Some beautifully vivid Victorian genre scenes by the Irish artist Charles Wynne Nicholls. Nicholls was born in Dublin in 1831 and studied art at the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Hibernian Academy before leaving for London in 1864. He died in 1893. These paintings date from the 1850s-60s.
Look at the faux-intellectual lady in black pretending to read a book with one eye while checking out eligible gentlemen with the other. And such gentlemen. Summer lounging suits, straw boaters and whiskers down to their collarbones. Real swells. Her prettier friend in lilac and green hasn’t noticed the men yet, but she seems to be the one they’re admiring. It’s always the way…
‘Courtship on the Beach’
A closer-up view of one of those elegant bewhiskered gentlemen, skin so tanned that he must surely just have recently returned from India. He is dressed with care according to the approved leisurewear code of the day: walking suit, white drill-collar vest, grey silk gloves, bowler hat and striped socks on unexpectedly petite feet clad in the softest of leather. Quite the dandy. Meanwhile, his female companion accidentally-on-purpose lifts up her skirt to display an equally dainty toe and a heart-stopping flash of petticoat. Love the blue veil on her straw hat and the matching parasol balancing it out. A handsome couple.
The poor little boy selling shells, on the right of the picture, looks forlorn. Hopefully the lady will show some interest in him to impress the gentleman with her compassion, and the gentleman will then buy a few shells to dazzle the lady with his munificence; everyone will be happy. But maybe the boy is too large and sullen and dirty for a fashionable lady to be feasibly compassionate about? Still, it’s worth a try. Move closer, kid.
‘Queen Victoria and her Family on Brighton Sands’
No Queenie or Albert, just the children. They may not have looked royal, but they were. In reality, they weren’t at all as attractive; even Queen Vic herself compared them to frogs. Love the check cape and dress on the little girl on the left and what looks like a Greek or Albanian costume on the little boy; I suspect that what looks like a little girl between them is another little boy too young to have his hair cut and be put into trousers.
‘The Light of the Harem’
Every Victorian artist had their harem pictures, probably because they were an easy excuse to paint naked women with the minimum of scandal and fuss; Nicholls’ attempt at this genre above is unusual because his subject is fully clothed, apart from a glimpse of shoulder and an incredibly tiny little foot. I think I may have read somewhere that his wife posed as the model. I wonder if her feet were really as tiny in real life?
Once again, lovely depiction of clothing pattern and texture; the delicate fabrics and patterns of the harem girl’s robes contrasting beautifully with the couch beneath them; her headpiece a really interesting, rusty-brown colour, similar to the skirt of the lady in the beach courtship picture above, not that easy to find today.
The mid-Victorian beauty ideal tended towards the inoffensively pretty rather than the striking, with the preference being for small, soft, minature-appendaged creatures, their tiny bones cushioned by just enough puppy fat to make their owners look placid. Like every beauty ideal, it had a sell-by date, with a bolder-eyed, sleeker, stronger-jawed ‘Grecian’ look being the preference of the next generation. But by then the delicate ladies in these portraits would have reached their sell-by date anyway…