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Midland Art Papers: Object in Focus: How should we look at Victorian nudes?

John Collier's Godiva (1898)

Kate Nichols is Birmingham Fellow in British Art at the University of Birmingham.  She has written an essay that examines how we should look at Victorian nudes in the modern age. Victorian nudes have been in the headlines in 2018: how should we exhibit, study and look at works depicting young women and even girls in sexualised poses? This article examines Coventry's famous painting Godiva by John Collier. It sets out new information about the model for the painting and contextualises the image in Victorian debates over nudity in art.

 It is the image which greets the viewer on entering the Godiva gallery, a display opened in 2008 to showcase the gallery's unique collection of Godiva imagery. It adorns tea towels, mouse mats, book covers and keyrings, and accounts for around 90% of the total reproduction rights requests made to the Herbert. Godiva is one of those images which has become so familiar, such a marker of a well-known story, that its interesting, peculiar and troubling aspects have slipped out of view. The painting depicts in profile a slender, unclothed young woman, head down and demurely avoiding eye contact with the viewer, astride a rather bombastic horse. I do not think that Collier's Godiva needs to be censored. But I do think it could be a point of departure for important conversations and interventions about the public responsibility of museums, the representation of women and girls, and the formation of norms and expectations around gender, sexuality and class (given Godiva’s aristocratic position), which is why I've introduced Coventry via a detour to Manchester. In this short piece, I aim to set out some of the Victorian debates over nudity and spectatorship from which this image emerged.

Read the rest of Kate's illuminating essay on the University of Birmingham website.