LONDON (Reuters) - The Victorian era has long been associated with prudishness, repression and abject poverty for those unfortunate souls stuck at the bottom of the economic rung.
But it was also a period of tumultuous social and political change where imperial expansion led to greater prosperity and an explosion of intellectual, scientific, literary and artistic curiosity.
Now a new exhibition of Victorian drawings and watercolors drawn from the Courtauld Gallery's 7,000-strong collection of lesser-known works aims to set the record straight and show the rich variety of styles it spawned.
"It's exciting because through Victoria's reign we see great (artistic) diversity...They (the Victorians) were extremely interested in science, venturing abroad and recording the natural world around them and this shines through," said curator Joanna Selborne.
"Use of different media, style, techniques and Impressionist brush strokes were all explored," she said quashing any idea that Victorian artists were conservative and introspective.
The show, "Life, Legend, Landscape" includes many previously unseen pictures of English romantic landscape painter J.M.W Turner, William Etty, best known for his nudes, and Edwin Landseer -- renowned for his depictions of animals and sculpture that includes four huge lions guarding Nelson's Column in London's Trafalgar Square.
Pre-Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and works produced in the 1890s by James Whistler and Aubrey Beardsley are also on view.
The works range from fully finished pieces, to preparatory work for sculpture and stained glass.
Landscapes produced at home and abroad, as Victorians ventured more commonly to exotic lands, are also featured.
They include John Frederick Lewis's watercolor of a silk bazaar in Cairo, Turner's late Swiss view of Brunnen on Lake Lucerne and the "Quarries of Syracuse" in Sicily -- Edward Lear's final design for one of his few oils exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Other themes which run through the artistic tradition of the era include fantasy, myth and medieval legend and literature that so captured the Victorian imagination.
The exhibition also explores how artists of the period, particularly the Pre-Raphaelite painters, tried their hand at illustration, fueled by the public demand for illustrated books and the birth of popular magazines.
"Life, Legend, Landscape -- Victorian Drawings and Watercolours" runs from February 17 to May 15.
Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; editing by Paul Casciato