This article argues that, in 1862, when he published his most influential book The Art of Decorative Design, Christopher Dresser joined the multi-disciplinary enterprise of the physiological aesthetics in the name of ornamental form, positioning the theory of ornament as a crucial cutting edge of the empirical study of human aesthetic responses. I read The Art of Decorative Design in relation to contemporary psychological-aesthetics texts by Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer, James Sully, Edmund Gurney, and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson and Vernon Lee to show that Dresser finds in ornamental form a site for a materialist physiological understanding of aesthetic response—and he does so well prior to the essays on aesthetics that were published in the journal Mind from the 1870s on. Like contemporary empirical aestheticists—and in distinction to other ornamentists of his time—Dresser emphasizes the mental “laws” that orchestrate our reactions to forms in nature and in ornament alike. Tracing in Dresser’s design handbook an approach to ornamental form that becomes fully “physiologized” in Bain’s, Sully’s, Gurney’s, and Lee’s writing makes more complete the critical picture of the so-called “lesser” (and often pejoratively feminized) decorative arts as a fertile ground for the theories and practices the empirical aestheticists were pursuing.
The Ceylon National Review (1906-1911) was the official organ of the Ceylon Social Reform Society, an organization founded by the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy in an effort to combat colonial influence and reinvigorate Ceylonese cultural production. Coomaraswamy also served as an editor at the Ceylon National Review. This essay focuses on the manner in which Coomaraswamy, in the essays he contributed to and solicited for the journal, fostered transethnic Ceylonese nationalism and anticolonial resistance as well as transnational engagement with British countercultural movements and radical thought. Paying particular attention to Coomaraswamy’s interest in socialist aestheticism, Theosophy, and British discourses concerning vegetarianism, I foreground the highly cosmopolitan inflection of Coomaraswamy’s brand of Ceylonese nationalism as expressed in the pages of the Ceylon National Review. In the essays he wrote and selected for publication in the periodical, Coomaraswamy integrated the discourses of anticolonialism and socialist aestheticism and allowed British and Ceylonese vegetarians and Theosophists to speak in relation to one another, engendering a rich and surprising form of Ceylonese nationalism inflected by late-Victorian radicalism.
Shannon Draucker, “Hearing, Sensing, Feeling Sound: On Music and Physiology in Victorian England, 1857-1894”
This entry focuses on new developments in the burgeoning field of acoustical science that emerged in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. During this time, sound science began to flourish in England, particularly through lectures by Hermann von Helmholtz and John Tyndall at the Royal Institution. The publications of Helmholtz’s Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music) (1863, trans. 1875) and John Tyndall’s Sound (1867) also contributed to the transmission of acoustical theory mid-century. This entry traces the reception of these scientific ideas in musical, medical, educational, and literary circles in Victorian England. Focusing especially on new discoveries about sound’s capacity to incite physiological sensations, this essay argues that acoustical science fundamentally transformed the ways that Victorians conceptualized the relations between aesthetics and the body.
Jill R. Ehnenn, “On Art Objects and Women’s Words: Ekphrasis in Vernon Lee (1887), Graham R. Tomson (1889), and Michael Field (1892)”
Studies of women’s ekphrasis prior to modernism have, so far, tended to focus on individual women writers rather than attempt to identify trends that female authors from a particular time period might share. This essay intervenes in this gap in the scholarship by analyzing ekphrastic prose and poetry by Vernon Lee, Graham R. Tomson, and the co-authors who wrote as Michael Field. As female Aesthetes well-versed in art history and art criticism, as well as contemporary market practices, these nineteenth-century women writers anticipate today’s feminist theorists in the ways in which they were quite conscious of woman’s role as art object and the various functions of that role.
Here I examine Vernon Lee’s somewhat well-known novella Amour Dure (1887) as a foundational case study and then turn to two considerably lesser studied poems: Graham R. Tomson’s “A Silhouette” (1889) and Michael Field’s “Saint Katharine of Alexandria” (1892), for which I also identify the long-lost ekphrastic referent. These three texts all demonstrate how a specific form of aesthetic intertextuality—ekphrastic representational friction—operates as a powerful vehicle for early feminist criticism. In the examples I discuss, gendered critiques drive representational friction between the word, the visual medium, and its original referent—slippages that these art-savvy authors would have easily recognized and had opinions about in the work of others, and intentionally created and/or appropriated in their own work. Importantly, I also argue that a helpful way to think about ekphrastic writing by women writers associated with nineteenth-century British Aestheticism is to consider representational friction with particular regard to how their texts treat objects—seemingly unimportant objects—associated with their subjects.
Elizabeth Berkowitz, “The 1910 ‘Manet and the Post – Impressionists’ Exhibition: Importance and Critical Issues”
“The 1910 ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ Exhibition: Importance and Critical Issues” summarizes both the key historical aspects of the 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” exhibition, and the historiographic disputes that have arisen in relation to it. This article addresses the degree to which the term and art historical category “Post-Impressionism,” coined for this exhibition, represents a critical construction, rather than a genuine stylistic demarcation. In addition, this article counters the scholarly misperception that the vitriolic response to the 1910 exhibition was a product of British cultural ignorance of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century continental Modern art.
Dark Blue (1871–73) was a monthly magazine, edited by Oxford undergraduate John Christian Freund, which folded two years after a brilliant debut. During its brief run, it brought together a stunning list of literary and artistic contributors, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A. C. Swinburne, William Morris, Andrew Lang, Mathilde Blind, Sheridan Le Fanu, Simeon Solomon, and Ford Madox Brown, who produced aesthetically and sexually daring poetry, art, and criticism. However, it also strove to “appeal to the whole English-speaking public,” as Freund put it, and, thus, included much that might be described as middlebrow, even conservative. Whereas individual texts from Dark Blue, such as Le Fanu’s Carmilla, have received considerable attention, scholars have devoted very little sustained attention to the journal beyond noting its importance as an “artifact” in the history of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement and British aestheticism, and registering puzzlement at the journal’s eclecticism. This essay returns to Dark Blue to uncover common threads among dissimilar writers and artists. With particular attention to the journal’s commitments to transnationalism, I trace three intertwined threads—synesthesia, translation, and sexual dissidence—as they manifest in key texts by Swinburne, Solomon, Le Fanu, and others. Reading these texts in their original context not only demonstrates Dark Blue’s importance to early formations of aestheticism but also helps us to see how aestheticism connects with, rather than stands in opposition to, mid-Victorian culture.
Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance is known as the “golden book” of the British Aesthetic movement. Though ostensibly focused on Italian Renaissance art, the book speaks obliquely to Pater’s own Victorian moment, challenging conventional codes of religion, morality, sexuality, and scholarship. This essay surveys Pater’s diverse methods of quiet rebellion, including his ironic treatment of critical and scholarly norms. The essay’s second part considers the relation of The Renaissance to the emergence of popular aestheticism in the later 1870s.