We’re lucky, in Oxford, to have the Ashmolean Museum. It’s free, it’s beautiful; it runs amazing events; its collections are stunning. And last Friday, the museum very kindly allowed me to run a peripatetic class on Victorian literature, as we walked around its galleries.
I’d briefed the first-years in advance: I wanted them each to research and present on an object in the Ashmolean. They could choose anything – a painting, a sculpture, a pan – with one stipulation. Each presentation should show the audience how a better understanding of the object might illuminate some aspect of Victorian literature.
Not only does this exercise get the students speaking in public, semi-formal situations – something which isn’t emphasised in the tutorial-heavy Oxford course – but it encourages close consideration of historical and cultural contexts. Paintings and sculptures ask students to extrapolate aesthetic values between different disciplines; objects of everyday life, like vases or furniture, foreground lived experiences which may have informed a writer’s choice of language. Most of all, it stretches the students in skills they have been practising all term: making creative but credible connections between materials – quite disparate ones, in practice – within a convincing and well-structured narrative.
Our first presentation was on Fredric Lord Leighton’s ‘Acme and Septimus’.
The student focused – very productively – on the painting’s round shape, linking it to cyclical narrative and distorted perception in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil via William Empson’s essay ‘Circles‘. She drew our attention to how the colours in the background varied between reproductions – and she’s right; I couldn’t find a reproduction to use here which preserved the colours as they appeared in the museum!
Next we heard, from another student, about Feuchère’s bronze of Satan:
With a clear argumentative line – ‘is Hester in The Scarlet Letter a Romantic vision of Satan?’ – the student positioned the sculpture within a historical context where bronze sculpture was becoming more common, drawing links between the artist’s style and choices of phrasing in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
For a change of pace, the next object was a rather comical owl vase by Christopher Dresser (1834-1904).
The student linked this object with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which we had discussed as ‘nonsense-writing‘ earlier in the term. Discussing the influence of Eastern art on Dresser, and drawing our attention to the vase’s botanical aesthetics, he presented the vase as an artefact in which opposites were fused – East and West, mineral and vegetable, practical and artistic, wild and civilised – rather like the ‘Rocking-horse-fly’ in Alice, where nursery-language is incorporated into a taxonomy of the exotic.
We moved on to Frank Holl‘s haunting ‘Faces in the Fire’ (1863).
With a presentation which moved deftly between ‘Faces in the Fire’, other paintings by Holl, detailed analysis of Dickens’ Little Dorrit and an examination of its illustrations, the student showed us how motifs of entrapment and light operated across all these materials. She drew our attention to the hungry-looking kitten, the crack of light under the door and the hanging birdcage – all important details which a cursory inspection of the painting might have missed.
Next came our most unusual object:
A wonderful marble-and-stone table! This was a challenging object, and the student rose to the occasion. Telling us that the table would have been a show-piece in a room such as a library – a show of propriety, demonstrating the owner’s well-travelled, well-educated credentials – the student widened her focus to discuss themes of collection, travel and manners in Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Oscar Wilde‘s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Followed straight by another challenging artefact:
This artefact was dated from a little before the start of our period (1815, while our period begins in 1830), and originates from India – two challenges which the student presenter overcame by connecting this game to a lineage of board-game design, in India and in Victorian England, where ‘snakes and ladders’ was used to teach moral values and ideas about fate. She used these ideas to reflect on Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, his Just So Stories and Kim, referring forwards to Salman Rushdie and E.M. Forster.
I don’t have a picture of our last object! This was a classical statue of a young man, misidentified in the Victorian period as Dionysus. Highlighting detail of the sculptor’s aesthetic choices – for instance, the feet in the contrapposto position – the student foregrounded the social significance of marble to talk about Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853), and depictions of sculpture in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, broadening out well into ideas about patriarchy, male authority, Protestantism and aesthetic perfection.
I was blown away by how well the students did – a great deal of research, care and thought had clearly gone into all the presentations. They are now sharing their notes and handouts with each other: a common pool of contexts on which they can draw for interdisciplinary work.
I asked a kind passer-by to take a photo – here we all are, at the end of the class, posing with a headless statue:
Many thanks to the Ashmolean museum, and to the English first-years of St Anne’s College, Oxford!