The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art by Alison Smith - review by Christopher Wood

Christopher Wood

When is a Nude Not a Nude?

The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art

By

Manchester University Press 256pp £40 order from our bookshop
 

The idea of the Victorians taking their clothes off seems quite irresistible to the twentieth century, judging by the numbers of books on the subject. We have had The Other Victorians, Fanny by Gaslight, The Worm in the Bud, The Victorian Underworld, to name but a few. Then we had the ubiquitous 'Walter', detailing his encounters with over a thousand women. It appeared that the Victorians not only had a lot of sex, but they actually enjoyed it too. None of this seems to me remotely surprising. Social habits change, human beings do not.

And here is another worthy and weighty tome on the subject, this time about the nude in Victorian art. At first I was rather prejudiced against it, as it both looks and reads like a university thesis, which it is, and fairly bristles with all the trendy words: ‘discourse’, ‘empowerment’, ‘class’, ‘gender’. In spite of this, I enjoyed reading it, and found it a good survey of what is an absolutely fascinating subject - how the Victorians struggled to come to terms with the nude in art.

For a supposedly repressive age, the Victorians positively worshipped female beauty. Almost every Victorian picture has a pretty girl in it, usually with her clothes on. But the nude never completely died out, even in the mid-Victorian moral ice age of the 1850s. By the end of the century, nudes,

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