Colour Revolution at the Ashmolean Museum

A bright purple silk dress with a wide crinoline skirt, in a display case. In front of the dress are two pairs of silk boots, one a vivid teal and the other bright crimson.

One of the things I've been doing since 2020 is saying YES to more things. This is partly because lockdown made me realise how much of the stuff I loved I'd set to one side over the years, and partly because after the burnout I slowly reintroduced doing things as I was able to cope with more, and it taught me to spend my energy on things I'm enthusiastic about, not on trying to please everyone else. My limited energy needs to be used wisely. (The upshot of this seems to have been that all my pals are really pleased to see me living my best life, so it's a win-win.)

Before 2020 I'd often see events and exhibitions advertised, think 'Oh, I'd like to go to that,' and then not go because I felt guilty about taking time off work, or if I did take time off I'd do whatever the person I was with wanted to do, even if they didn't have any firm ideas and we ended up doing nothing. That's not happening so much any more. My boss and his boss have also told me in no uncertain terms to make sure I've getting the breaks I need, so I'm taking them at their word and booking more days off. Happily, my friend Andrea lives in Bath and likes many of the same things as me, so as I need to get the train through Bath to go to most places, we can do day trips. When she said she fancied going to see the Colour Revolution exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, I leaped at the chance. 

Queen Victoria's mourning dress. It is of black silk, and she was clearly a very short, round woman.

The exhibition was exploring how colourful things got in the 19th century following the discovery of aniline dyes. The first thing you see, however, was one of Queen Victoria's mourning dresses, and text on how the bleakness of Dickens et al have given us a view of the Victorian era as dark and dingy. 

A small wooden casket painted with medieval scenes, in front of a wall hanging embroidered with flowers.
The casket was partially painted by Elizabeth Siddall; Jane Morris worked on the hanging.
Just giving the ladies the acknowledgement they were denied for decades…

After that, bring on the rainbow – there's a look at how Turner, Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites (yup, them again) brought vivid colours back into vogue in painting and homewares, followed by a section on aniline dyes, including some amazing shade cards borrowed from Oxford University's History of Science Museum and brilliant-hued garments from Manchester Museum.

A crimson corset is fitted on a mannequin at the back of a display case. In front of it are shade cards showing silk dyed in a rainbow of gaudy colours.

There was a whole room full of larger pieces, including the Medieval Revival 'Great Bookcase' made for William Burges, the scandalous 'Tinted Venus' statue, and a couple of enormous bits of Minton Majolica, which it noted fell out of fashion early in the 20th century when legislation forced the company to abandon its more brilliant but toxic glazes in favour of ones that were less likely to harm the workers doing the painting. I did really love the ceramics; that enormous peacock was so impressive.

What resembles a Welsh dresser – big cupboard section at the bottom, narrower shelving (with doors in front) above. It is covered in painted panels showing religious scenes and scenes from folktales, and is gilded between the paintings.
The Great Bookcase. Lives up to its name.

Following that things were broken up more by colour: a little arsenic green, a case of the Yellow Book, a corner on the craze for Japanese blues (which, ironically enough, was actually Prussian blue from Europe, but everything looks more desirable from a distance).

As much as I enjoyed the exhibition, I couldn't help wishing there had been more of it. Just typing this post, I'm struck by the toxicity of the Minton glazes and the arsenic in popular green pigments. How much of it was toxic? Where did the waste from those aniline dyes go? And there's a necklace of stuffed hummingbirds in the exhibition, and purple was used for mourning wear; how much of this gaudiness was intertwined with mortality? And there were only a few items of clothing, and not many of furniture, making me want to see a range of interiors and garments, not just from several decades but from different classes within those decades. Did life become less colourful the further down the social scale a person was? But I think that longing for more is a Me Problem and also a sign of a good exhibition; if museums are supposed to make visitors think, this one certainly did that. 

A large, brightly coloured ceramic statue of a peacock, standing in front of a large illustration of the Crystal Palace, a massive glass-roofed, glass-walled exhibition hall.

I'm not sure what the next exhibition I go to will be, but Mr Robot's longing for a weekend in London at some point and a Biba exhibition's due to open at the Fashion Museum later in the year, so that's definitely on the cards.

On the not-relevant-to-this-blog front, I did go to a gig mid-January too. Then Comes Silence are a Swedish band. Are they goth? Probably, if the audience is anything to go by! Back in December I realised they were playing in Bristol and really wanted to see them, and instead of doing what I'd done in the past and simply wished I could go, I told Mr Robot I fancied going, and he was up for it. It was brilliant, and while I'd feared my husband would hate it, he had a great time too. Saying YES to things feels great.


  1. I should take a leaf out of your books and say yes to more things instead of making the vaguest of plans which never come to fruition.
    I loved tagging along to the Colour Revolution exhibition. Definitely worth saying yes to! xxx

  2. That's such a coincidence, I was only reading about that Lizzie Siddal painted casket in the Jan Morris book yesterday! The exhibition looks wonderful, I love the Ashmolean and quite fancied going to see it but the stars didn't align.
    I hope you get out and about a lot more in 2024. I'm excited about the Victorian Radicals, I suspect I'll be visiting a lot! xxx

  3. I'm so glad you're saying YES more often and it sounds like you made the tight decision!

    The exhibition at the Ashmolean museum looks so interesting; Gisele piqued my interest too with her account of her visit. I know what you mean about wanting to know more. I'd want to know, for instance did the colours fade with washing - and drying outside in the air? I'd want to know about colour and clothing lower down the social scale but guess there was a lot of used clothing worn by this strata of society...

    Keep saying yes! The Biba exhibition is one I'm definitely going to and it's just after my birthday in March so not long to wait...

  4. Glad that you've been saying Yes to things you love and enjoy, and making the most of your (well deserved) free time!. That's something I have to keep in mind!
    That exhibition looks really appealing to me, I'm a huge fan of History of Colour (a huge fan of colour whatever!), so interesting to see how people embraced brilliant colours when they became affordable!.

  5. Saying yes to things was one of my goals last year! I've got major anxiety in crowds, but I've missed out on too many great bands and festivals - and life is too damned short! - so last year, I went to a bunch of outdoor festivals. I managed my agoraphobia with the help of my husband and friends (who would "buddy" me through crowds, letting me hang onto their backs as they led me through), and I'm so proud of myself for doing it! I got to see Iggy Pop, Run the Jewels and oodles of other bands I would have missed.

    Happy New Year, Mim!


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