It is a truth universally acknowledged that a scholar seeking to build a career must be in want of a public engagement opportunity. It was with something like this in mind that a colleague and I found ourselves behind the scenes in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, several months ago. Both members of an ERC-funded project on the Bible and Antiquity in Nineteenth-Century Culture at CRASSH, Cambridge, we were putting together a series of talks on ‘Victorian Passions’. What you see in the galleries is usually only the tip of the iceberg, and we were keen to see what we could find stashed in the stores. Our search owed much to the condescension of early twentieth-century trend-setters. While Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and H.G. Wells’s Joan and Peter (both 1918) famously mocked their parents’ values, curators and cultural commentators began at around the same time to question their aesthetic judgment too, hiding nineteenth-century works in vaults where many still languish. Popular decorative art was still more derided. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word ‘tat’ was coined in 1951 to describe Georgian and Victorian kitsch fit only to be flogged. Even now the term ‘Victorian’ conjures up claustrophobic drawing rooms brimming with furniture, textiles, lavish patterns and clashing colours, every surface groaning with bric-a-brac.
What you see in the galleries is usually only the tip of the iceberg, and we were keen to see what we could find stashed in the stores.
What we found in the Fitzwilliam Museum, however, was more than just a riot of bad taste. One of the key concerns of our project has been to examine the Victorian obsession with ancient pasts, and the unsettling effect of that encounter on ideas and beliefs. Ever since Tertullian (‘what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’) the relationship between the Bible and classical antiquity has posed vexed questions for Christians. But in the light of new discoveries the relationship between them became in the nineteenth century a site of intense debate. If Homer did not write the Iliad – or even exist – what were the implications for how Isaiah or Jeremiah were to be read? And if the classical texts through which public schoolboys, the future rulers of empire, learnt to parse Greek and Latin were at odds with Judaeo-Christian understandings of morality, how did this affect their usability? While our first two talks investigated the impact of Mediterranean travel and tourism and changing scholarly ideas about ancient manuscripts, in our third we wanted to investigate the home: to see how the Bible, the Classics and the tensions they generated played out in the terraced streets of Cambridge as well as among its ancient colleges. Hence our trip to the stores. Because while the decorative objects that cluttered the shelves are today seldom displayed, in the nineteenth century they might well have been found at the spiritual centre of hearth and home: on the Victorian mantelpiece.
In the grand setting of Gallery Two our display felt more like the Antiques Roadshow
This needed a bit of imagination. As the photograph shows, we didn’t quite manage a mantelpiece: in the grand setting of Gallery Two our display felt more like the Antiques Roadshow. But it was striking, nevertheless, to see such a range of items not just individually but set out together, with their wildly clashing colours, styles and stories. Part of our point was to underline the potential ambivalence and tension in middle-class, middlebrow décor. The mantelpiece was a place poised between the public and the private: a place of display but also domestic cosiness, juxtaposing personal items with the commemoration of public events, and bringing together religious or moralizing scenes with classical nudes. Here one’s religious allegiances might well be showcased. But belief was not easily separable from celebrity culture, mass-production and consumerism.
What ought we to make, for example, of the rather natty Moses and the Ten Commandments watchstand, above? Or this faintly macabre plaster cast of the right hand of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, below? The original owner might well have seen this as a contact relic of the hand that composed the oratorios Paul and Elijah, the latter being among the most widely performed pieces of the century and a favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Then again, he or she might simply have viewed it as a curio of one of the great men of the age. It’s hard to tell.
For consumers and producers alike, belief melded into taste, fashion and a host of other things. The American preachers Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey were evangelical heroes, to be sure, but they were also figures whose fame spread far beyond the massive numbers who turned up to their meetings to belt out catchy revivalist hymns. While the Staffordshire potteries that churned them out were a hotbed of Methodism and Nonconformity, their workers seem to have had few qualms about churning out popes, haloed saints and a range of other celebrities according to the dictates of fashion and current events. Besides, religion was a sphere in which individual taste and self-fashioning mattered, all the more so in the near-identical suburban terraces that marched steadily out of British towns and cities during our period. Anyone who has read George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody (1892) will be familiar with the struggle of lower middle-class clerks, shopkeepers, small businesspeople and their families to show that they had arrived socially and intellectually. One contemporary tellingly noted what he saw in front windows: ‘Bamboo stands with ferns in giant egg-shells. Webster’s dictionary. A stuffed cockatoo. St Paul’s Cathedral in white wax. Bust of the late Mr Spurgeon. Portrait of Her Majesty. The Three Graces under glass shade.’ Among the forgotten features of this world were organizations such as the Crystal Palace Art Union, whereby upwardly aspirant members subscribed a guinea a year to enter a prize draw for a high-quality copy of a great work of sculpture, such as the parianware bust of Purity placed at the centre of our display. Classical themes predominated. To an extent that may seem surprising given prudish caricatures of the Victorians, nineteenth-century people were often pretty relaxed about artistic nudity: witness this arrestingly painted Venus, again a Staffordshire product.
The items from which we managed to wring the most, though, were among the most everyday ones. ‘Abram Stop’ provides a fantastic freeze-frame of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the knife poised but the main figure looking away towards an invisible rescuing angel.
Or take these biblical subjects, Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath: a classic pairing on many a mantelpiece. Fashioned from earthenware rather than fine china, these would be within the range of workers with a small disposable income. They might be sold at street stalls, at fairs and at the seaside.
If the theme was biblical, classical art and prints often provided much of the stylistic inspiration. These are Sherratt pearlware, known for its floral details and marbled patterning. Features of the story are picked out: the ravens who fed Elijah in the wilderness; the widow’s miraculous oil jar, helpfully labelled ‘oil’ for the benefit of the ignorant observer. Painters clearly decided their own colours: while the figures themselves are gently orientalising, their clothes are given fetching floral prints: more Victorian Staffordshire than the Ancient Near East! Interesting questions can be posed as to what they were used for. We might see them in conjunction with quilting or samplers as a way of remembering familiar stories or teaching them to children.
Recently I have published an edited book on saints in nineteenth-century Britain. In assembling it I was constantly struck by how little the materiality of Victorian religion has been examined, in comparison with earlier periods where the documentary record is sparser. This talk prompted me to reflect more deeply on the importance of context; on the work done by images and objects both alongside and apart from texts; and on how consumerism constantly disrupted neat theological categories and boundaries. Items that would have been condemned as idolatrous in a church or chapel were part of the furniture at home. Our talk represented just one way of thinking about how religion was lived in everyday life, with all the messiness that this entailed. But in years to come, twenty-first century historians, just as much as nineteenth-century consumers, are likely to return with increasing regularity to a time-worn question: what does your stuff say about you?
I am grateful to my friend and art history colleague Kate Nichols, whose very different disciplinary training provided such fascinating and challenging insights during our preparation for this series.
Magdalene College, Cambridge