On reading the BAVS CfP for the 2016 Annual Conference of the British Association for Victorian Studies earlier this year (included below) my initial thoughts became rather reflective. I include it again below for you to re-read, to digest, to consume.
The Victorian age saw the emergence of ‘modern’ consumer culture: in urban life, commerce, literature, art, science and medicine, entertainment, the leisure and tourist industries. The expansion and proliferation of new mass markets and inessential goods opened up pleasurable and democratising forms of consumption while also raising anxieties about urban space, the collapse of social and gendered boundaries, the pollution of domestic and public life, the degeneration of the moral and social health of the nation. This conference is concerned with the complexity and diversity of Victorian consumer cultures and also seeks to consider our contemporary consumption of the Victorian/s.
After reading the CfP, I started to consider what ‘consuming’ as a word really meant: what was the core, the very definition and meaning of that word? Consuming. Consumed. Consumptive. Consumption. All of those connotations were instantly negative and pessimistic to my ear. The Oxford English Dictionary however, suggested ‘consuming’ was a positive adjective: meaning (of a feeling) completely filling one’s mind and attention; absorbing, e.g. ‘a consuming passion’.
This set my mind anew. Consuming…What better definition of an academic life, ‘a consuming passion’. Consuming: a subject that pervades both your waking and your sleeping hours. Consuming: what better means of identifying that which fills your time and your thoughts? Consuming. Consumed. Consumption. Isn’t this what researchers do? Trawling over archives and books and essays and the internet, pouring over single sentences and extracting and consuming each meaning and each word. Each phrase or idea slowly consumed and in turn transformed: implicit within the very act of ‘consuming’ is a transformation.
For each academic who embarks on a consuming project, there is a transformed academic at the end of the journey. For each project consumed, there are new ones waiting to be consumed. The process of consumption leaves us forever hungry and dissatisfied. Academics strive and academics thrive off of consumption, and in doing so embrace a type of intellectual anxiety.
The CfP made use of the word ‘anxiety’ although its focus was more directed toward consumer culture. But the type of consumption I research is not the Aubrey Beardsley deathly consumption, nor the anxiety filled mercantile one, it is instead an aesthetic one. The consumption I explore and partake in is visual, international, and travels across centuries.
Reception and revival are key tenets of the images I consume as part of my research. I labour my hours upon tiny small details which are like visual conversations between artists across time. I consume the gentle bend of a foot painted in John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s, Love and the Maiden (1877, MFA, San Francisco), and I realise he too had also been a consumer: for when he admired the turn of Venus’ foot in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (1485, National Gallery) he knew it sought a new life, and out from the tiniest detail bursts a new one. The chain is long and the details small but the meaning is often great. Look, look right at Stanhope’s painting and see how Cupid draws back the roses for you to see Botticelli’s three graces dancing near the shore.
In order to fully understand one work, we must seek to consume all of its details, and then to search beyond it for more, for new meaning. We cannot merely look at Rossetti’s La Donna della Finestra (1879, Harvard) without acknowledging the time he must have spent consuming Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (1470 – 1480, V&A).
The often seemingly inconsequential details reveal latent messages of the history of art: the foot records one artists’ reception of another’s work, and the parapet recalls sales of the old masters on the contemporary art market. Buried beneath each small detail is a layered history of engagement, visual, literary, mercantile, historical and personal.
Rossetti purchased the painting from Christie’s for the relatively small sum of £20 in 1869. The work must have appealed to him because of its half-length arrangement which he had already been experimenting with in his own work and the act of owning the Botticelli seemed to propel Rossetti in a new and more intense ‘consuming passion’ for Botticelli’s work, and thus Rossetti began to repeat the various elements of the work, paying particular attention to the diaphanous over-gown, and the architectural framing of the figure.
In purchasing Smeralda Bandinelli, Rossetti proliferated a greater consumption of Botticelli art, and in 1870, the year after Rossetti’s purchase, Walter Pater published ‘A Fragment on Sandro Botticelli’ which was the first full article on the artist whose name and reputation had suffered with neglect for some centuries. Artists, critics, buyers and patrons began to consume Botticelli’s name and work to such an extent that the critic Henry Horne described the interest as being a ‘peculiarly English cult of Botticelli…as odd and extravagant as any of our odd and extravagant time’.
Sensitivity to this type of visual consumption creates a critical space where the subtleties and finer details of each work can be discussed. Understanding that a series of fresco styled paintings produced in 1906 have a heritage, not just from fifty years before their design but from three hundred and fifty years prior, means a light can be shone on the social, religious, artistic, and critical judgements being made by each ‘consumer’ in the chain.
In this manner, all research is an act of consumption. Rossetti himself became a different type of consumer through virtue of owning this painting, for in 1880 he sold Smeralda Bandinelli to the Anglo-Greek stockbroker Constantine Ionides.
The type of paper I gave at BAVS2016 fitted not a Madame Bovary style consumption of fine silk dresses nor her consuming passion for love, instead it fitted the seemingly perpetual consumption by visual artists of the visual arts as described here.
A commission for the decoration of the ceiling of St. John’s Church in Hoxton, London was awarded to architectural decorators Christmas and Campbell Ltd. in the early 1900s and the resulting paintings are surprisingly Victorian in both look and theme, and yet if we are being literal and pedantic, they are ‘Edwardian’ not Victorian.
Unlike Stanhope’s consumption, there was no gentle turn of a Botticellian foot: instead there is a vast ceiling of angel wings and clouds and rainbows. On first sight, the decorative scheme is so gaudy and bright that one could not easily determine the presence of any cohesive aesthetic. But through the patient act of comparative analysis, precise Victorian influences began to reveal themselves within the cycle, and so the chain is further extended, link by link, cloud by cloud, wing-tip by wing-tip.
The paper I presented about these rainbow gilded angels sought to understand the purpose of these Edwardian religious paintings but also to present them as an Edwardian consumption of a Victorian aesthetic (one which is bound up with the Old (Italian) Masters). Through reference to the detail within the Book of Revelation and early Pre-Raphaelite paintings, it was suggested the paintings were part of a Victorian desire to construct a ‘New Jerusalem’: one which Campbell and Christmas achieved by harvesting images from their near past in order to create a comforting sense of Christian longevity. Matthew 13:39 offers insight into why the turn of the century mix of anxiety and desire for comfort resulted in a ceiling full of seemingly Victorian angels: ‘The harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels’.
Academics and artists are like angels, in as much as they harvest and they reap. They consume.
 Herbert P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, commonly called Sandro Botticelli, painter of Florence (London: Chiswick Press, Charles Whittingham and Sons, 1908), pg. xix