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.
This entry considers the lines of continuity between certain aspects of Victorian popular culture and those turn-of-the-21st-century forms of (and aspirations to) real-time, immersive entertainment that we dub “virtual reality.” I argue that virtuality has two aspects, one historical and one phenomenological, and that the middle of the nineteenth century provided templates for both. Like several other scholars (most notably Clayton, Byerly and Plotz), I see the aspiration to virtuality manifested in realist as well as illusionistic genres. I trace virtuality to the Benjaminian concept of the “aura,” but offer a new reading of that term as an historical phase (with a terminal point) rather than as an historically produced essence.
The series of annual international exhibitions held during the early 1870s at South Kensington, London, were not particularly successful, or popular, but they were influential in the history of exhibitions. The alleged failures and the cancellation of the final annual exhibition halfway through the intended decade-long series of events provoked considerable discussion about the purpose, scale and expectations for exhibitions, which were no longer novel or limited to a particular city or nation-state. There were some successes, notably for the Australian colonies and British India, and for very specific trades and exhibitors, but the public discussion and those limited successes have generally failed to capture the attention of scholars. These events are rarely mentioned in books and articles about exhibitions and, when discussed, are considered to be failures without merit. This BRANCH contribution recognizes that other exhibitions were more popular and more successful, but also recognizes that the South Kensington shows were significant in addressing criticisms of exhibitions in general and in the generational history of both the shows and their organizers. The 1870s proved to be a pivotal period in the history of such exhibitions and the consideration of what merited public culture. The mantle was passed from Sir Henry Cole to his successors and the ambition of holding annual international exhibitions was replaced by more thematic shows in Britain and bold international shows in the Australian colonies. Amidst the general impressions of failure, there were also successes at the shows and those highlighted how inter-national exhibitions could prove useful in a changing world.
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.
Nicholas Daly, “Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (April, 1894) and the Rise of Ruritanian Fiction”
Anthony Hope’s bestseller of 1894, The Prisoner of Zenda, inspired a subgenre of adventure romances set in imaginary, semi-feudal European countries, of which Ruritania is the original. English and later American protagonists stumble into plot-driven narratives that usually feature some combination of schemes against the throne, doubles or mistaken identities, swordplay, and love at first sight. Since the 1890s, Ruritanian backdrops have been reworked for a variety of purposes, from Balkan spy novels, to interwar operetta, to Cold War satires, in such fictional territories as Ixania, Krasnia, and Grand Fenwick.
This article focuses on the publication of Darwin’s final book (1881) in the context of Darwin’s larger attempts to resist the habitual anthropocentrism of human beings. It begins with Darwin’s discussion of animal cognition and the senses of worms. It concludes with his emphasis on the significant effects worm digestion has on the landscape and the fertility of the earth. The article links Darwin’s Worms Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novella Flatland, arguing that both texts are engaged in dismantling human perceptions that stem from possessing a highly visual brain, and that both throw doubt on the belief that a single objective world exists independent of particular observers.
This essay examines the death, and the life, of Florence Nightingale, the great nursing heroine of the Crimean War. An eminent Victorian, Nightingale passed away at the ripe old age of ninety in 1910, at a time when Britain was witnessing great internal strife and facing looming international tension. By that moment, the Crimean War was a thing of the distant past. Even so, Nightingale’s death served as a national tonic. It allowed mourners to rekindle the myths of Nightingale’s lifetime that had unified a ravaged nation in the wake of the Crimean War. Nightingale’s most important reforming efforts, which included nursing education, army improvement, and sanitary reform, both in Britain and in India, would postdate the Crimean War. However, the image of a young Nightingale ministering to the troops in the Crimea would remain the dominant one, not just in her life, but at her death as well. As it assesses the death and life of Nightingale, this essay focuses on two moments of celebrity and mythmaking in the long career of the heroine: the making of her legend in the Crimea and its resurrection at her death. It follows earlier literature, both generated during the nineteenth century and written by those who study it, establishing Nightingale as the avatar of Victorian womanhood. Accordingly, it seeks to understand Nightingale’s passing as a belated death knell to the Victorian age.
Claudia Nelson, “Mass Media Meets Children’s Literature, 1899: E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers“
Looking both backward and forward, E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers stands at the intersection of Victorianism and modernism. The novel crosses borders in another sense as well: in its handling of references to advertising, newspapers, and iconic historical events, it highlights the extent to which fact and fiction, reportage and mythmaking, alike depend upon artifice. The publication of Nesbit’s breakthrough work, which foregrounds the importance of mass culture to middle-class children’s imaginations, marks a historical change in perceptions of children’s relationship to consumerism.
Linda M. Shires, “Color Theory—Charles Lock Eastlake’s 1840 Translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colours)”
The nineteenth century witnessed major developments in color theory, pigment manufacturing, and painting techniques. In 1840, Charles Lock Eastlake—painter, art scholar, and collector—translated Goethe’s 1810 Zur Farbenlehre or Theory of Colours as a handbook and a history, with his own erudite notes, to aid British painters. The volume aimed to offer nineteenth-century artists a deeper education in color than Royal Academy training, which still emphasized imitation of old masters with instruction in composition and line. Eastlake also aimed to restore Goethe’s Aristotelian emphasis on the eye’s perception of color. A focus of debate among scientists and artists, the anti-Newtonian Theory of Colours seriously engaged painters as different in style as J. M. W. Turner and Holman Hunt, both of whom were fascinated by color and nature as seen by the eye. Moreover, Eastlake’s learned notes remained unrivaled for their detailed knowledge of Aristotelian natural science and optics, early technical treatises on painting, and specific Renaissance paintings. Charles Lock Eastlake, a growing authority in the art world of London, went on to be knighted (1850), elected President of the Royal Academy (1850), and appointed the first Director of the National Gallery of Art (1855).
The Second Boer War, part of the “Scramble for Africa” among European powers, was fought from 1899 and 1902 in what is now South Africa between British Imperial forces and the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State. The war occurred during the period of so-called New Imperialism (ca. 1880 to 1914) characterized by rising nationalism, racism, Social Darwinism, and genocidal thinking. Occurring roughly in the middle of this period, the Second Boer War became the focal point for a variety of hopes, anxieties, politics, and ideologies. An examination of periodicals created specifically to protest against the war shows that the conflict resonated within diverse local contexts, revealing the complex interplay between global events and local politics.