Home Subjects

“I put historical Art out of the question of course, for alas!  There’s no employment in it—nor are our houses, if there were a taste for it, adapted to receive large pictures, but for our comfort, where is it practiced nowadays, with success? . . . but in Portrait, Landscape, Seaviews, Home Subjects—animals, and in every branch for which there is a demand I am proud to say—and I am sure you will agree with me—we yield to no country.”  –British sculptor Richard Westmacott, 1834

Home Subjects is a website and blog that brings together those interested in exploring an alternate history for the display of art in Great Britain:  its important role in decorating the private interior, c. 1715-1914.

The decoration of and display of art in the private home have become the focus of a tremendous amount of academic energy during the past five years.  Yet much scholarship of the past two decades has posited that British art developed primarily in relationship to the growing number of art institutions and exhibitions that captured the public imagination.  This compelling narrative has overlooked the persistence of a cultural ideal premised on private and domestic spaces for exhibiting and experiencing art.

Though the quote from Richard Westmacott that headlines our page focuses on the display of painting, the parameters of this working group are much broader.  The goal is to explore the display of art in all media, especially the decorative arts and their interaction with the “fine arts.”  Domestic display also hinges on the related subjects of collecting, marketing, and even new developments in architecture, to name only a few of the directions this research could take.

Home Subjects grew out of a conversation enabled by the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest University:  in April 2012, Dr. Anne Nellis Richter visited Wake Forest and presented her research on the display of art in the home to my eighteenth-century European art class.  We talked to students about this new direction in the field, about the challenges of researching and recovering decorative schemes, and about the ways in which social class and institutional histories inflected these endeavors.  These concerns fascinated the students, who were familiar with some of these issues from their class visits to Reynolda House Museum of American Art.  At that time, Anne and I began to talk about a way to bring together interested students and researchers to create an online scholarly community, and our conversations soon grew to include Melinda McCurdy.  As a curator at the Huntington Art Collection in San Marino, California, Melinda added a new perspective to our conversation.  Her audience is the general public, rather than the college student, and the art under her care is displayed in a way that addresses both the domestic interior and the museum gallery.  We launched Home Subjects in April 2014.  We have presented at conferences in New York and London, and we have gathered nearly 2,000 views of the blog.  Our posts are cross-posted by professional organizations like the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Art, as well as research centers and museums.

In the Fall 2015, the Wake Forest University Humanities Institute sponsored a redesign of the Home Subjects site to allow for the creation of a network of researchers working on related topics.  Please visit us at homesubjects.org.

James Gillray: Caricaturist

James Gillray (1756-1815) was one of the greatest caricaturists of the 18th century.  From around 1775 until 1810, he produced nearly 1,000 prints—including brilliantly finished portrait caricatures of the rich, famous, or frivolous, wonderfully comic caricatures of people being awkward, and unquestionably the best satiric caricatures of British political and social life in the age of Napoleon.  His preeminence in graphic satire, especially in the 1790s made him both sought after and feared.  No sooner did a new Gillray print appear than it was sure to be plagiarized or imitated by contemporaries both in England and abroad.  And even today, there are few political cartoonists who would not admit to some debt to Gillray’s work.  For those interested in the development of English caricature and especially the prints of James Gillray, I have created a web site you can visit for a comprehensive overview of his work–James Gillray:  Caricaturist.

The site includes, first and foremost, a chronological listing of his known prints–both satiric and otherwise.  But it also contains a list of major museums and archives where his work can be seen, information about Gillray’s life, working methods, and techniques, and links to short biographical sketches of many of the people he caricatured.

Here is the background.  A couple of years ago, I decided to return to a book I had long since planned to write on the development of 18th-century caricature.  But, of course, anyone hoping to talk about caricature must confront the monumental presence of James Gillray.  So I began to look carefully at Gillray and his own development as a caricaturist.

I was soon frustrated, however, by the lack of a comprehensive and chronological catalog of his work.  Most of the books devoted to Gillray offer only a selection of his work, or, like Thomas Wright and Dorothy George, divide his work into political or satirical prints and social, personal, and miscellaneous prints.  And none of them include the prints Gillray created in his bid to be recognized as a “serious” artist and engraver.  I wanted to see Gillray’s work as he saw it, as a day by day effort at making a living and honing his craft.

Using the British Museum Catalog as a point of reference, I began doing searches of major Gillray archives online and visiting some of the non-digitized collections near my home in central New Jersey.  I will spare you the tales of my additional frustration while searching online for prints whose spelling and punctuation are highly idiosyncratic, and whose dates are sometimes difficult to decipher even up close.  Needless to say, I discovered that search results are only as good (or bad) as the very human process of cataloging the prints in the first place.  And I came away with a deep respect and appreciation for the heroic efforts of the staffs at the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Lewis Walpole Library, and other institutions who have made it immeasurably easier (though still challenging) for someone like me to come along and build upon their work.

The first result of my efforts, then, was a spreadsheet of over 900 rows containing a chronological listing of the prints and at least some of the collections where they could be found.  After months of labor, I realized I had only arrived at a starting point.  I could now begin to look at and think about Gillray’s development as an artist.  And that’s when I thought:  no one should have to go through this again.  And that’s when I also realized that I should make a website so that people could easily see what I was seeing–the wonderful artistry of James Gillray.

It was a natural enough thought for me.  I spent most of my life outside of academics at a major technology company, AT&T Labs (the successor of Bell Labs).  And the last part of my career there was managing a website design and development group.  Thinking in terms of web publishing, then, was almost second nature to me.  So I began to design a website around the idea:  what would I want to see and know if I were trying to get acquainted with Gillray and his work?  And that is still the guiding principle of James Gillray:  Caricaturist.  I launched the site on the 200th anniversary of Gillray’s death on June 1st, 2015, and its basic design has not changed.  But right now I have a goal of providing commentaries on at least a representative sample of the 900+ prints Gillray created over the course of his career.  About 50 are now up on the site, and I am continuing to add more.

If you wish to be alerted when I add more commentaries or make a substantive change to the site, I have included a form to subscribe to updates on my contact page.  I welcome feedback, corrections, and suggestions, and I have provided my email address on the same page.

Exhibition Announcement: “SWEET 18” Contemporary Art, Fashion, and Design Inspired by the 18th Century

SWEET18_visualA4_englishFor almost four centuries, Hingene Castle (Belgium) was the favorite summer residence of the aristocratic d’Ursel family.  Each summer, the Duke, together with his family and household, would arrive to take up residence in this magnificent stately home.  Today, Hingene Castle is owned by the Province of Antwerp, which has been responsible for restoring this opulent residence to its former glory.

Through 5 July 2015, Hingene Castle will act as the setting for “SWEET 18,” a unique exhibition that explores the 18th century through the eyes of fifty contemporary artists and fashion designers including Erwin Olaf, Wim Delvoye, Walter van Beirendonck, Cindy Sherman, Philippe Starck, and others.

“SWEET 18”:  Contemporary Art, Fashion, and Design inspired by the 18th Century (Kasteel d’Ursel, Hingene, Belgium).  1 May—5 July 2015.  The exhibition is open to individual visitors on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Bank Holidays, from 1 pm to 6 pm.  Group visits, with afternoon tea provided, take place on weekdays between 10 am and 6 pm.  Castle entrance:  8 Euros.

For more information, reservations for group visits, or for a program tailored to individual needs, please write to:  [email protected]

(Original post by Veerle Moens.  Ed. Andrew Burkett)

What Jane Saw: New Virtual Gallery Reconstructs Art Exhibit Attended by Jane Austen

What Jane Saw 201331959

What Jane Saw.  (Photo by Marsha Miller).

I am proud and pleased to finally be able to invite you to attend an online reconstruction of a famous art exhibit as novelist Jane Austen saw it on 24 May 1813 – exactly 200 years ago to the day.  Our website and virtual gallery is titled What Jane Saw (www.whatjanesaw.org).

The original exhibit featured 141 paintings by British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, which were displayed at the 1813 exhibition at the British Institution in Pall Mall, London.  The show amounted to the first large commemorative exhibition devoted to a single artist.  The What Jane Saw e-gallery displays these same Reynolds paintings on virtual walls, in precise imitation of the show’s original curatorial “hang.”

Although I provided the historical research for the site, this digital humanities project was a large collaborative and interdisciplinary effort.  What Jane Saw was constructed over several years by a talented team of student assistants and staff in the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) at the University of Texas at Austin.  For a short narrative about the making of the site and some of the people involved, see this story on the UT English Department’s website: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/english/news/6550.

Even if Jane Austen had not attended this public exhibit, it would still be well worth reconstructing.  The British Institution’s show was a star-studded “first” of great magnitude for the art community and a turning point in the history of modern exhibit practices.

Among the canvases in the retrospective gallery, the many celebrity portraits of 18th-century politicians, actors, authors, and aristocrats offer concrete examples of just how someone like Jane Austen, who did not personally circulate among the social elite, was nonetheless immersed in Georgian England’s vibrant celebrity culture.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen joked how she would be searching for a portrait of Mrs. Darcy among these pictures. Two hundred years to the day after Austen attended, the What Jane Saw website restages this Regency blockbuster.

The website takes advantage of the current digital toolkit to help transport visitors back to a specific event in 1813, the same year that Austen published Pride and Prejudice.  Today, the paintings that took part in the 1813 exhibit are dispersed across the globe while the original building in Pall Mall that once housed the British Institution is so altered as to be unrecognizable.  Virtual reality was the only way to put these objects back together.

Seeing the art in situ also revives the interpretive consequences of proximity and distance.  For example, some sitters are judiciously juxtaposed while others – rival politicians or high-profile socialites – are hung at painstaking removes from key members of the royal family.  Only a visual reconstruction allows the retrieval of these hidden narratives, hinting at the implied concerns of the original curators.

We hope you will take a look at: www.whatjanesaw.org.  This educational website is free and open to the public.  So, come and see the celebrities Jane Austen saw in 1813.  Step back in time to walk among the paintings in the virtual gallery.  This may be the nearest thing to time travel on the web!

Afterwards, let us know what you think on the What Jane Saw Facebook fan page: https://www.facebook.com/WhatJaneSaw.

Life Mask by Emma Donoghue: The Lawrence Portrait of Eliza Farren

life maskLife Mask by Emma Donoghue (Harcourt, 2004) takes its title from the artistic technique that allows a sculptor to make a cast of a living person’s face in preparation for creating a sculpture. In the novel, Donoghue defines it as “An image made by taking a plaster mould of the face of a living human subject” (156). But the term has a secondary meaning in her work, as the epigraph reveals: “How tired I am of keeping a mask on my countenance. How tight it sticks–it makes me sore. There’s metaphor for you” (quoting from William Beckford’s Lisbon Diary, 27 May 1787). It refers to the double lives of many of the characters, who hide self-doubt, love affairs, fears, and unspoken sexual identities behind the faces they present to society.

Using the historical record as the ground for her art, Donoghue depicts the social world where the masks are worn, especially the Devonshire House set and the group centered at Strawberry Hill and its owner, Horace Walpole. At the same time, she investigates the interior selves behind the masks.

Anne Damer, the central character, was a distinguished sculptor in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who faced many obstacles in her life: the suicide of her husband, the social attitude that considered female sculptors to be unfeminine because their art required hard physical labor, and persistent rumors that she was lesbian. Donoghue uses these and other contemporary events, people, and artifacts to create a world that encompasses both the complicated social structures of England on one hand and Damer’s inner life on the other.

Her lesbianism has never been definitively established. Andrew Elfenbein declares that “[f]or recent historians of lesbianism, Damer has been a pivotal figure, in some cases appearing as virtually the first modern lesbian” [1].  The Dictionary of National Biography is less assertive; it documents the “passionate and lasting friendship with Mary Berry,” whom she met in 1789, and notes the public remarks during her marriage about her “Sapphic nature,” rising from close friendships with women. But apparently her contemporaries considered her “reticent;” for example, she ordered that her private papers be destroyed after she died [2].  It is this very reticence that allows Donoghue’s speculation on her life, although it requires the utmost delicacy.

In writing a biographical novel, Donoghue must negotiate between the novelist’s license to invent and biography’s commitment to the historical record. Thus, she does not turn Damer into “the first modern lesbian”; she does not even allow her to admit her own orientation publicly. Both scenarios are false, to history and to the general mores and values of the period. On the other hand, had she left the question as vague as the information contained in the limited number of surviving documents, the novel would be unsatisfying. Instead, Donoghue, as historical novelist, fills in the gaps; the result is the portrait of a woman coming to terms with her own sexuality in a society that considers it disgusting and ludicrous.

Donoghue portrays the relationship between Anne and Eliza as an intense friendship that is destroyed by the publication of a piece of anonymous doggerel that claims that the connection is sexual [3]. This squib is deeply hurtful to Anne, but is perilous for Eliza. As an actress, a profession not held in high regard in the period, Eliza must be much more protective of her reputation than the aristocratic people who form Anne’s circle. Not surprisingly in a novel filled with artists and their subjects, a portrait plays a critical part in illuminating the friendship and its rupture [4]. Donoghue enhances the background to the creation and presentation of Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Farren to reveal the conflicts that class and sexuality cause.

The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1790 and made Lawrence’s reputation as a painter. Before the 1790 Exhibition, he had been better known for his works in pastel, but he “seemed to arrive fully formed as a painter in oils” at that event [5]. In the episodes in which Lawrence paints the portrait, Donoghue speculates on how he might have achieved the expression on Farren’s face. According to A. Cassandra Albinson, visitors to the studio felt that “Miss Farren’s look met you as you entered” [6]. Lucy Peltz notes the “complicity between artist and sitter” in the “playful glance Farren shoots across her shoulder to her appreciative viewer” [7].

Donoghue explains the gaze as a mixture of flirtation and annoyance. The pose emerges from Eliza’s arrival in a rush at the studio: “She pulled off her muff to hand to her mother; she tugged off one glove and reached to unclasp her fur-lined pelisse. Lawrence raised one finger. ‘Don’t do that’” (251). She does what he says, but she is “smil[ing] through her irritation.” She thinks he is young, arrogant, and callow; he doesn’t seem to care, which makes it worse. What is more, she is puzzled by his method;  as an actress and thus a public person, she expects to pose as some kind of allegorical figure, or a famous woman in history, and not as Eliza Farren, a private woman (253). When she sees the finished portrait, she realizes he has produced an entirely unexpected image: “This wasn’t Miss Farren of Drury Lane, this was a private person, rushing across a summer landscape in winter clothes. How had Tom Lawrence seen such a tentativeness in Eliza’s eyes as she posed for him in his studio with a worldly confidence? How had he glimpsed the fears that she carried around like tiny pebbles in her mouth?” (262).

When she points out to the painter that she still looks very thin–she had asked him to add “a pound of flesh”–he refuses: “‘You couldn’t be more beautiful,’ he said and she didn’t know whether he meant her or the Eliza in the picture” (262). But she is frightened by the idea that there are two Elizas, the private self and the public object of desire that appears on the stage. The need to protect the private self from being tainted has caused her to break with Anne and the suggestion that she could be equally objectified by the portrait increases her insecurity. These are the fears that Tom has revealed.

In dealing with the controversy over the naming of the picture, Donoghue takes a position that is more determined than the historical record. It was originally to be titled Portrait of a Lady, an anonymous, class-registering designation, but was hung at the Exhibition as Portrait of an Actress, a title, as Peltz comments, “that without any honorific qualification was synonymous with ill repute.” In what is described as a “long and obsequious letter” to Farren, who was furious and dismayed, Lawrence blamed the Academy for the change [8]. Peltz does not give any independent confirmation for Lawrence’s version of events, but Donoghue accepts it, producing a dramatic scene in which Anne views the painting for the first time and questions the title.

Anne’s reaction to the painting tells us how much it resembles the sitter: “The pose was startlingly spontaneous: there stood Eliza Farren with one glove off, as if interrupted in the middle of a rapid journey. She was as thin as a silver birch sapling; Lawrence had caught all her serpentine grace” (265). It also reveals the resonances of its title.  Donoghue’s shaping of history is revealed when Anne demands an explanation and the Academy official tells her that the decision was made by the Academy (because it is impossible for an actress to be a lady) and that Lawrence made a terrible fuss about it. Anne responds, “How dare they?…Portrait of an Actress sounds as if she’s no better than any other strumpet who ever walked the stage. They might at least have added an adjective: Distinguished, or Celebrated” (265-266). As an aristocratic woman, Anne understands the nuances of class and realizes how much more serious it is for Eliza than for a woman of her own status, who would never actually be in that situation. Her comment also suggests her own attitude towards actresses: “any other strumpet who ever walked the stage.”

The angry confrontation the two women have at the gallery, immediately after Anne has defended her, emphasizes the tragedy of their distance; they clearly still respect each other but Eliza is afraid to be seen with her and Anne is too deeply hurt to be polite. In this scene, Donoghue comments on the complexity of human sexuality and its effect on friendship, employing the portrait to ground her narrative in history.

Notes

[1] Andrew Elfenbein, Lesbian Aestheticism on the Eighteenth-Century Stage, Eighteenth-Century Life 25.1 (Winter 2001): 2. Project Muse. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ecl/summary/v025/25.elfenbein.html

[2] Alison Yarrington, “Damer, Anne Seymour (1749-1828),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition, January 2008. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7084.

[3] See the online readers’ guide to Life Mask, which contains specimens of the attacks on Anne Damer, including the libel about her friendship with Farren: “Companion Guide to Life Mask by Emma Donoghue,” rebeccarriverslitblog, http://rebeccariverslitblog.wordpress.com/. Accessed 13 May 13, 2013.

[4]  In this discussion, I am using “Anne” and “Eliza” to refer to the characters in the novel and “Damer” and “Farren” to refer to the historical record.

[5] A. Cassandra Albinson, “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women,” Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, ed. A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz, Yale Center for British Art and the National Portrait Gallery, London. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 34.

[6] Ibid., 34.

[7] Lucy Peltz, “Elizabeth Farren, Later Countess of Derby, c.1759/62-1829, Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, ed. A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz, Yale Center for British Art and the National Portrait Gallery, London. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 98.

[8] Ibid., 99-100.

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century by Margaret Koehler (Palgrave 2012)

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century by Margaret Koehler (Palgrave 2012)

I would like to speak enthusiastically for the affinity of Cognitive Science and Eighteenth-Century Studies, with the stipulation that we acknowledge a reciprocal gain.   The point of a dialogue between these two disciplines is not that contemporary cognitive models can somehow verify what eighteenth-century accounts of cognition primitively conjectured.  The literary and historical texts that serve as “data” for Eighteenth-Century Studies look nothing like a modern laboratory experiment or brain scan.  And yet these earlier accounts of cognition can be just as extensive, precise, and applicable to diverse realms of human experience.  In the case of my own area of interest, attention, historical accounts are especially valuable because contemporary theories often emphasize attention’s involuntary and automatic function and sometimes question whether attention is even a valid concept.

My book, Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century (Palgrave, 2012) , makes a case for the relevance of eighteenth-century models of attention.  Because the discipline of Psychology only turned to attention as an area of research in the late nineteenth century, studies have tended to ignore attention’s earlier conceptual history.  My book attempts to fill one part of this gap by tracing debates about attention during a period of intense interest and significant revision of its meaning.  I then look to poetry for documentation of the workings of attention.  Literary texts are rich but surprisingly unexplored sites for tracing—and, for a reader, reenacting—the precise operations and recurring dilemmas of attention.  To overlook the sheer range of attentive scenarios explored by literary texts and the meticulous evidence they record is to miss a unique set of data.

Mrs. Arabella Hunt (c.1706) by John Smith, 1652-1743, British; After Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1646-1723, German, active in Britain (from 1676).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Mrs. Arabella Hunt (c.1706) by John Smith, 1652-1743, British; After Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1646-1723, German, active in Britain (from 1676). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

I began this project wanting to understand the frequent references to attention in eighteenth-century poems.  I had been particularly struck by a line from a 1692 ode by William Congreve, “On_Mrs. Arabella_Hunt_Singing.”  In this line a listener wills himself to be fully absorbed in the song:  “Let me be all, but my Attention, dead.”  It seemed to me that this plea embodied a wider aspiration in the poetry of this period to experiment with perception—both to portray a poet’s states of awareness and to elicit a vicarious experience in readers.  Eighteenth-century poems again and again stage scenarios of experimental attention.  In addition to a moment of determined focus like Congreve’s, they explore a range of perceptual puzzles:  How is it different to encounter something novel versus something familiar?   How does perception shift when you are on foot, scanning the landscape while in motion, and then you suddenly zero in on some small detail?  How does darkness enhance the other senses?  How can a poet render the cacophony of a busy London street?

I found myself wondering if the framework of attention might finally name a quality of eighteenth-century poetry that I had noticed but struggled to formulate.  My dissertation had focused on the relationship between literal and figurative tendencies in eighteenth-century poetry, particularly on the way that certain images seemed to “fluctuate” (as I put it) between the two states.  But these terms had come to feel inadequate.  What if I could articulate a related phenomenon more accurately as the poet’s—and the reader’s—shifts of attention?  Part of the reason I had first become a fan of eighteenth-century poetry was because it prompted me to notice and appreciate small details in the natural world.  Right around this same time a student in my eighteenth-century literature had made an offhand comment that seemed to capture the challenges of teaching this material:  “I don’t like reading poems where I have to keep stopping to think about every word.  I like it when poems just flow.”  In other words, he was frustrated by the attentive demands and had expected poetry to offer easier, more passive pleasures.  My teaching and research were dovetailing in a rare and exciting way around questions of attention.

My immediate impulse was to turn to contemporary theories of attention for explanation.  Working through recent studies of attention by psychologists, I found myself at first assuming that eighteenth-century accounts offered embryonic accounts of phenomena that contemporary researchers had gone on to explain more fully and correctly.  Then when I returned to the eighteenth-century texts, I was in some sense looking for the twentieth and twenty-first-century models:  attention as selection versus attention as enhancement, attention as a set of distinct processing resources.  I had for example been fascinated by a 1950s lab experiment in “dichotic listening,” (subjects listened to headphones that fed one sound input on the right and another on the left).  Subjects were told to attend deliberately to one particular side, then later had to report on what they recalled from the “unattended ear” (early versions of the study found that they recalled almost nothing; later versions found more).  This notion of the “unattended ear” felt richly applicable to eighteenth-century poetry, which often challenges readers with competing inputs—high and low, vast and minute—and asks them to reconcile the incongruity.  But rigidly applying the processing model to poetry felt both formulaic and inaccurate.  The more useful insight was that eighteenth-century poetry complicates and mocks the very possibility of allocating attention dichotically.

The most exciting discoveries in this project came when eighteenth-century accounts of attention complicated or expanded contemporary perspectives.  Probably the most salient example was the greater emphasis eighteenth-century accounts placed on voluntary attention.  Here I was inspired by the work of art historian Barbara Stafford , who diagnoses a widespread contemporary fascination with “autopoietic” systems—self-assembling systems that operate spontaneously and automatically.[1]  The current model of the human brain, 90% of which is estimated to function automatically, is one such autopoietic system.  Stafford argues that the current understanding of brain/ mind as a largely automatic system reverses eighteenth-century epistemology, which likened cognition to seeing.  Her critique casts the discrepancy explicitly in terms of attention: “What’s left of selective attention?”[2]  She expresses reservations about the view that attention is mostly unconscious:  “what are the macroconsequences of putting attention almost wholly in the service of microcircuits, cerebral localization, processing-perceptual systems, and other inbuilt constancies?”[3]  Stafford does not refute neuroscience’s claim that the brain operates mostly automatically, but she contends that the imbalance exerts “special pressure on…the remaining empirical 10 percent.”[4]  In her remedy for the autopoietic daze and her formula for maximizing the remaining 10 percent, she extols the dividends of deliberate attention:

Creativity may well lie in escaping, not giving in to, our autopoietic machinery and focusing carefully on the world.  This proactive proposition defies a hyper-Romantic theory of consciousness…that we can never perceive the real world but only our mental representations.[5]

One way to escape a hyper-Romantic theory of consciousness is to look back to earlier models.  I would argue that this call for a new aesthetic commitment to “outward-directed attentiveness” finds a vital precedent in eighteenth-century poems.[6]

Unlike their successors the Romantics, eighteenth-century poets did not view active, detailed attention as hostile to aesthetic experience.  Possibly the plainest articulation of the eighteenth-century model of attention emerges as it is undone by an early Romantic theorist.  Near the end of the century, Archibald Alison argues that focused attention stifles the imagination and that aesthetic  experience requires the surrender of voluntary attention: 

When we sit down to appreciate the value of a poem or of a painting, and attend minutely to the language or composition of the one or to the coloring or design of the other, we feel no longer the delight which they at first produce.  Our imagination in this employment is restrained, and instead of yielding to its suggestions, we studiously endeavor to resist them by fixing our attention upon minute and partial circumstances of the composition.[7]

While Alison explicitly opposes attention and imagination, eighteenth-century poetry demands their co-existence.  Attending to details of a scene is part of the imaginative response to it.  This aspiration is one of the reasons why eighteenth-century texts can seem difficult and alien to contemporary readers, who have inherited a Romantic aesthetic.  My book repositions eighteenth-century poems as a collective model for assiduous reading and supple, wide-ranging attention.  It identifies a genuine insight that Eighteenth-Century Studies has to offer about cognition:  that active, deliberate, and demanding attention is a crucial component of imagination.


[1] Barbara Maria Stafford, “The Remaining 10 Percent:  The Role of Sensory Knowledge in the Age of the Self-Organizing Brain.”  Chapter 2 in Visual Literacy, ed. James Elkins (New York:  Routledge, 2008), pp. 31-57.

[2] Barbara Maria Stafford, “Neuroscience and the Future of the Art Museum.”  Talk at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA (March 2007).

[3] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 33.

[4] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 42.

[5] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 45.

[6] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 45.

[7] Alison, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (Edinburgh:  J.J.G. and G. Robinson,1790), p. 7.

Dogs of the 18th Century

Brown and White Norfolk or Water Spaniel Date, 1778.  By George Stubbs (1724-1806, British).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Brown and White Norfolk or Water Spaniel Date, 1778. By George Stubbs (1724-1806, British). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Scholars date both the beginnings of modern pet-keeping and modern discourses of animal rights to the eighteenth century.  Here is just a small sampling of recent scholarly work on dogs in eighteenth-century life.

Laura Brown‘s book Homeless Dogs and Melancholy Apes (Cornell University Press, 2010) shows

how the literary works of the eighteenth century use animal-kind to bring abstract philosophical, ontological, and metaphysical questions into the realm of everyday experience, affording a uniquely flexible perspective on difference, hierarchy, intimacy, diversity, and transcendence. Writers of this first age of the rise of the animal in the modern literary imagination used their nonhuman characters—from the lapdogs of Alexander Pope and his contemporaries to the ill-mannered monkey of Frances Burney’s Evelina or the ape-like Yahoos of Jonathan Swift—to explore questions of human identity and self-definition, human love and the experience of intimacy, and human diversity and the boundaries of convention.

Lynn Festa‘s article on the English Dog Tax debate of 1796 was published in the journal Eighteenth-Century Life in 2009.  The abstract describes it thus (full text of the essay is available here):

Drawing on Parliamentary debates, print polemics, and satirical prints, this essay traces the rhetorical erosion of seemingly categorical distinctions between human and animal, animate and inanimate, person and thing, in the controversy that arose around the 1796 imposition of a tax on dogs. The passage of this seemingly slight piece of legislation created impassioned debates about the nature and welfare of animals, about the rights of individuals to possess or keep property, and about the way the kinship felt for animals tampers with the seemingly self-evident borders of kind. At a moment in which sentimental humanitarian concern with the rights and interests of animals had reached new heights, the taxation of dogs seemed to reclassify the animal as a thing and to draw into question the relation between humans and their ostensible best friends. Although proponents of the bill endeavor to proceed as if dogs can be considered on the same terms as other kinds of taxable luxuries (devouring resources that might better be devoted to humans), opponents of the tax focus on the bonds of mutual dependency and reciprocal obligation that tie humans and animals together, arguing that the right to keep a beloved entity such as a dog expresses a distinctively human need to keep something beyond mere, bare, necessity. Inasmuch as humanity is expressed and inheres in the relation people take to other creatures, the seeming superfluity of the dog embodies the essence of what allows, or enables, people to act as humans.

Chi-ming Yang, in “Culture in Miniature:  Toy Dogs and Object Life” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction examines porcelain dog figurines (particularly of the pug and King Charles spaniel, breeds imported from Asia and domesticated in England) produced in China and sold in England in the eighteenth century.  She argues:

The toy dog, a small but far from trivial commodity, mediated relations of racial, sexual, and species difference and helped establish a luxury market for the pet as a racialized fetish object that continues to this day.

The Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, published by the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, produced a Special Issue on “Animals in the Eighteenth Century” in December 2010.  While the full contents are only available to members and institutional subscribers, anyone can read abstracts of the articles at the link above.

Bernadette Paton of the Oxford English Dictionary charts the changing uses of dog-related vocabulary over time and notes that the eighteenth-century is an important turning point:

Until the eighteenth century small dogs kept as pets were regarded with some disdain (hence the negative connotations of lap-dog) but they enjoyed luxuries their outdoor counterparts could only dream of. But from the mid-1700s compounds attesting to the dog as a favoured and nurtured pet begin to appear, and they multiply and flourish throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. They include comforts like dog baskets (earliest in 1768 Catal. Household Furniture, ‘A dog-basket and cushion’), dog biscuits (specialized dog treats, from 1823), dog food, dog doctors (first recorded in 1771 Tobias Smollett’s novel Humphry Clinker, ‘A famous dog-doctor was sent for’), dog hospitals (from 1829), and dog soap (first use 1869). The first reference to the dog as ‘man’s best friend’ appears in 1841, at a time when dogs began to be sentimentalized, and to be seen as having, if not souls, then at least personalities and feelings (perhaps because the industrialized city no longer needed them as outdoor working or guard animals, while the rabies vaccination developed in the 1880s reduced the threat they posed).

Two articles in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal describe the dog’s life in the eighteenth century for a non-academic readership: “The Eighteenth Century Goes to the Dogs” (including a quiz matching eighteenth-century dogs to their famous owners) and “Personable Pooches.”

And someone has collected a vast array of eighteenth-century portraits of pets (many of them dogs) and their owners on Pinterest.

The Age of Wonder and the Image of Genius

Julia Margaret Cameron, “Sir John Herschel,” 1867. Albumen silver print from glass negative. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What does genius look like? One place to start is the hair, to judge from photographs of Albert Einstein. The famous physicist was not the first to suggest that an unkempt mane is a sure sign of an active mind. When the Victorian Julia Margaret Cameron produced this portrait of John Herschel in 1867, she had waited three years “to take this noble head of my great master,” and she was not going to miss her chance to highlight his genius.

For Cameron in particular, Herschel was “Teacher and High Priest,” who sent her the first photographs she had ever seen. She demanded that Herschel wash his hair and tousle it, and wild tufts of white hair became an external sign—a visual—for the internal workings of the mind.

As an art historian, I have read Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder with one eye on the visuals. In this regard, I must take Holmes to task for his treatment of most illustrations in the book as just that—illustrations. As the historian Raphael Samuel reminded us, we can find valuable historical knowledge in images, but we must approach them carefully: looking not for the information that we gain from them, but rather focusing on the information that we bring to them. What do Richard Holmes’s insights mean, then, for the visual art of this period? And what might this add for our understanding of a slightly later cultural moment, which is my own period of research specialization.  The appearance of Sir John Hershel in the book, often viewed as a Victorian figure, raises interesting questions in this regard.

Holmes introduces Herschel in Chapter 9, where he already appears as the product of a different generation. He is the “apprentice” to his father the “sorcere” William Herschel, and he is a foil that allows the author to update the reader on the fates of the elder Herschel, his sister Caroline, and Sir Joseph Banks. Humphry Davy continues to be the main focus of the narrative; Holmes writes a eulogy for the age of wonder in his consideration of Davy’s Consolations in Travel, or, the Last Days of the Philosopher from 1830, even as he re-affirms what he calls “the awe-inspiring” and “visionary nature of the sciences.” The following year, 1831, seems like a decisive break: Charles Darwin departs for his voyage on The Beagle and the “Young Scientists” introduced in chapter 10, Darwin among them, announce a new generation. Holmes notes that “scientist” was recognized in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1840, the same year that John Herschel dismantled his father’s old forty-foot telescope. The year before, Herschel commemorated his father’s achievement by making it the subject of some of his first successes with the incipient medium of photography. Herschel produce a number of negatives, including a blue one using the process known as cyanotype, and as well as “positives” printed from a glass negative, a support that did not become standard practice until the 1850s. The “eye” of the camera lens memorializes the sweeping “eye” of the telescope that enabled the elder Herschel to scan the heavens. In this, it seems to declare a very different set of ambitions, leaving aside the fact that the son quite literally dismantles the work of the father. The younger Herschel gives us the means and the apparatus. How very Victorian! Utilitarianism and professionalization come first. The elder Herschel, in contrast, keeps his eyes and his desire focused on the heavens, not unlike William Blake’s illustration of a star-gazer from 1793.

Yet at least one Victorian view of Herschel would seem to contradict this interpretation. We need look no further than Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic portrait of Herschel to find the inspired genius. While not included in The Age of Wonder, Holmes himself references this photograph at the very end of his tale, where Herschel is recognized as the leading public scientist of the mid-Victorian era. As he describes it “his kindly face, encircled by a sunlike corona of white hair, was famously photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, using a process that he himself had partly invented.” (More on that in a moment). Draped in black, Herschel faces the lens with the seriousness of an Old Testament prophet even as Cameron eschews the usual focus and finish of the portrait photograph. In a footnote, Holmes explains that Herschel appears both “benign” and “eccentric,” a combination that “defined the Victorian ideal of the scientist.” And here I must disagree with Holmes’s assessment: there is nothing particularly “Victorian” about the “eccentricity” of this image: as Ludmilla Jordanova has recently suggested, “romantic idioms” continued to inform depictions of scientists into the twentieth century. Furthermore, the extreme play of light and dark in Cameron’s photograph is meant to address the centrality of Herschel’s theorization of light to the invention of photography.

If we go back to 1830, and think not of Davy’s Consolations but instead of Herschel’s important essay “Light,” we might be able to expand the boundaries of the age of wonder. This monumental article for the Encyclopedia Metropolitana of 1830 (it ran to some 240 pages) suggests that the “Age of Wonder” prompted the cultural imperative of photography.

Acclaimed as the Isaac Newton of his generation, Herschel occupies a special place in the history of photography. His chemical experiments of 1819 led to its invention, and it was Herschel who first described the results of this new process as a “negative” that prints a “positive.” His language still determines the way we envision this process of image making: he was the first to use the term “snap shot,” and he coined the term “photography,” or light writing, to describe the experiments of his friend William Henry Fox Talbot.

In his essay, Herschel proclaims the centrality of sight to experience, declaring that “sight is the most perfect of our sense; the most various and the most accurate in the information it affords us; and the most delightful in its exercise.” This celebration of the visual comes as no surprise when we examine Herschel’s accomplished drawings and watercolors such as this botanical specimen from 1824. As Herschel continues, “Apart from all considerations of utility, the mere perception of light is in itself a source of enjoyment.” This assertion of the delight in nature, then takes a turn for the divine: “When to this we join the exact perception of form and motion, the wondrous richness and variety of colour, and the ubiquity conferred upon us by just impressions of situation and distance, we are lost in amazement and gratitude.” Herschel’s observations here are infused with the language of wonder, as he shifts easily between “exactness” and “impressions.” As scholars such as Geoffrey Batchen and Douglas Nickel have argued, this pairing underpins the invention of photography—the first photographic process, seen here in an example by William Henry Fox Talbot, involved taking the object itself (the exact thing) and allowing the sun to leave its “impression.” Early photographers such as Talbot discussed this process in the same way as “marvelous” “fairy pictures,” the product of “sorcery” “alchemy” “natural philosophy” that was a the same time “natural magic.” According to Douglas Nickel, these are the “Romantic epistemological preconditions” that allowed photography to develop.

Holmes’s Age of Wonder describes not just scientific discovery but also wonder at the unknown, of beauty and terror. If we look a different “impressions” of John Herschel from Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1867 sitting, known not as “the Portrait of Sir John Herschel” but “The Astronomer,” we might see them with new eyes, filtered through the ideas of 1819, 1830, and 1867. The astronomer still scans the heavens.