A Response to ‘BAVS Conference 2018: Where were the art historians?’ or What the Interdisciplinary Conference can do for Victorian Art Studies

Suzanne Bode is a freelance art history lecturer and teacher of German literature and language in Prague. She completed her Masters at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 1995. Suzanne worked for Christie’s Auctioneers and subsequently English Heritage between 1995-2005. She lectures in 19th and 20th century art and her subjects have included: The Bloomsbury Artists; Women Impressionists; and Victorian Art and the Sensation Novel. She can be found tweeting happily on her research and exhibition discoveries @suzkabode


Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Ophelia, 1851-2, Tate Britain, Photo: Tate Gallery, London, 2011.

In her September blog post Where were the art historians? Melissa L. Gustin raised awareness of the relatively small number of art historians taking part in the 2018 BAVS Conference. I counted just two! Highlighting possible reasons, she suggested this may be due to shyness (we are a rather delicate breed, I admit), and recommended possible ways of enticing more of us either through specialist caucuses or the introduction of strands encouraging a more targeted submission of conference papers. Having not yet had the pleasure to attend a BAVS conference, I would not presume to express a preference. However, I would like to thank her for raising awareness and to further explore the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration in Victorian studies from an art history perspective.

The question ‘Where were the all art historians?’ is an important one but we should perhaps also turn it around and ask ‘do art historians even need to attend more interdisciplinary conferences’? Surely, we have our own art history conferences, where we are safe to discuss the finer details of painting and sculpture among a knowledgeable and receptive audience. I would like to humbly suggest that this attitude is mistaken and where it prevails can be damaging to the very subject specialism we cherish. I would like to illustrate why through my own recent experiences at the Substance Use and Abuse in the Long 19th Century conference held at Edge Hill University this September. 

I first learnt about #Substance18 through twitter and as I eagerly submitted my proposal on  Pre-Raphaelite Art and the Influence of Opium on Ways of Seeing, little did know that I would be the only art historian delivering a paper. Luckily for me the conference organisers Laura Eastlake and Andy McInnes had read Melissa’s article and were keen to include a broad range of speakers. A healthy dose of curiosity and open-mindedness among the conference organising committee and raised awareness through the BAVS Blog had ensured that one more art historian was able to attend!

What had prompted me to write the paper was that current perceptions of pre-Raphaelite art veered between a sensationalised version of the lives of the artists (including Elizabeth Siddal’s death through opium addiction) as shown in the BBC 2009 drama Desperate Romantics, and a feeling among the general public that it is remote, dusty and far less exciting than Impressionist or Contemporary Art. This is strange, when we know that the  pre-Raphaelite artists were valued and vilified by the Victorians as much for their radical style as for the content of their art. What was it that the Victorians could see, that we do not?

Looking back at the press coverage for the most recent exhibitions dedicated to pre-Raphaelites, I saw even more signs of disengagement and indifference. The last major exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde organised in 2013 by Tate Britain comprised over 180 works, yet several reviewers complained that the paintings were uninspiring and outdated. The Telegraph’s Alastair Smart wrote:

Pre-Raphaelite art is so familiar it forms part of our national collective DNA. With its sickly bright colours, lack of perspective, visual overload and faux-chivalric scenes of medieval romancing, it’s a Marmite movement that some love, I myself loathe, but everyone has an opinion on.

As a new Edward Burne-Jones exhibition opens this month at Tate Britain the situation remains unchanged, Jonathan Jones in The Guardian writes:

To put it bluntly, Burne-Jones is a stupid artist. That is very striking in this exhibition’s recreation of an entire room that he decorated with scenes from the story of Sleeping Beauty. These paintings of briar roses and sleeping knights are all detail and no thought, a steam engine romantic’s prose masquerading as poetry.


Edward Burne-Jones 1833-1898, The Rose Bower, 1885-1890, Photo: The Faringdon Collection Trust.

Could it be that successive curators and art historians have failed to expand the public’s understanding precisely because they have chosen to attend art history conferences, creating an echo chamber of received wisdom that PRB artists looked back to the medieval world for inspiration and sought primarily to escape the industrialised world?

If we are to move away from art appreciation and towards the study of art as a historical object, then art historians have a responsibility to offer a more complex picture of the Victorian age. Alice Procter, an art activist, with her Uncomfortable Art Tours aiming to explore the connections between empire, slavery and art in our national collections does just this. It should not be a surprise to anyone that the links exist but her work was deemed controversial enough for the Daily Mail to report and condemn her. Art historians, although shy and reclusive creatures can, it would seem, rattle cages when necessary.

And so to return to the question of how to attract more of us to the BAVS conference. I would say that from my own experience, the effort must come from both sides.  #Substance18 for me was a hugely positive experience. I was able to move away from the rather boring premise that the hyper-real style of the PRB’s was mainly a response to the daguerreotype and instead was able to extend my understanding of the quest for altered realities through opium (academically not literally). Through an excellent paper  by Anna Rowntree, I gained an altogether broader understanding of how such mind-expanding experiences of nature and cityscapes may have influenced John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, 1851-52 and Henry Wallis’ Chatterton, 1856 (see the first image and below). 


Henry Wallis (1830-1916), Chatterton, 1856, Tate Britain, Photo: Tate, London, 2011.


A detail of the above’s London cityscape reminiscent of a scene in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1821.

Susan Zieger’s keynote paper further confirmed the mechanical efficiency of Victorian logistics, leading me to think about the patronage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti by key figures such as the shipping millionaire Frederick Leyland. Leyland made his fortune through the tea trade with China and profited hugely from the upswing in trade following the Opium Wars. His opulent hangings of PRB trophies resulting from his capitalist buccaneering (images below), seem to offer a far better context than the plain exhibition walls on which PRB art is often so displayed.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882, Lady Lilith 1866-68 altered 1872-73, Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary Bancroft Memorial 1935, Photo: Delaware Art Museum.


Photograph of the drawing room of Frederick Richards Leyland at 49 Princes Gate, London. Showing 6 paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Photo appeared in book “Waking Dreams”, 2004, Delaware Art Museum. This copy is from a blog online, 1892. Photo: Bedford Lemere.

Finally, the conference increased my awareness of a group of young artists, working at the heart of a thriving and at times brutal Imperial city, which was every bit as fascinating as Paris – the City of Light – the birthplace of Impressionism. A paper on the craze for American cocktails by Bob Nicholson illuminated Britain’s complex anxieties about America’s global ambitions, while fin de siècle literature papers by Douglas Small and Natalie Roxburgh on the use of cocaine in the domestic sphere suggested that the sexual tensions in pre-Raphaelite interior scenes are far more about lack or loss of masculine control than a cultivation of sexual freedom.

Victorian studies, I feel, can do much to help us understand the Victorian age and ourselves. The curatorship of some current PRB exhibitions seems to be scratching the surface, as it focuses on the visual and ignores the rich social, economic and literary environments in which the art was created. It is to be hoped that BAVS with its strong contingent of PGR and ECR members will find new ways of publicising BAVS 2019 among art historians and encourage more of us to present and take advantage of the rich cross-fertilisation of ideas available at conference.

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