Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion and Design

One morning — before the Ashmolean Museum had even opened its doors to the public — the Ertegun Scholars were treated to a private tour of the exhibition Colour Revolution: Art, Fashion & Design. Led by Matthew Winterbottom, the museum’s Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, the scholars learned all about the objects on view, the research work leading up to the show, and the interesting anecdotes about the (sometimes complex) logistics of the exhibition.

As Matthew explained to us, Colour Revolution was the product of Chromotope, a 5-year research project funded by the European Research Council. An interdisciplinary and collaborative project at heart, much of the academic work for this exhibition was actually conducted by scholars from all over Europe, particularly France and the UK. Of course, this hard work was evident in what the Ertegun group saw that day. We were impressed not only by the stunning visual appeal of the show, but also the rigorous scholarship that connected British visual culture to different facets of the humanities. The various sections of the exhibition, for instance, included research from the fields of classics, gender studies, and even the history of science.

Despite seeing posters for the show all over Oxford, it was for many of us our first time visiting it. And what a great first look it was! We moved through the tour in a chronological manner, listening to Matthew’s narration along the way. Personally, I loved how the exhibition attempted to shift how the public views Victorian Britain. Many think that this era of the nation’s history was drab and industrial, but that is only partly true. There was, in reality, an explosion of colour during this time. In one section on fashion, for example, we saw objects that demonstrated how advancements in colour led to beautifully vibrant garments and textiles; in another, we saw how British Imperialism led to the incorporation of some Near Eastern colour theory and science into Western thought. It was also great to see that, through the display of particular portraits and sculptures, the exhibition showed that colour theory played a large role in shaping social views about slavery in nineteenth-century Britain. It demonstrated just how large the scope of the exhibition was and how much more research on colour could be done.

With all this said, Colour Revolution was an incredibly ambitious show. It linked Victorian Britain to faraway lands — all while still acknowledging its Oxford community. Scattered throughout the galleries were objects that showed the role of Oxford (both the city and the university) in the development of colour during the long nineteenth century. From John Ruskin’s works on paper to Anna Atkins’ photograms, the exhibition highlighted Oxford and how it functioned as a centre of intellectual innovation and experimentation. As we made our way through the galleries, the Ertegun group was reminded of the storied histories surrounding the spaces in which we live and work.

One of the best parts of the exhibition was perhaps how it catered to audience members from all backgrounds. As Ertegun Scholars, we all come from different disciplines, but that did not stop us from finding our own individual connections to the show. All of us, it seems, were able to find objects or themes that resonated with our own personal or academic interests. Moreover, as a physical space, the design of the exhibition allowed one to be immersed in the galleries without distracting one from its ideas and arguments. In fact, I’d say that the design actually helped visitors to absorb the information presented in the show. Yellow fabric hanging from the ceiling, for instance, complemented the yellow books encased in glass.

At the end of the tour, the scholars expressed their love for the exhibition. And before leaving, everyone of course made sure to stop by the museum gift shop. A few of us picked up some colourful items to help remind us of the wonders of Colour Revolution. However, whether or not one left with a physical museum memento, I know that this is an experience that Ertegun House will remember for quite a long time. Thank you once again to Matthew Winterbottom and the Ashmolean Museum for hosting us.

Jed Surio Jr