Jeremy Paxman takes his love of Victorian painting as the starting point for an extraordinary journey into Victorian Britain, in this new, landmark series for BBC One.
“Victorian paintings are certainly not fashionable today,” says Paxman. “But to me they are a gold mine. Like nothing else they show us what it was like to live in those extraordinary times. And they tell amazing stories.”
In the Victorian era every picture told a story – dramatic, overstated and captivating: it was the cinema of its day. Viewed in the context of today, Victorian paintings offer a uniquely vivid, almost documentary account of the dramatic upheavals of the age, from the social melting pot of railway travel to the melodrama of family conflict and the raw vitality of the Victorian city.
The most dramatic transformation of Victorian Britain was the explosion of great cities, and Victorian painters were there to record this urban revolution.
In the first episode, Painting The Town, Paxman travels by canal boat to Manchester – the “shock city” of the age; visits a still-functioning cotton mill; eats gruel in a workhouse; and tells the story of James Sharples, the ironworker painter who first depicted the energy of the industrial revolution.
Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work is a hymn to the new kind of Britain the Victorians were building. In an heroic spate of civic activity, the Victorians were building town halls like palaces and sewers like mighty labyrinths. And in the wet, lamp-lit cityscapes of Atkinson Grimshaw they found their true poet.
Jeremy goes to Glasgow to visit a great monument to the Victorian belief that art could improve the people: the colossal Kelvingrove Art Gallery.
But it took a Frenchman to venture into the depths of London’s East End and uncover the horror of the capital’s “heart of darkness”: Jeremy follows in the footsteps of Gustave Dore, who penetrated the opium dens, night shelters and vermin-filled streets to create a vision of London, the first city of Empire, as a 19th-century “hell”.
Pressure to escape the choking city centre led to perhaps the Victorians’ greatest invention, the suburb. Jeremy takes a horse-drawn omnibus to a model Victorian suburb to see their civilised answer to the problems of noise and overcrowding.
Sunday 15 February
9.00-10.00pm BBC ONE