The Visual Resources International Journal Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

In her introduction to the March 2006 issue of Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation Ann Bermingham suggests that the nineteenth-century transmutation of high art, from the classicising ideals of the eighteenth century to a conception of art based on individual innovation, rendered it less a force for social and cultural unity and more a forum for individual expression; she asserts however that this unified vision of the classical ideal was not lost, but relocated to popular culture. [1] With specific emphasis upon mass/multi-produced 'classical' statuary of the Staffordshire Potteries 1845-1870, this study examines the commercialisation of high art in mid-Victorian Britain to suggest that, not only did 'popular classicism' signal parvenu solidarity amongst the new burgeoning middle classes but also, due to the potential and limitations of materials and working practice this imagery, initially intended for an educated elite, was read quite differently when presented to and consumed by a less educated audience.

The consumption of high art as popular culture, specifically concerning mid-Victorian ceramics, appears overshadowed, nay non-existent, in current literature with most emphasising financial worth, establishing provenance and authenticity, or indicating the 'antique' or 'collectable' value of the piece. This void in the literature not only delimits the way we comprehend the statuary, but also denies its importance as an aid to understanding the society for which it was intended, it is therefore the focus of this study to consider how these forms of visual representation were understood within the mid-Victorian home and whether, inadvertently or not, the ideals of 'classic' design were eschewed in an effort to maintain commercial viability.

In order to identify the impact that physical, commercial and societal constraints had upon the manufacture of this statuary, a Baxandalian/Clarkian approach to analysis is taken. However, where Michael Baxandall employs a purely visual analysis of three-dimensional work, as in The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, the scope of this study allows, or even necessitates, a more comprehensive sensory analysis taking into account not only ocular investigation but also haptic, tactile exploration and the effects of olfactory association; this multi-sensory analysis allowing for a more intimate engagement with the ceramic figures, an experience not had through vision alone. [2] 

As we live our lives we accumulate a bank of subconscious memory traces, memories conceived through our continual sensory engagement with the world, memories which remain in our minds charged with the emotions which accompanied the original experience. [3] These subconscious associations then engender intuitive responses to visual representation, subsequently, by keeping our minds receptive to memories which the physical attributes of the form might evoke, interpretation of medium, technique and process becomes equally as relevant as interpretation of subject matter. This deeper, multi-sensory analysis goes some way to align with theories propounded by Alex Potts who, in The Sculptural Imagination concurs with Johann Gottfried Herder that the apprehension of sculpted forms can only truly be had through haptic engagement; that 'the sense of touch gives us a true, direct sense of the shape and disposition of things in depth, which we can only infer from sight'. [4] Chapter Three of this study does however question this assertion citing Maurice Merleau-Ponty's 'embodiment' theories to suggest that a haptic engagement can also effect to delimit the visual experience.

Drawing upon a personal bank of twenty-first century sensory experience in the analysis of mid-nineteenth century art necessitates consideration of Baxandall's concept of the 'period eye', a concept which suggests that the knowledge and culture of past viewers attuned them to aspects of viewing at variance to our own. In an attempt to elucidate and recover this mode of perception, issues surrounding ideas of 'context' are considered taking Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson's semiological approach into account which posits that 'context is produced and is itself a text consisting of signs that require interpretation'. [5] To this end the mid-Victorian mindset regarding such issues as homophobia, nudity and incest is taken into consideration as initial designs undergo an 'editing' or 'modifying' process to finished product; this process sometimes due to material limitations, but also, as aforementioned, to maintain the images' commercial viability in a market dogged by Victorian ethics and morals.


Perplexed by a dearth of information regarding the commercialisation of high art, specifically ceramics of mid-Victorian Britain, this study began with puzzled questions about how these forms of visual representation were understood and whether physical, social or commercial constraints seriously affected the way the pieces were interpreted. Beginning with formal analyses of miniaturised Parian porcelain versions of classical statuary, initially construed as status markers for aspiring middle classes, this study demonstrates that these statuettes were not direct representations of their originator, consequently they functioned quite differently within the mid-Victorian home. An in-depth analysis of John Gibson's marble Narcissus saw him adhering to classicizing ideals of perfection, harmonious balance and a unity of parts to elicit the existential contemplation required to penetrate the Ovidian/Pausanian fable, the reproduction by Copeland & Garratt Ltd. on the other hand, did not function thus. The change of material from a relatively consistent solid upon which the sculptors mark would remain unchanged, to the unpredictability of working with a liquid slip whose physical properties morph and transmute in the working process gave rise to a form which no longer complied with the classical ideal. This, combined with Victorian ethics regarding nudity and homosexuality, engendered an interpretation very much at variance to Gibson's original form, the Parian 'replica' now translated as a technological breakthrough and demonstrative of its owner's scientific understanding, as an emblem of its owners financial acumen, as well as signifying an identification with notional 'good taste'.

This transmutation of classical imagery to meet the needs of a less educated consumer is also considered with reference to Copeland's Clytie, initially a signifier of loss and sorrow, the image when mass-produced in Parian porcelain and distributed amongst a wider audience inhered erotic associations totally at variance to the original form. This transmutation it is argued, not only due to the 'nudity' of the material but also the ability for a physical engagement which the original large, unique forms disallow. By introducing nude imagery into the private viewing space of the mid-Victorian parlour, both 'looking' and 'touching' become permissible as psychological boundaries erected when viewing in public are negated. This tactile engagement however works on two scales; it brings the viewer into a closer communion with the object which paradoxically, negates interpretative strategies dependent upon a distanced view thus inhering it with a reading divergent to the original form.

A haptic connection with the human form, which Parian porcelain invites, is then contrasted in Chapter Two with evidence of tactile distantiation brought through physical and social barriers. The classically inspired Majolica Blackamoors, after Albert Ernest Carrier de Belleuse and initially described by Joan Jones as 'decorative conservatory ware' (which to my mind construes it as 'functionless') is discussed via distantiating physical properties of the medium, the publics' notion of 'deepest, darkest Africa' and a 'semiotic superabundance' to identify how the figures function to generate a distinction between the viewer as Occidental 'self' and the object as Oriental (stereotyped) 'other'. A consideration of the species-variety debate prevalent at this time combined with a redefinition of the term 'savage' however allows the Blackamoors to be read as indicative of an increased interest in a physiological approach to natural history; as biological specimens elevated upon pedestals intended to edify the spectator and therefore demonstrative of their owners education and learning. These somewhat disparate readings then engender a 'tension in perception', the viewer is distantiated from, or even repulsed by, the physicality of the form yet at the same time he/she is driven to identify with it; 'savagery' understood in this context as an inner disposition common to both primitive and civilised humanity and therefore innate.

A drive to economical and cost-effective mass-production, combined with extreme limitations in both working practice and physical material properties, engender the Staffordshire portrait figurines of Chapter Three with form no longer comparable to the inspirational bronze. Taken alongside poor literacy levels amongst producers (and perhaps consumers) the potter appears to have stripped analogy to its bear minimum, attempting to make the meaning obvious and explicit with the introduction of a title on the base. However, without the three-dimensionality which the original form demands and the opportunity for a multi-sensual engagement the forms cannot be read similarly; if anything the Staffordshire figurines, so far removed from their source by material, process and consumer requirements (as 'flat' chimney ornaments) should be considered as artworks in their own right which demand interpretations independent from source.

As this study demonstrates, the commercialisation of high art during the mid-Victorian period demanded that new materials and techniques be employed to economically produce, what could be described as, 'novelty goods' for a less educated and culturally diverse audience. As a consequence, the interpretation of this imagery appears wholly dependent upon both the producers' and consumers' socio-economic and socio-cultural frames of reference, upon the potential and limitations of materials used, upon the needs and aspirations, values and principles of the consumer. By identifying how this imagery operated within the home then we not only come closer to understanding the social imperatives regarding its consumption but also strategies employed by the producer to secure and maintain the products' commercial viability. However, in order to comprehend how these products were understood, interpretational strategies must be employed which surpass a delimiting visual analysis to incorporate not only a broader, multi-sensory approach to engagement but also a consideration of the delimiting constraints brought about through material limitations, consumer expectations and the mindset of the 'period eye'. This study leaves the field wide open for further, much needed research.