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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Five Questions: Emma Peacocke on Romanticism and the Museum

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Emma Peacocke is currently a Banting Post Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, Ontario.  Before moving to Queen’s, she completed her PhD at Carleton University.  She has published articles and book chapters that examine historiography, circulation, periodical culture, collecting and visual culture and that deal with figures as diverse as Walter Scott, William Paley, William Buckland and Thomas Moore.  Her first monograph, Romanticism and the Museum, which draws together many of these interests and which we discuss below, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.

1) How did you come to decide that you wanted to write a monograph on museums in the Romantic period?

It happened in a coup de foudre as I was reading The Wanderer, Frances Burney’s final novel, published in 1814.  The heroine, Juliet, is fleeing in disguise from her forced marriage to a murderous Jacobin ruffian, so you can imagine how anxious she is throughout the novel.  Near the climactic showdown, her eccentric elderly protector Sir Jaspar Harrington decides on a whim to pass Juliet off as his grandchildren’s new nursemaid and have her shown all around the glorious art collection at Wilton.  Juliet feels so harried and miserable that she has almost lost the will to live – she is in a “torpid state” of “morbid insensibility.”  However, one object is so powerful that it can reawaken Juliet to herself and even to a moment’s pleasure: the “fascinating picture” by Van Dyck of Charles I and his family, with its “extraordinary attraction.”  One chapter later, the experience of seeing an artwork indoors, in a very museum-like setting, is paralleled with wandering among the stupendous and sublime ruins of Stonehenge.  It turned my idea of what Romanticism is and what Romantic authors valued on their head.

Lots of historians and art historians, including Linda Colley, read the eighteenth-century stately homes that opened their doors to the general public as precursors to, or stand-ins for, public museums, so looking at the proto-museums and newly minted public museums of the Romantic era suddenly seemed like a very promising way to see something new in Romantic literature.  Carol Duncan’s Civilizing Rituals has a very powerful passage comparing art museums with the ambulatories of medieval cathedrals, pathways that pilgrims could follow to gain a closer understanding and bond with figures like Christ.  This really strengthened my decision to write about museums in the Romantic period – it’s such an eloquent testimony to their significance and puissance.

2) How did you select the four case studies (Wordsworth’s Prelude, Scott’s Waverley, Edgeworth’s Harrington and the discourse around the Elgin Marbles) which form the cores of your chapters?

It sometimes felt as though they chose me!  I was reading Ormond, by Maria Edgeworth, because I wanted an Irish Tale to read on my first trip to Ireland, and so I was originally going to write on Ormond rather than Harrington.  There’s an extraordinary scene in Ormond in front of the now lost portrait of Marie Antoinette by Gautier-Dagoty; the eponymous hero’s Anglo-Irish identity suddenly comes becomes completely clear to him, as his reactions to the portrait differ so markedly from his French friends’ more demonstrative response.  Edgeworth wrote these two novels as companion pieces, when her father was dying and was desperate to see just one more work of his daughter’s in print, and she needed to come up with enough text to fill three volumes.  I only read Harrington in the first place to do my due diligence about Ormond, but it completely captivated me and it is even more about scenes of representation, display, and the national imaginary than Ormond.  So it seems a bit serendipitous – but it also testifies to the ubiquity of museums and galleries in Romantic writing.

I always knew that I would need to write on the discourse around the Elgin Marbles, because the Marbles sparked the largest museum-based controversy of the Romantic period.  I think that it set the terms for centuries to come on questions of provenance and the ethics of museum acquisitions.  That chapter felt the hardest to structure, because it was really led by the topic, whereas all the other ones had been led by the texts whose settings had complexities and nuances that I wanted to tease out.  Keats’s “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” is among the greatest of ekphrastic poems – but despite its clear relevance, I didn’t spend very much time on it, because I didn’t have much to say to amplify its meanings.  Of course, just a few weeks ago, when I was teaching this poem, I found myself saying that perhaps Keats simply physically couldn’t describe the statues in great detail; the Elgin Marbles had attracted one of the earliest crowds to visit the British Museum, and perhaps he and Haydon had trouble getting and remaining close enough to the sculptures to support a traditional ekphrasis.  There’s always room for new insights!

3) Did you find that museums principally served as useful foci for discussions of particular concerns, or did they serve as flexible metaphors, easily repurposed by different auditors?

In each text that I wrote about, the museum becomes the place where authors represent the nation to itself.  That is the major concern for which the museum provides the ideal locus; however, each author and each text easily repurpose the museum to talk about a different aspect of that representation, and they often focus on a different aspect of the museum, too.  Scott uses portraiture and changes in the nature of gallery display to talk about the nation’s history and the profound differences between past and present.  Horace Smith imagines the Parthenon’s statues in the British Museum coming to life; while overtly they are talking about defamation in Classical Athens, it’s quite clear that Smith has the ancient statues uttering a veiled critique of the current British press.

I think that Wordsworth may have been most invested in how his readers – or the “auditors” of his poetry – could repurpose his museum settings and images.  Wordsworth loves writing about art display during the French revolution because he can powerfully testify to how utterly the Revolution changed everything, but doesn’t have to commit himself to saying whether the changes are largely for good or ill.  Wordsworth’s narrator has a rapturous moment like a pre-Revolutionary Grand Tourist in front of Charles Le Brun’s Penitent Magdalene before the painting was nationalized – as his auditors, we aren’t sure if Wordsworth would like to turn the clock back on the French Revolution, or whether he is delighted that the painting has become accessible to more and more people.  Byron, by contrast, comes out swinging against George IV in Don Juan, saying that even his fossilized remains will seem so monstrously large as to be inhuman to museum-goers in the distant future.  There’s no way that Byron wants to exploit the way that auditors could repurpose museum-based metaphors.

4) To what extent did the literary and visual forms in which writers addressed museums change the ways in which they were employed and represented?

You raise a really good point here.  I wonder if there wasn’t often a bit of a time lag between the most highbrow of Romantic visual arts and Romantic literature.  My theory is that authors wanted to refer to an accepted canon of taste, so that when they invoked a work of art, its significance would be stable and well-established to readers.  For instance, in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, Barbauld write that “Reynolds [shall] be what Raphael was before” – yet Sir Joshua Reynolds, the brilliant founder of the Royal Academy, had been dead since 1792.  Most of the artworks that my authors place in their texts date from previous generations, from Periclean Athens through the Renaissance and the 17th and 18th centuries.

As for the literary forms of Romanticism itself, it was an age that married wonderful periodical essays on art with the nascent form of the guidebook.  William Hazlitt’s Sketches of the Principal Picture-Galleries in England began as a series of articles in the London Magazine; the critic generally dedicated one essay to each gallery, which seems like a practical way to keep up with print deadlines.  Hazlitt then published his essays in collected form as a book. Its organization makes it very convenient for gallery-goers, who can consult the relevant chapter for that gallery. By contrast, George Walker’s Descriptive Catalogue of a Choice Assemblage of Original Pictures (1807) gives all kinds of valuable information about various paintings – but doesn’t organize them at all geographically or by collection.  Hazlitt’s Sketches have a kind of user-friendliness that makes seeing, understanding, and studying the artworks in museums seem less daunting.  That change in representation is quite closely linked to the literary form of the Romantic periodical.

I’m going to leave it to another scholar to talk about the new literary and visual forms in William Blake’s work!  House museums, like the Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton, are very common commemorations of Romantic authors.  Blake, however, made his family home at 28 Broad St. into a museum during his lifetime, holding an exhibition of his own watercolour and tempera paintings there in 1809.  Someone really ought to write a study on Blake and Romantic museums.

5) What new research projects are you presently working on?

My present project is on Romanticism and the University.  One can never have too many institutions of education in one’s life!  University reform was a huge topic for Romantic periodicals like the Edinburgh Review from about 1808 onward, and the colleges of the University of London were founded in 1826, so it’s an era of great introspection and change.  There’s also extraordinary figures like Thomas Campbell, a highly popular poet who became a magazine editor, a popular lecturer, a founder of the University of London and Rector of the University of Glasgow.

Another part of my project is to look at undergraduate writing from Romantic universities.  The poems that students wrote for prizes, like the Newdigate Prize, were highly valued; when a commercial press collected and printed them, they sold like hotcakes and went swiftly into a revised second edition, but that is a whole tranche of acclaimed poetry that we don’t really look at today.  Jeffrey Cox, in Romanticism in the Shadow of War, is the only scholar whom I know of who analyses any of these poems at all.  I’m also looking at student-run periodicals; the University of Edinburgh had an imitation of Blackwood’s that is often, in my opinion, much funnier than the original, and even contains an article about better ways to find cadavers for the medical school, years before the nefarious activities of Burke and Hare came to light.

My study also takes in universities as, rather like museums, being the sites of pilgrimage.  I focus on the Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford, and the story it tells us about the poet’s reception history.  It’s delightful to be able to keep a strong visual and architectural component in my work!