The 19th century, often remembered as the Victorian Era, is known for the drastic changes that took place in British society. With the industrial revolution, the ancestral feudal system had been shattered and new classes emerged. The new and increasingly powerful working and middle classes wanted to climb the social ladder of a very hierarchical society in order to share the same values and lifestyles than the upper-classes. These aspirational ideals inspired many artists who started to paint traditional images of Victorian life.
Such is the case of Charles Burton Barber (1845-1894), a Norfolk born painter who became famous thanks to his talent for sentimental paintings of children and dogs which perfectly captured the Victorian mood and exemplified the country’s transformations that took place during this period. After studying at the London Royal Academy, Barber excelled in the realist movement and was commissioned by Queen Victoria to do paintings of her grandchildren and her dogs which allowed him to become very popular. In fact, images and stories of children were very appealing to the Victorians for at the time the family was the structural backbone of English society. Therefore, painting children in such a wonderfully realistic way was a guarantee for the artist to sell his works.
Off to School (1883) is a beautiful example of Charles Burton Barber’s taste for details and desire to construct a Victorian identity. In this painting there are two characters, a young girl and her huge dog walking her to school. And indeed, the 19th century is famous for the important changes that took place in education and schooling matters. Some private and therefore selective schools were turned into public schools and girls started to have the possibility to study after the opening for example of North London Collegiate in 1850 or Cheltenham Ladies’ College in 1858. Moreover the 1870 and 1880 Education Acts really launched mass education by making school attendance compulsory for children from 5 to 10 years old who all needed to be taught the famous 3Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. Therefore, if the little girl in Off to School existed, as she seems to be between 7 and 10 years old, it is possible that she would be amongst the first generation of little girls attending compulsory school.
With his paintings, Charles Burton Barber perfectly captures the Victorian frame of mind. By focusing on the innocence and tenderness of young boys and girls with their pets, the artist illustrates the general classless affection for children and animals. The dog who proudly leads her mistress to school in Off to School is guiding her towards a better life where she will be educated and independent and therefore maybe he metaphorically leads Britain towards a better future in which there would be no gender or class distinctions but where everyone would have equal rights. Other artists, contemporaries to Barbers, have tried to satisfy the Victorians’ desire for child-related and sentimental works by concentrating on the same subjects. Such is the case of two London born painters, Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) and Arthur John Elsley (1860-1952) who both, along with Barber, helped to build a Victorian identity – that is one of positive metamorphosis and progress.
The painting featured as a header is entitled Suspense
The pictures used are in public domain.