PROVO — Young, fair, dressed in velvet and jewels, they are everything young princes should be. And yet, the painting captures them at the precise moment they realize all is not well. The clasped hands, the sudden awareness in the eyes, the shadow on the stone staircase all portend a sense of doom.
When John Everett Millais painted "The Princes in the Tower" in 1878, all of Victorian England would have been familiar with the story of the two young royals who were slain by their evil uncle so he could take the throne as Richard III.
"It's a poignant story, beautifully painted," says Paul L. Anderson, curator of special exhibitions at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art. The painting is part of "The Royal Holloway Collection: Paintings from the Reign of Victoria," which is now at the MOA.
Victorian England would have been familiar with the story, but Britons would have looked at the painting of the two princes and seen something more, a loss of innocence, perhaps, or an acknowledgment that bad things can happen to good people.
That's what makes this collection so special, says Anderson. The paintings all tell stories, and they are stories we can relate to, even today. They work as both window and mirror, showing us what was in the hearts and minds of the people in mid- to late-19th century England, but they also reflect back universal truths and sentiments that touch us still.
"They are pictures that are easily understood at first glace," says Anderson. "But the longer you look at them, the more stories you see, the more interpretations you find."
The collection was put together between 1881 and 1883, as a result of one of the art world's great spending sprees. At the dying request of his wife, Thomas Holloway founded a women's college in London in 1879.
Because he knew little about women's colleges — this was the first one in England, after all — he consulted with various educators, including those at America's Vassar, explains Anderson. Someone there, or somewhere else, told him he should include a picture gallery. So he added that to his plans and started sending his brother-in-law to all the art auctions of the day. "He had a good eye and got good advice," says Anderson.
To put it kindly, Holloway had amassed a huge fortune in "pharmaceuticals" (the unkind might call him a snake-oil salesman, as most of the creams and potions he sold had little real benefit despite their claims to cure everything) becoming one of the richest men in England. Thus he was able to take his pick from "the cream of Victorian painters," says Anderson. "He set a record for the most money spent for a painting by a living artist, only to break it on another painting. He spent what would today be millions of dollars."
The artist had become an honored profession in England in the 19th century, Anderson says. "It was a time when leading artists got knighthoods, when huge art shows were held every summer that drew hundreds of people. They believed they were in a great period of artistic achievement, which also tied in with the crusading spirit of the day." Add the fact that the collection has remained together at the college all these many years, and it becomes a very significant exhibition, says Anderson.
BYU is one of only seven venues to show the Holloway collection, and along with Yale and Stanford, one of only three universities.
"We were very lucky to get on the tour," says Anderson. "We will only have the show for 10 weeks, instead of our usual several months. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see British art of this caliber. And it will appeal not only to any one interested in art and art history but also anyone interested in humanities, history, literature, society."
When Queen Victoria came to dedicate the college — she's the one who suggested they put the royal in Royal Holloway College — she called the paintings "a splendid collection of modern art," says Anderson.
And it was modern for its day, although part of its appeal is how very different it is from the direction art took in the late 19th and early 20th century. "For a long time, Victorian art was unfashionable, relegated to the bottom. True art, people said, was about color and texture and painting for the sake of painting. But in recent decades Victorian art has been rediscovered and has become much appreciated for what it is," says Anderson.
The collection falls roughly into three areas: pictures from history, pictures from nature and pictures of contemporary life.
"The Victorians were greatly interested in archaeology," says Anderson. "The British Museum was getting all its collections, and people were fascinated by early Greece, Egypt, the Holy Land."
A number of paintings in the collection reflect those interests, including "The "Babylonian Marriage Market" by Edwin Longsden Long. The painting shows a number of young Babylonian girls, who don't have dowries and are thus being auctioned off as wives. "They are all arranged according to beauty," says Anderson, and you have to wonder what the Victorians, who had their own version of the marriage mart in their grand balls and routs, thought of this one, he says.
"Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard," by D. Maclise, shows another view of history; as does "The Banker's Private Room — Negotiating a Loan," by J.C. Horsley, which depicts a woman in satins and furs charming the banker, still clinging to his money box.
"Paying Her Respects to His Mightiness" is by Tito Conti, an Italian artist who was very popular in England in that time, says Anderson. "He did a lot of trivial subjects, but, oh, could he paint." Another Conti painting shows a cavalier saying goodbye to his lady. "You look at that, and you see why he was so loved."
Also filled with stories is Alfred Elmore's "The Emperor Charles V at the Convent of Yuste." "Here, you see an old man, with the last possessions of his life slipping by in front of him. How many stories could you invent from this one scene?" asks Anderson.
The same could be said of some of the contemporary paintings, a scene at Paddington Station in the early days of the railroad, for example; or a scene of homeless "Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward." "These look like they are straight out of a Dickens novel," says Anderson.
And in the paintings of both land and seascapes, you see such evidence of a love of nature, a relationship with the world around them that we can empathize with.
"We hope people will see the connection between what they see and their lives today," says Anderson. In fact, as part of the audio tour, they have interviewed people and added some contemporary experiences — a woman who got a loan for a house, a soldier saying goodbye to his wife.
"We hope people will be thrilled and impressed with the power of art that really speaks to quality craftsmanship and skill but also to the heart."
If you go...
What: "The Royal Holloway Collection: Paintings from the Reign of Victoria"
Where: Brigham Young University Museum of Art, North Campus Drive, Provo
When: Through Oct. 24; days and hours vary
How much: free