Let’s Vote: Voting at the Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibitions

I was recently standing in front of a computer screen with my finger poised, but hovering. I was voting for my favourite poster at the London Transport Museum’s special exhibition ‘Poster Art 150: London Underground’s Greatest Design’. As I stood there, I felt a bit uneasy. I couldn’t choose. Slightly bewildered, I ended up choosing not one but two images: Freda Lingstrom’s dancing girl and Tom Eckersley’s lost property poster which features a crying umbrella. Even now I’m still left wondering did I choose the best posters.

The idea of voting for your favourite exhibition item, however, is not new to me. The practice of voting for your favourite picture formed an integral part of the Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibitions held at the end of the nineteenth century. The Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibitions were established in 1881 by the now infamous Rev. Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta. According to parish worker, Pauline Townsend, ‘Mr Barnett called together his little knots of workers and consulted with them on how to make his people care for something, no matter what, how to rouse in them the desire to be and to do something better than at present.’ It was at this meeting that Samuel N. Stockham, a local man and St. Jude’s parish worker, suggested that they might start a temporary art exhibition for the people of Whitechapel.

These temporary Easter exhibitions quickly became an integral part of St. Jude’s parish church and the university settlement house Toynbee Hall’s annual calendar, until 1898 when the Barnetts turned their attention to establishing a permanent art gallery in Whitechapel. The success of the Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibitions rested on the Barnetts’ ability to bring some of Britain’s best contemporary artworks to Whitechapel. Many of these were lent by private collectors and artists. Works by W. Holman Hunt, George F. Watts, Dante Rossetti, Briton Riviere, Fredrick Leighton, John E. Millais, Hubert von Herkomer and Edward Burne-Jones were regularly included. Annual art shows might contain anything from 180-350 pictures which as The Graphic illustration below shows filled the walls of St. Jude’s National School from top to bottom. The exhibitions also prided themselves on being free and open daily to visitors between the hours of 10am and 10pm, except on Sundays when they opened from 2.00pm until 10.00pm. Attendance figures climbed from 9000 in 1881 to 26,492 in 1892. Substantial increases in attendance continued until 1892, when visitor numbers peaked at 73,271. Attendance dropped to 67,801 a year later yet the figures for 1893 still represented an eight-fold increase from 1881.

The Graphic, November 12th 1884. This is one of my favourite images of the Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibition; from the fathers with their children to the elderly couple and people busy reading the exhibition catalogue.
The Graphic, November 12th 1884. This is one of my favourite images of the Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibition; from the fathers with their children to the elderly couple and people busy reading the exhibition catalogue.

Yet success for the Barnetts could not be measure by attendance alone. In 1889 they established the practice of ‘Voting for Your Favourite Picture’. Like today’s visitors to London Transport Museum, visitors to the Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibition were asked to walk around the exhibition space and then vote for their three favourite pictures at the end. The idea of voting for favourite pieces of art was not new even at the time. Many art galleries installed the practice to encourage interaction and to monitor art tastes. For the Barnetts, however, there was an additional belief that voting would reveal and monitor the spiritual improvement of visitors to the exhibition. Building on John Ruskin’s earlier theories of art, the Barnetts believed that pictures were windows into another world and that role of their exhibitions was to teach, instruct and educate their visitors to see this spiritual world.

We don’t really know how many people voted. Parish and settlement magazines rarely gave figures, especially towards the end of the century when it was decided that the practice had been a complete failure. It is certain that 3960 people voted in 1889 and that this increased to 8144 a year later; 6783 voted in 1894, falling to only 1544 in 1898. Around 5% and 8% of visitors voted, which led the St Jude Parish Magazine to declare in 1896 that the poll was ‘not . . . a very brilliant success’.

Why was it thought not to be a ‘brilliant success’? Were exhibition visitors really uninterested in art, or were the Barnetts placing too much emphasis on this practice?

  1. If visitors wanted to vote then they had to retrace their footsteps through the exhibition to the voting table. Lack of space at the end of the exhibition meant that the polling table was located at the beginning of the exhibition. This meant walking through hordes of visitors.
  2. Many visitors would have found the practice of voting foreign. Visitors had to vote for their three favourite pictures in order of preference. This was unusual in nineteenth-century Britain where voting tended to be political with one vote cast. At the same time, some visitors might not yet have had the vote. Female visitors, unless rate-payers, would not have voted at this time.
Stanhope A. Forbes’s ‘Health of the Bride ‘(1889), see http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/forbes-the-health-of-the-bride-n01544

While the practicalities of voting were a concern to the Barnetts, their main bug bear was that people rarely voted for the pictures that they thought they should have. Visitors rarely voted for that year’s ‘leading picture’ (according to the Barnetts) or anything that was classed as landscape art. Instead, they voted for sentimental and every-day pictures. In 1891 visitors voted Stanhope A. Forbes’s Health of the Bride (1889) their favourite picture. This was too much for Barnett who declared in his parish magazine:

‘No doubt ‘The Health of the Bride’ is exceedingly clever, though it cannot be said to be a fine picture. It does not inspire us with memory of noble acts, nor raise our thoughts as Art should; it is as a little boy in the exhibition expressed it, an ‘every-day’ picture, but it tells of love and hope, and we get from it a sense of home comfort, and of breezy, sea-coast life, grateful to Whitechapel eyes and hearts.’

Exhibition organisers and curators have a range of motives for asking people to vote for their favourite item. For the Barnetts, it was hoped that they would be able to monitor and witness the development of a more profound religious consciousness. I’m sure that for the London Transport Museum, however, voting for your poster is probably a new way of getting visitors, familiar with the idea voting of favourite things such as pop stars, people with talents etc., to interact with the exhibition. No longer a listless experience, you’re asked to rank and analyse what’s on display. I just wonder how many late-Victorian Whitechapel visitors like me simply stared, worried and over thought their selection.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibitions and the practice of ‘Voting for your Favourite Pictures’ then you can read my article ‘Lessons in Seeing: Art, Religion and Class in the East End of London, 1881–1898’. It can be downloaded here. You will also find complete references to the sources in this article.


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