Aesthetics Wiki

The Victorian Urban Poverty aesthetic attempts to capture the harsh atmosphere of Victorian slums, workhouses, and factories, and the culture of the poor in 19th Century Britain. It was popular in its time, in art, photography and literature. This was partially because rich Victorians had a bit of an obsession with the underclass and the way they lived, and their view somewhat persists even today. While this aesthetic is not always totally truthful to the way the poor lived at this time, it does offer a window into the period from a certain perspective.


The Victorian era lasted from 1837 to 1901, the duration of the reign of Queen Victoria. Her reign was the longest of any British monarch up to that point, at 64 years. A lot changed during that time, so "Victorian" should be regarded as a blanket term as opposed to a single specific aesthetic.

Aesthetics, or a set of principles concerned with beauty and art, were very important to Victorian artists and scholars. They liked to separate things into neat categories and look at them one facet at a time. Art and aesthetics, to rich Victorians, were not only influenced by real life, but also influenced life in a way. They saw the poor and the places where they lived and worked not as they were, but as artists depicted them and their facet of city life. That is, fundamentally different from them, and to be pitied. In the simplest terms, the Victorians knew they were living in an important time, and made sure people long into the future knew it as well. Their view of the world continues to bleed into the modern culture of English-speaking countries, and continues to somewhat distort our modern view of history. This becomes very obvious through art of the time, including art about the poor.

While depictions of the underclass were not new to British art in the 19th Century, the rise of photography and the novel during and after the Industrial Revolution created somewhat of a perfect storm for the Victorians' literary obsession with the poor. The Victorian Urban Poverty aesthetic can be said to have begun as early as 1837, with the start of Queen Victoria's reign and the publishing of the first installment of Oliver Twist in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany.


The Victorian era was the first to be documented through the medium of photography, which came around in the 1930s. Because of this, the era is very well-documented, leaving little room for the visual aesthetic elements to change. These visuals include, obviously, urban poverty, especially in London, beggars and the homeless, slums and slumming (a practice wherein rich women would go to poor neighborhoods and offer alms), factories, poorhouses and workhouses, sick and dying people, prostitution and crime, and waifish women and children.


It can be said that this aesthetic glamorizes poverty, exploitation, disease, and violence against women. In truth, this aesthetic has always been glamorized to some extent. Rich Victorians were even guilty of this in their own time. It must be emphasized that while the Victorian era was a time of great economic, technological, and societal progress, it was also rife with class inequality, racism, sexism, all manner of violence, colonialism, and human trafficking. Slavery was still allowed in much of the world, including in the the United States until the 1860s, there was constant war, and many common diseases were still poorly understood. This aesthetic is indicative of a lot of social issues of the Victorian era (some of which persist), and it should be viewed as such.

Also, this is as good a time as any to mention that on its own, poverty is not an aesthetic. It is a motif in many valid aesthetics but on its own, not only it is too broad to be an aesthetic, but making it one is obviously disrespectful. Victorian Urban Poverty is connected to a distinct era and a distinct place, and it influenced a distinct genre of art. That is what makes it an aesthetic. Victorian urban poverty, the aesthetic and the historical reality, should not be romanticized, and should instead be used to better understand how people of the past lived and to aid in creating realistic settings.


Feel free to add to this section. (:


Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

Mary Barton - Elizabeth Gaskell


"It's a Fine Life" - Lionel Bart


Wonka (2023)


Charles Dickens

Elizabeth Gaskell

Jack the Ripper


This is where I got my information:

Seeing the Unseen Pictorial Problematics and Victorian Images of Class, Poverty, and Urban Life - Susan P. Casteras