You can compare the tactility, or lack of same, of your imagination, to that of the Victorians at Birkbeck (University of London) on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 July, at the conference currently (and for evermore) known as The Victorian Tactile Imagination.
“You people who can see attach such an absurd importance to your eyes! I set my touch, my dear, against your eyes, as much the most trustworthy, and much the most intelligent sense of the two”. (Wilkie Collins, Poor Miss Finch, 1872)
It sounds like a genuinely intriguing conference, based on the following description (from the official website):
This conference will explore the various ways in which the Victorians conceptualised, represented, experienced, performed and problematized touch. What does touch signal in nineteenth-century art and literature, and how is it variously coded? How are hands and skin – tactile appendages and surfaces – imagined in the period? By investigating the Victorian imaginary of touch, the conference will address and reappraise some of the key concepts and debates which have shaped Victorian studies in the past twenty years – in particular the emphasis on visuality as the dominant mode via which subjectivities and power were effected in the period: not least Jonathan Crary’s influential thesis that the nineteenth century witnessed a pervasive ‘separation of the senses’. The conference aims to investigate instead the workings of a more textured vision and reanimate the interoperability of sight and touch in nineteenth century culture.
The conference will also extend and build upon recent critical studies that have begun to explore nineteenth-century tactility in relation to material culture, bodies, and the emotions. By focusing closely on touch and tactility, it aims to establish whether and in what terms we might talk about a Victorian ‘aesthetics of touch’, and to explore how touch constructs and disrupts, for example, class and gender identities. It will also consider the historical trajectories of touch, asking, for example, in what ways does touch mark or blur the divide between Victorianism and Modernism?
In recent years I’ve been dallying with a comparative study of gesture in medieval and Victorian art, and I’m most intrigued to see how the discussions of Victorian touch will compare. Sadly, I’m only able to attend on the Saturday, but if anybody fancies a job as my scribe at the Friday sessions, I would be delighted to hear from you; I’d be even more delighted to discover that there will be a podcast of the presentations. The full programme is available here.
A recent research proposal, albeit of a more absolutely medieval hue, and not long submitted, focuses on the (un)dressing of medieval women. With that in mind, I’m especially interested by Saturday’s strand on textiles and surface:
I’m particularly interested in Professor Nead’s paper on Empress Eugénie, given that the only portrait of her that I know is the The Beach at Trouville (above), by Eugène Louis Boudin (1863, Oil on panel, 34.3 x 57.8 cm), on display at the Burrell Collection. You can only tell which of the many women she is if you know that she habitually wore white, which fact in itself links her to the medieval women dressed in white, such as Enide in Erec et Enide, or the women in the manuscript illustrations left and below. Is that another research project looming? It seems like not a day goes by that I don’t manage to find another aspect of medieval and/or Victorian art and culture that I want to take further. If ever anybody needed a Tardis or a time-turner….
Textured visions: writing, painting, photographing fashion. Chair: Dr Kara Tennant (University of South Wales). MAL 421
Clare Mullaney (University of Pennsylvania), “Weaving Queer Narratives: Employing Clothing to Refashion Temporalities” Professor Lynda Nead (Birkbeck, University of London), “Dressing the Surface: Fashion and Aesthetics in Franz Winterhalter’s Portrait of the Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Ladies of Honour, 1855” Dr Sarah Parsons (York University, Toronto), “In Praise of the Overwrought: Reconsidering William Notman’s Montreal Studio Portraits”
I can think of a few others who may enjoy this conference – Sian and Christina . If you look at Sian’s most recent post – Ghostly Apparitions and Matters of the Flesh: Millais’ ‘Speak! Speak!’ in Focus – you’ll see that we’ve been discussing some work on the aforementioned topic of the pale-skinned woman.
This session aside, all the papers being given at The Victorian Tactile Imagination conference look fascinating. I would love to be able to attend the Rossetti strand on Friday, but I will be mightily librarianing instead; as I said, I need a scribe, or perhaps a personal secretary with an eidetic memory. As it seems unlikely that I’ll be able to organise either of these in the next two weeks (busy busy busy), I hope that some of you reading this will be attending and writing up your experiences of the conference. If so, I hope to get to meet you at the conference – please do come and say hello!
The Victorian Tactile Imagination conference runs from Friday 19 to Saturday 20 July, at Birkbeck, University of London. It is organised by Birkbeck, University of London’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, with support from the Newcastle Institute for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, the British Academy, and the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS). BAVS are also providing four postgraduate/early career researcher bursaries; further details are available to download here. I hope everybody attending enjoys Friday and I will see you all on the Saturday!