Victorians Unbound, or the ‘modern malady of unlimited appreciativeness’

Elena Rimondo is an honorary research fellow at the University of Venice, where she completed her PhD in 2016 with a thesis on Thomas Hardy and architecture. Her research interests lie in the Victorians and the arts, in particular John Ruskin and Thomas Hardy. She has published articles on Hardy in the Hardy Review and the Hardy Society Journal. In 2016 she won the Patrick Tolfree Student Essay Competition, organised by the Thomas Hardy Society. She is currently working on Hardy and the opera.

When I read the title of the CfP for the 2017 BAVS Annual Conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’, I immediately had the feeling that my research interests, i.e. Thomas Hardy, the arts and the built environment, were being called into question. My impression was confirmed when I went through the CfP, which read: ‘This conference will respond to both the dissonance and synchronicity of the codifying impulse of classification, definition, and normalisation, which coexisted with the ambitions of modernity, creativity, exploration, and the pursuit of knowledge. The ability to define, circumscribe, and classify exhibited by the Victorians enabled a Promethean drive to accomplish, challenge, and expand.’ And indeed on top of the list of topics included in the CfP you could find ‘Architecture and the built environment, the rural and sub/urban’. Here I am, I said to myself. In writing my thesis I had partially addressed the question of Victorian architects and restorers driven by the ‘codifying impulse of classification’, and also hinted at the coexistent ambition to experiment and expand. But that ‘unbound’ featuring in the title also led me to consider another aspect where architecture played an essential role, that is to say the peculiar relationship the Victorians entertained with the past. They were indeed ‘unbound’ in their appreciation of the Middle Ages and its art, to the point that historical and philological accuracy were often kept in the background. In my view, the word ‘unbound’ was in some way linked to the idea of entertaining an uncritical relationship with the past and its artistic products. ‘Un-bound’, that is, ‘with no bonds’, which led me to think of freedom, a word endowed with positive connotations. Yet in considering the relationship between the Victorians and the artefacts of the past, I was led to connect the lack of bonds with recklessness, rather than with freedom.

However, this was, as I said, the second chain of thoughts triggered by the CfP, and as I started devising a possible paper to deliver at the conference, I preferred to analyse the apparent contradiction between the impulse to classify and the wish to experiment characterising the Victorians through two novels by Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes and A Laodicean. But you cannot suppress a thought until it is given its proper outlet, so this post is devoted to this never-born paper.

That Victorian architecture can be defined as ‘unbound’ there is little doubt. If an extraterrestrial landed on the United Kingdom, he or she would never assume these constructions to be more or less coeval:

westminster

The Palace of Westminster, rebuilt between 1840 and 1870 in Perpendicular Gothic Revival

rah

The Royal Albert Hall, built between 1867 and 1871 in Italianate style

 

pancras

St Pancras railway station, completed in 1868 in Gothic revival

forthbridge.png

The Forth Bridge near Edinburgh built between 1882 and 1890

In the so-called ‘Battle of Styles’, the Gothic Revival imposed itself on the other styles, but the Victorians’ fascination with other styles and, consequently, with other epochs was by no means suppressed. By the way, here I could as well have written ‘the Victorians’ fascination with other epochs and, consequently, with other styles’, for it is not always sure what comes first in the process of the re-enactment of the past. I tend to propend for the former solution because our knowledge of and relationship with the world, past and present, usually comes from visual stimuli. Here it is worth reminding that the Victorians’ approach to the styles of architecture was ‘unbound’ not only from a chronological, but also a geographical point of view. And to be more precise, the two tendencies were often strictly linked, in that architects did not adopt past styles of architecture in their local expressions, but preferred foreign variants or even exotic styles. I had the opportunity of seeing a representative example of this combination of spatial and chronological boundlessness just a few days before the conference while carrying out some research in London, where I went to visit Leighton House. The highlight of Frederic Leighton’s house is of course the Arab Hall, decorated with tiles of various ages the Pre-Raphaelite painter had collected in the Middle East.

arabhall.png

The Arab Hall (1877-79) at Leighton House, London

Thus ‘unbound’ architects and commissioners found a source of inspiration in Italian, Islamic and Greek art, just to mention the most frequent choices. In looking at Victorian architecture, though, one never considers that the fascination with past and unfamiliar buildings might have stirred a deep sense of frustration in contemporary architects and other professionals. Yet Thomas Hardy, who had been an architect himself in his youth, wrote a novel where this feeling emerges with clarity. George Somerset and Paula Power, the two protagonists of A Laodicean, are equally affected by ‘the ‘modern malady of unlimited appreciativeness’,[1] although Hardy uses these words to describe the cause of the sense of disgust experienced by Somerset, a young budding architect. Why is he disgusted? The cause lies in the very ‘unbound’ relationship with the past and its architecture George shares with his contemporaries. Free to appreciate any kind of architectural beauty, Somerset had admired different past art-forms and architects in turn, but only to reach the conclusion that ‘all styles were extinct, and with them all architecture as a living art’.[2] Somerset and Paula, the daughter of a railway magnate who wavers between Medievalism and Hellenism, keep looking back to the past, which intensifies their distrust (or, better, disgust) in the future of architecture. Hardy would provide a sort of sequel to Paula and George’s story with Jude the Obscure, whose eponymous hero idealises Christminster’s Gothic colleges to the point of turning them into idols. But at the same time Hardy warned us against indiscriminate restorations and the obliteration of the past and its architecture. Because virtue always stands in the middle.

 

Works Cited:

[1] Thomas Hardy, A Laodicean [1881], ed. John Schad, London, Penguin, 1997, Book the First, Ch. I, p. 7.

[2] Ibidem, p. 5.

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