Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 36 (2005) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Reading the letters and diaries of Victorian practitioners of the different arts reminds us that their social world differed markedly from that of artists today. In nineteenth-century London the number of people involved was sufficiently small for artists of all kinds to meet each other regularly.
Among the public functions at which such meetings could take place were the various events at the Royal Academy, held in the National Gallery building in Trafalgar Square until 1868 and, after that, in the Academy's grand new residence at Burlington House in Piccadilly. The Private View of the summer exhibition in May was not only an important opportunity to sell paintings and sculptures, but also the traditional opening of the London 'season'. A fashionable soiree was held later in the exhibition, and, at the other end of the year, the opening of the winter Old Master exhibitions, inaugurated in the 1870s, again drew together a large group of powerful and talented people as artists, writers, painters, and composers mingled with politicians, aristocrats, and senior civil servants. Men and women attended these occasions, but George Eliot's presence is not recorded.
George Eliot and George Henry Lewes were regular visitors to exhibitions at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, but they generally went after the show opened and when the regular public was admitted. Both had been exhibition and gallery goers for many years, and they continued the pattern together.
George Eliot's closest friendships with painters were, however, with those who were either not involved, or only unwillingly involved, with the Academy. It is clear that, on a personal level, she preferred visiting studios privately, or entertaining artists quietly to lunch or at the Sunday 'at homes' which she held with Lewes. With very good friends, like Edward Burne-Jones and his wife, George Eliot would pay social calls, but this was the exception rather than the rule. A note from George Henry Lewes to John Everett Millais, written in April 1877 when Millais was a successful painter living in a large house in Kensington, puts the case succinctly: 'Mrs. Lewes and I should much like to see your pictures if it could be done when there were no other visitors - which is what makes her shrink'
Writers and artists also met through the processes of illustration. Illustrated books and journals were an important feature of the period, and, in some cases, the writer and illustrator would discuss the illustrations together. In 1862, George Eliot was delighted to hear that Frederic Leighton, then in his thirties and an up-and-coming painter, best-known for his scenes from the Italian Renaissance, was to illustrate Romola: 'by far the best man to be had in England', as Lewes told his son Charles (Letters, IV, 37). George Smith, the publisher of the Cornhill, made the decision, and the choice of Leighton as illustrator was apparently part of the deal which Smith negotiated with the author. Leighton was not an experienced illustrator. Trained in the German late-Nazarene style, he was a superb draughtsman, but had so far published only two illustrations, both for Smith and the Cornhill, and both for poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.