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Paul Mellon Centre | Victorian Exodus: Visualising the Old Testament in the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery
October 15, 2021 @ 7:00 am - 8:00 am
A Research Lunch event by Maddie Boden.
Although incomplete, twenty years overdue and a commercial flop, the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery (1881) remains one of the most significant compendiums of Victorian art made by a cross-section of the period’s important artists. During its conception in the 1860s, engraver-brothers Thomas and George Dalziel envisioned a publication so visually striking it would be an evangelising tool, as William Holman Hunt’s Light of the World (1851–53) had proved to be in the previous decade. However, rather than the story of Christ, which had come to dominate religious painting in Britain and mass produced illustrated Bibles, the Dalziels commissioned illustrations drawn exclusively from the Old Testament. Therefore, this collection warrants consideration not only for its impressive contributors but also its ambitious attempt to stimulate religious art in a new direction.
This paper pushes beyond previous accounts of the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery which have tended to focus on stylistic analyses of illustrations by individual artists. Instead, it centres on the largest continuous narrative, the Book of Exodus, which makes up a fifth of the 62 illustrations. I read the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery as a holistic project where multiple artists – including, in this section, Simeon Solomon, Edward John Poynter, Thomas Dalziel, Frederic Leighton, Edward Armitage, Frederick Richard Pickersgill and Arthur Boyd Houghton – contributed illustrations based upon a single book central to the Abrahamic faiths as well as the backbone of Judeo-Christian ethics. Firstly, I evaluate the two central narratives depicted: the Israelites liberation from slavery in Egypt and the beginning of their forty years in the desert. I probe the idea of the Biblical hero through a series of single character illustrations of Moses and then move on to discuss representations of ancient Egyptian, Jewish and Islamic faith and their relevance in a period when world religions were increasingly visible to Victorian audiences. This case study forms part of a larger research project which investigates the unique status of the Old Testament in Victorian visual culture. Through the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery version of the Exodus I consider just one of the ways the Old Testament represented a distinct category for Victorian artists with renewed and pressing relevance in the nineteenth century.