Nature's Truth

Photography, Painting, and Science in Victorian Britain

Hardback or cased
Anne Helmreich
Published 24 Aug 2016
List Price £63.95



Nature’s Truth is essential reading for scholars of British art and modernism. Perhaps more, it adds to the growing literature delving into intersections among the arts and sciences in the nineteenth century and evaluating the complex intellectual networks in which art objects are produced.”

—Sarah Gordon,

“The triad of painting, science, and photography has long been recognized as a major preoccupation in British culture of the Victorian period. The fact that it has taken so long for this to be adequately explained and elucidated speaks to the narrow preoccupations of art historians and the silo mentality of academic disciplines unwilling to embrace the fluidity among fields once mutually supportive of one another. Helmreich addresses the interrelationships of these activities with considerable sensitivity.”

—P. A. Stirton, Choice

“Helmreich's call for interdisciplinary studies may not be new, but her statement recognizes the significance and the challenge of interdisciplinary scholarship. Nature’s Truth clearly demonstrates the value of such work.”

—Margaret J. Godbey, Victorian Periodicals Review

“The overall scholarship and the wealth of information gathered make this a very valuable contribution to understanding the cultural dynamics of the long nineteenth century.”

—Catherine Phillips, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies

“Anne Helmreich’s Nature’s Truth is consistently illuminating, informed, and accessible; it is the best guide I know to the nineteenth-century passion for ‘truth to nature’ among artists and scientists alike. It is a pleasure to learn how artists from Talbot and Millais to the New English Art Club and the Camden Town circle strove to find ‘a solid basis for art in science.’”

—John Plotz, author of Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move

“In her fascinating and important book Nature’s Truth, Anne Helmreich discusses the group of artists, photographers, and scientists who believed that they could unite to explore the truth of nature. Even though this dynamic—and complicated—relationship between John Millais, John Brett, P. H. Emerson, and George Clausen and scientific figures such as T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and G. H. Lewis did not survive past the early twentieth century, Helmreich reveals its lasting effect on modern art.”

—Bernard Lightman, vice president of the History of Science Society and author of Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences

“A must-read for those interested in nineteenth-century British landscape painting and photography! Anne Helmreich brilliantly argues that, much like science, landscape painting and photography in Britain from the 1830s until 1914 were driven by a belief in the importance of perception and the notion of ‘truth to nature.’ But as the meaning of that phrase changed, so did the art, until by 1914 the phrase itself had lost all meaning for artists.”

—Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, author of Nineteenth-Century European Art

“Anne Helmreich’s brilliant new book makes us rethink Victorian art, the development of British artistic modernism, and the history of visual perception. Returning us to a time when art and science worked closely in dialogue, Helmreich eloquently traces the changing meanings of ‘truth to nature’—objective, factual recording of detail, or subjective, imaginative response. Astute, detailed analysis of paintings and photographs combines with extensive reading in primary works, rendering this an original and illuminating study.”

—Kate Flint, author of The Victorians and the Visual Imagination

“Truth to Nature,” a rallying cry for those artists and critics aiming to reform art-making practices in Great Britain over the course of the nineteenth century, bound together artists as diverse as Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, photographer P. H. Emerson, and bohemian modernist Augustus John. In order to understand “truth,” these artists turned to the rising disciplines of science, which offered new insights into physical phenomena, vision, and perception.

Drawing on sources ranging from artists’ letters to scientific treatises, Nature’s Truth illuminates the dynamic relationship between art and science throughout the nineteenth century. Anne Helmreich reveals how these practices became closely aligned as artists sought to maintain art’s relevance in a world increasingly defined by scientific innovation, technological advances, and a rapidly industrializing society. Eventually, despite consensus between artists and critics about the need for “truth to nature,” the British arts community sharply contested what constituted truth and how truth to nature as an ideal could be visually represented. By the early twentieth century, the rallying cry could no longer hold the reform movement together. Helmreich’s fascinating study shows, however, that this relatively short-lived movement had a profound effect on modern British art.

An insightful examination of changing conceptions of truth and the role of art in modern society, Nature’s Truth reframes and recontextualizes our notions of British art.


List of Illustrations



1 Truth to Nature and the “Innocent Eye”

2 John Everett Millais and John Brett: The Rise of Imagination and the Crisis of Pre-Raphaelitism

3 P. H. Emerson and George Clausen: Renouncing the Quest

4 Neorealism: Truth to Nature in Modernist Critical Debate





Anne Helmreich is Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Texas Christian University. Her most recent book is The Rise of the Modern Art Market in London, 1850–1939 (2011), coedited with Pamela Fletcher.

Investigates why nineteenth-century British painters and photographers as diverse as the Pre-Raphaelites, P. H. Emerson, and Augustus John pursued truth to nature, and how contemporary science and philosophy informed their artistic practice and the critical reception of their work.