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Liverpool: The Walker Gallery, Bill Bryson and the Victorians

Tepidarium by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1881)

Sometimes when I travel I like to trust my reading material to the departing airport’s bookshop. This time, while waiting for departure, I went through the selection a few times and realized that the only titles that held any interest for me were ones I had already read, and so bought a book that though previously read, I did not actually own; Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything.

It was if anything, more enjoyable the second time through. It is perhaps the finest general all encompassing science book ever written, and certainly the most entertaining. And as serendipity would have it, it dovetailed nicely with my exposure to Victorian art at Liverpool’s Walker Gallery.

Like most people I know, I thought that victorian was another word for prudery and exemplified an arid asexual and repressive approach to the world. However, these paintings, in stark departure from the century before, were indisputably sensual. Both female and male bodies were portrayed erotically and while a little idealized were yet quite realistic.

While, reeling with this readjustment of my world view and maladapted vocabulary, I thought on the Bryson which spent quite a bit of time on Victorian scientists who in general were as passionate and earthy as the subjects in these paintings. These were the old school of scientists where the world was the laboratory, where there was a true sense of full engagement with the physical world, and while there were many theoretical breakthroughs (in fact, their strides make our accomplishments in the sciences seem rather mundane) these were developed in the muck and mire of slogging through foreign lands and not in some sterile laboratory.

(Though I suggest the greater passion on the part of the Victorian scientists, I should make clear that I believe in general a passion for science to indicate a true passion for the world, and the pursuit of wonder, with the expectations of further layers of wonder rather than the deconstruction of it. I find the anti-scientists, to be those who reject the world, and reject wonder, and trumpet the unexamined world because they just do not really seem to care about it much).

The painting above, and the one below, were not in the Walker Gallery but there were many like them.

Frederic Leighton's Fisherman and the Siren (1856)

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