and political affiliation. For example, purple was associated with royalty and aristocracy, as well as with the suffragette movement. Green was linked to Irish nationalism and environmentalism, but also to the controversial use of arsenic in a new green dye that sometimes claimed lives.

The Artistic Vision

The exhibition also examines how artists responded to the colour revolution in different ways. Some embraced the new synthetic colours and experimented with them in their paintings, such as James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet. Others rejected them and advocated for natural colours derived from plants and minerals, such as John Ruskin and William Morris.

The exhibition also showcases how colour influenced other forms of art and design, such as ceramics, glassware, wallpaper and furniture. Some of these objects reflect the exotic influences of Japan, China and India, which became more accessible to Victorians through trade and travel.

The exhibition aims to challenge the common perception of the Victorian era as a dark and dreary period of history. Winterbottom said: “This is a chance to see some the 19th century’s most colourful and spectacular works of art, fashion and design.”

Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion and Design is on display at the Ashmolean Museum until February 2024.

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