Session 10C: Imperial Novelties and Antiquities

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10C. Imperial Novelties and Antiquities

Eric Gidal (Iowa): "'A Useful Companion and an Agreeable Remembrancer': Novelty and Antiquarianism in Guides to the British Museum"
Ya-feng Wu (National Taiwan U): "Anxiety of Empire: The Carthaginian Theme in Turner"

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"'A Useful Companion and an Agreeable Remembrancer:' Novelty and Antiquarianism in Guides to the British Museum"
Eric Gidal
University of Iowa

This paper studies the rhetorical fusion of novelty and antiquarianism in guidebooks to the British Museum during the Romantic period. As supplementary signs of exhibitionary experience, these escorts mediate between curious spectators and various objects, employing aesthetic tropes of novelty, beauty, and sublimity in nationalist productions of knowledge and value. From the first enumerative descriptions of the collections in the 1760s to the elaborately staged meditations of the 1820s, these guidebooks provide liturgies for the progressive narratives portrayed in the museum's holdings, interpolating the visitor as a national citizen through his or her participation in the exhibitionary rite. As both companions and tutors, they must simultaneously promote and contain the curiosity of the museum's visitors through recourse to aesthetic gratification and pedagogical control. After briefly surveying some of the earliest guided accounts of the museum, I attend to the anonymous Guide to the Beauties of the British Museum (1826) as a marker of the continuities and transformations of the guidebook's generic and institutional imperatives.

As an institution founded in 1753 "not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and the curious, but for the general use and benefit of the public" (Acts & Votes. 26 George II), the British Museum marks a union of legitimacy and desire both aesthetic and social. The contested status of the nation as a denomination of collective and individual identity insures that its employment by those who arrange and visit the museum, those pressed to view and understand the museum as a formal whole, will need to grapple with the ambivalences of national identity on the level of exhibitionary representation. Conversely, the competing exhibitionary logics of the museum as a genre of cultural expression inform the conceptual identification of the nation as a coherent body. As distinctions of education, class, and gender contest with categories of national identity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the correlation between taste and social orientation presents a recurring obstacle for the consolidation of a national body around a cultural institution constituted of fundamentally class-based distinctions.

Within this contested representational domain, the museum's initial guidebooks stake out an important rhetorical position as both companion and guide, a position figured in consistently gendered and class-marked terms. The guidebook is both of the people and of the nation, terms it seeks to identify through exhibitionary communion. Edmund Powlett's General Contents of the British Museum: With Remarks. Serving as a Directory in Viewing that Noble Cabinet (1761) constructs the museum as a sign of debt between the public and its benefactors and between its female readers and their masculine tutor, though it offers little more than enumeration of the museum's various holdings. Other early guides such as Alexander Thomson's Letters on the British Museum (1767), and the Rev. Warden Butler's Walk through the British Museum (1767) experiment with epistolary meditation and dramatic staging as affective means of negotiating between the desire for novelty and the sanction of edification. Thomson stages a sequence of imaginative reveries propelled by his insatiable thirst for specular gratification, while Butler dramatizes a host of young ladies and their matron as they are led through the museum by a pair of alternatively flirtatious and instructive male guides. Aesthetic desire and rational improvement play out a complex drama in these early guidebooks as they describe a sequence of natural and cultural objects and prescribe the means for their national appreciation.

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the British Museum had asserted itself as a premier repository of antiquities and had become more aggressively concerned with aesthetic promotion and ideological dissemination. Guidebooks of the period reflect these expanded ambitions as they fuse drama and reverie to cast the visitor as a performative subject in the museum's progressive narrative of national ascendancy. Staking its claim to the supplementary role established over 60 years earlier by Powlett, the Guide to the Beauties of the British Museum positions itself as "a useful companion and an agreeable remembrancer." Yet the Guide is a far more sophisticated supplement, offering a companion which not only reproduces the aesthetic and archaeological commonplaces of its time, but which sublimates the relation between visitor and guide in a productive narrative of national authority and imperial administration. Tensions between specular seduction and intellectual gratification, transparently performed as social drama in earlier guidebooks, are now replayed as elements of disinterested aesthetic appreciation, casting subjective judgment as the mark of domestic national consolidation and global historical progression.

Focusing on the chaste beauties of Greek and Roman antiquities and the sublime terror of Egyptian idolatry, the Guide is less an original contribution to antiquarian discourse and more an enactment of this discourse within the institutional context of a national museum. Both classical and Egyptian statuary are noted for their simultaneous proximity and distance from mimetic truth, the former elevating the viewer towards intellectual beauty, the latter haunting him with nightmarish apparitions. As predicates for the guidebook's simultaneous narratives of cultural progression and individual refinement, these aesthetic prescriptions both enable and haunt the national teleology of the museum's holdings. The British cultural subject is said to have transcended sensual communion for intellectual beauties "more permanent and complete," but the comprehension of Egyptian relics impresses a possible distinction between the power of the past and the knowledge of the present, recasting later cultures as overly-refined. "Leaving this question for the philosopher to solve," the Guide to the Beauties of the British Museum remains an ideologically contradictory program of progressive optimism and memorial longing. The Guide's employment of the characteristic Romantic tropes of pleasing fancy and pensive melancholy ultimately produces a subject and object of exhibitionary display as fragmentary and contradictory as the nation it helps to signify and enable.

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"Anxiety of Empire: The Carthaginian Theme in Turner"
Ya-feng Wu
National Taiwan University

In the 1810s amid the heat of the Napoleonic war, J. M. W. Turner launches the second decade of his academic career with a radical appropriation of ancient history, that is, the rise and fall of Carthage. The Carthaginian theme for Turner presents a site for the intersections of various discourses: painting, poetry, history, politics, and mythology. The first two ever contend for ascendancy; whereas the last three converge under the rubric of empire. The five ramifications of the subject are charged with an intensely personal emotion, which remains an abiding concern throughout his career. This essay seeks to examine how Turner by endowing new meanings to this episode of ancient history announces his conscience as a poet-painter-prophet to his country embroiled in an accelerating chain of events.

Turner's first treatment of the theme, 'Snowstorm: Hannibal with His Army Crossing the Alps' (1812), exhibited for the first time with excerpts from his own verse, 'The Fallacies of Hope', taps on a contemporary debate concerning the future of Britain, a debate well began in the second half of the 18th century and became heated in the wake of the Napoleonic war. Both sides of the debate agree in the comparison of the British Empire with the Roman Empire: one that considers the rise of Britain as assured in the historical precedent of the rise of Rome against Carthage, like Thomson, etc.; the other that considers the fall of Rome as a warning to imperial expansion, like Goldsmith, Shelley, etc. The analogy of Rome / Carthage with the British Empire in this age of Gibbon remains largely ambiguous. The discursive arena concerning this debate provides a backdrop for our understanding of a similar complication in the imaginative arena. Furthermore, these two arenas find their interaction best represented in the case of Turner.

Turner's engagement with the Carthaginian subject shows a compelling energy brought out by the dual-framework of history and mythology. Romantic mythography maintains that through myth we might reclaim an access to an original union with nature and God, which is lost to the modern man. Turner's investigation into the solar myth, as in 'Apollo and Python' (1811) and 'Angel standing in the sun' (1846), parallels with his exploration of the historical subjects, as in ' Hannibal' (1812) and 'Regulus' (1828 / 1837). The ambivalent power of the sun to create and to destroy, and the trajectory of the sun's rise and decline, in Turner's paintings, underwrite the course of human endeavour, both iconographically and compositionally. Moreover, the myth-making potency inherent in the Carthaginian theme ultimately leads Turner to see it as preserving a private domain, enabling him to spell out his personal vision of the world and of himself. This essay attempts to discuss the controversy concerning empire within the matrix negotiated out of Edward Said's Orientalism (1979) and Nigel Leask's British Romantic Writers and the East (1992). Turner's paintings will be read closely in the semiotic manner as developed by Norman Bryson in Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (1990). Four groups of Turner's paintings will be examined. The first group is a direct response to the Napoleonic war: 'Snowstorm: Hannibal with his Army Crossing the Alps' (1812) and 'The Field of Waterloo' (1818). The former, produced in the heat of the war, can be read as an articulation of the fear that France may threaten England. But this painting challenges not only the historical but artistic hierarchy in its centralisation of the marginal figures, the wounded soldiers on both sides at the rear of Hannibal's army, and the transposition of human drama onto natural landscape. Turner's sympathy with the figures on the margin of history is carried into the more explicitly political canvas, 'The Field of Waterloo'. The painter's concern for human cost in imperial expansion even provokes opprobrium from conservative critics who accuse him of being 'non-patriotic', a censure similar to that imposed on Byron's third canto of 'The Childe Harold's Pilgrimage'. Turner, in the debate concerning the future of the British Empire, sees himself as a painter-poet-prophet, taking sides with ordinary people on the periphery of grand historical currents. His concern for and identification with the down-trodden leads him to portray subjects more closely related to Carthage, instead of Rome. The increasing intensity of emotion invested in this subject also encourages us to read Turner's concern as far more than following an artistic fad in depicting the picturesque ruins. He seems to see the future of the British Empire not only in the fate of Carthage, which is defeated by Rome, but also in the fate of Rome, whose vast empire will in due course dissolve itself. 'Hannibal' affirms Turner's optimism of the ascendancy of the British Empire with the sure downfall of the French, but at the same time his concern for the human casualty in the ravage of war amidst sublime nature also indicates an objection to imperial expansion. Discussion of these two paintings sets a paradigm of following sections of this essay.

The second group concentrates on the chronology of Dido and Aeneas: 'Dido and Aeneas' (1814), 'Dido Building Carthage' (1815), 'The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire' (1817). This group presents Turner's most ambitious challenge to Claude Lorraine. The tension of human drama is further transposed onto architectural elements, atmospheric aura and natural landscape. Other episodes related to the history of Carthage and Rome are treated in the third group: 'Regulus' (1828, 1837),'The Golden Bough' (1834). 'Regulus', concentrates on the story of the Roman general in the first Punic War, who was blinded and finally put to death by his Carthagianin captors. This painting conflates several temporal planes to depict the horror of being blinded by the sun. The human figures, including that of the titular hero are rendered nothing but miniatures. The dazzling sun becomes the central actor. Solar myth and human history are blended to articulate Tuner's view of the devastating currents and crosscurrents of history that never cease to demand human sacrifice. The composition of this painting, with a frontal depiction of the sun forces the viewers to take the stance of Regulus exemplifies an imperative in the Romantic art that exhorts active participation from its viewers.

The fourth group concentrates on two of Turner's final exhibited works in the 1850s: 'The Visit to the Grave' and 'The Departure of the Fleet'. At this final phase, Turner seems to review his own life in the tragic story of Aeneas and Dido. The canvases are occupied largely by the interplay of light and colour, with human figures reduced to dots on the atmospheric stage. The analogy of Rome / Carthage and the British Empire becomes intricately personalized. He well understands his own pivotal position in the history of English and European painting and also the potent implications of the Carthaginian subject in the development of the English School of art. By a continuous re-imagining and re-evaluating this subject from the past, Turner has definitely moulded himself as a painter-poet-prophet in a fast expanding Empire. Through a close investigation of the inter-relationship between the joint arena of the discursive and the imaginative, we may begin to have a clearer idea of the larger implications of the Carthaginian theme as an abiding personal concern for Turner.

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Last updated July 30, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell