Early in Camera Lucida (1981), his lyrical meditation on photography, Roland Barthes describes his squeamishness at having his picture taken. Unable “to work upon [his] skin from within,” Barthes determines
to ‘let drift’ over my lips and in my eyes a faint smile which I mean to be ‘indefinable,’ in which I might suggest, along with the qualities of my nature, my amused consciousness of the whole photographic ritual: I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing, but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality.11-12
Seen from the vantage-point of our current Facebook moment, Barthes’s discomfort (“I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image”) seems almost quaint (11). Nowadays there is nothing secret or even particularly embarrassing about the practice of virtual self-fashioning; we know our own faces only too well. To find a trace of innocence in the photographic portrait, one must look to photography’s earliest years, before the snapshot became a part of everyday life. “The first people to be reproduced entered the visual space of photography with their innocence intact,” writes Walter Benjamin; “The human countenance had a silence about it in which the gaze rested” (512). This silence was a salutary artlessness, the absence of a self-consciousness that would turn the body “in advance into an image.” Photography’s earliest subjects hardly knew what to expect from the photographic ritual, and for a fleeting moment at the birth of the new technology, they seemed liberated from the pressure to fashion themselves for public presentation. So unfamiliar was the process of having one’s picture taken that a daguerreotypist in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) tells of duping numerous customers into accepting strangers' photos as their own. One young woman, in too much of a hurry to wait for her photograph to develop, is given a picture of a widow as she is pushed out the shop-door. Before exiting, she looks at the image, aghast: “This isn’t me; it’s got a widow’s cap, and I was never married in all my life!” The narrator’s street-smart business partner responds with the deftness of an entrepreneurial con-man: “‘Oh, miss! why it’s a beautiful picture, and a correct likeness,’— and so it was, and no lies, but it wasn’t of her.—Jim talked to her, and says he, ‘Why this ain’t a cap, it’s the shadow of the hair,— for she had ringlets,—and she positively took it away believing that such was the case.” In conclusion, the daguerreotypist/narrator offers a startling insight: “The fact is, people don’t know their own faces,” he says; “directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own” (208-9).
I thought of this story a lot while reading Fashioning Faces, Elizabeth Fay’s impressive new book about the reflexivity of individuals living in the half-century or so before the invention of photography. Fay effectively excavates the Romantic origins of that Barthesian scene in which it is impossible to stand innocently before the camera, finding in the self-presentational strategies of these years something like a prequel to our present-day habits. Romanticism, she argues, was defined by reflexivity, as people “obsessively … looked for themselves to be reflected back, to be portrayed by the world of things” (1-2). Indeed, after reading this book, it seems almost impossible to believe in the innocence of early photographic portraiture – until, that is, one considers the rapidity with which that innocence evaporated. For the ease with which people acclimated to photographic conventions was no doubt conditioned by what Fay calls the “reflexive culture” of the British Romantic period, when “the rise of modern self-conception” took root (13).
Fashioning Faces elaborates an exciting new category, “the portraitive mode,” a supple concept centered on “portraiture writ large, portraitive practices rather than portraits per se” (8). The portraitive mode anchors Fay’s argument throughout, allowing her to account for a wide array of diverse but related phenomena. A fine line separates “eclectic” from “haphazard,” but Fay avoids the pitfalls of scholarly variety through substantive and detailed close readings, which emanate easily from a lithe conceptual vocabulary. At its most ambitious, Fashioning Faces sets the consumer mentality of the period in productive dialogue with the anti-commercial theory of Romantic imagination. The concept of reflexivity proves crucial throughout, tying disparate subjects together by a consistent focus on the ways that consumer psychology and self-conception contribute to a distinctive trait of the Romantic period: “a dynamic yoking of subjective desire, aesthetic awareness and its role in a moral code, and the self-portrayal this requires” (13).
The portraitive mode, as Fay explains it, is freighted with profound implications for the understanding of modern subjectivity. A compelling claim drives her study: “The overwhelming popularity of portraits and of portraitive objects and practices during the Romantic period has precisely to do with the highly contentious possibility that there is no sustained identity that will always and in every case be the same ‘I’.” Pitted “against the insecurity of a noncontinuous self,” the portraitive mode promises to “affirm a true identity and its higher aims” (3). It is no surprise to find Romantic poetry involved in a weighty philosophical discussion about the “possibility of a noncontinuous self” (3). What is refreshing, though, is the proportional seriousness that Fay brings to contemporary fashions. “Portraiture and portraitive practices,” she boldly claims, “provided an increasingly self-conscious Romantic period public with the means by which one could recognize oneself in, and project oneself onto, a rapidly changing world” (4).
Fashioning Faces productively sets the high-cultural work of Romantic poetry in dialogue with the middlebrow trends that so appalled the imaginative sensibilities of writers like Wordsworth, Blake, and Shelley. The wild diversity of Romantic-period culture, Fay argues, was held together by portraitive practices; where A. O. Lovejoy saw a bewildering range of discontinuous Romanticisms, Fay sees “the fascination with portraitive phenomena” as “intrinsic to the very character of Romantic period culture” (4). Autobiography, for instance, is presented as “a reflexive practice that attempts to explain the conjunctions and disjunctions between inner and outer” (9). Meanwhile, the interiority for which Romanticism is known is described in relation to the pervasive concern with what Fay calls “thingification”: “the possibility that the self was indeed an object, and could be taken as such” (7). This aspect of Romantic period culture is thus described as inextricable from Romanticism’s increasing emphasis on “interior identity and individual perspective,” for it signals “a concordant anxiety over being objectified or, rather, ‘thingified’,” as individuals faced the unsettling possibility that they were, at bottom, “nothing more than their collections or assemblage of things” (51).
Fay begins her book in counterintuitive fashion, by offering a close reading of nature imagery in Wordsworth’s Prelude. It is a daring gambit: this book’s explicit attention to the way that individuals “learned to shop for commodities and people in the visual parade of London’s fashionable districts, in the marriage market, and in publications of the popular press” (47) seems far indeed from the rocky contours of the Lake District. If one insists on opening such a study with The Prelude, that masterpiece of autobiographical interiority, one might reasonably turn to book seven – possibly to Wordsworth’s bald encounter with the “upright face” of the blind Beggar, a literary precursor to Paul Strand’s iconic 1916 portrait. Yet the achievement of Fashioning Faces is its demonstration of the integral place of the portraitive mode, which we readily associate with consumer fashions, within the broader conceptual framework of British Romanticism. Hence the surprising yet absolutely apt priority given to The Prelude, an imaginative work that evaded the marketplace during its author’s lifetime, a work that is practically metonymic for the Romantic enterprise as a whole. Opening with a detailed reading of the Wordsworthian engagement with nature (“the outward face of things”) pays off for Fay by anchoring her governing concept in the most canonical of literary texts – thus pre-empting the temptation some readers might feel to write off the portraitive mode as a concept belonging to cultural, and not literary, history. That Fay succeeds in bringing cultural and literary history together is significant given that the Romantics worked so hard to set literary production apart from the contemporary culture. (Only with the Romantics, it seems, could the achievement of so seemingly fundamental a union represent so great a triumph.)
Chapter 2 of Fashioning Faces will be familiar to readers of Nineteenth-Century Contexts. It treats of the increasing skill with which people read one another, and of the role of portraiture in this cultural learning process. Fay explores in this chapter the concept of congruence, which she calls “particularly representative of the Romantic period” (19). “Congruency,” she explains, “involves a give-and-take dynamic” between entrepreneurial producers and consumers, “a malleability of process, that also characterized other subjective and social interaction” (20). The concept is informed by what she playfully calls “a trickle-up effect”: “In the commercial effort to appeal to tastes emerging from different sectors of society, producers found themselves responding to, as much as forming, the tastes that would meet consumer desire” (16). The idea of congruence enables Fay to carefully explain a wide array of consumer practices that lay behind the literary practices of the writers we most often study – including, especially, portraiture. Although portraiture proper is less her focus than portraiture writ large, Fay offers an extremely illuminating classification and typology of the various kinds of portrait that flourished in the period (symbolic portrait, icon, exemplar, sign, fashionable portrait, private portrait). She also offers a detailed account of an idiosyncratic publishing phenomenon of the period, the textual portrait gallery. All the while, Fay makes clear the vital significance of actual portraits, not just within the portraitive mode but as a barometer of bigger cultural shifts. Painted portraits were, she argues, “the most important reference for the developing cultural self-reflexivity” of the era. “Because of its ability to characterize the modern epoch’s changing perception of relations between the self and the world, the painted portrait became an increasingly dominant a representational genre [sic]” (44).
Chapters 3 and 5 work adeptly to group prominent entrepreneurs and writers in showing the portraitive mode in action. The former examines the marketing strategies and products of men such as the designer Josiah Wedgwood, the publisher Rudolph Ackermann, the miniaturist Richard Cosway, and the art-entrepreneur extraordinaire John Boydell, in order to lay out the symmetry between these men’s exhibitive and publishing enterprises and the public desires into which they tapped. The latter chapter pairs writers known by their carefully crafted self-portrayals, Mary Robinson and George Gordon, Lord Byron. These closely observed chapters show the portraitive mode of the literary realm in dynamic interaction with the market forces that are never far from their creative source. Chapter 4, meanwhile, represents a rewarding departure. Here, Fay describes the formalization of the portraitive mode in the elaboration of time-space chronotopes in collections, house museums, and public museums. She explores, in particular, the Romantic house-museum as a self-portraitive mode. This chapter develops a growing literature on the role of the Wunderkammern in earlier periods, but while the cabinet of curiosities has long since been brought into union with the literature of the 17th and 18th centuries, the same has yet to be done for the Romantic house-museum – a distinctive phenomenon in an age of public museums. This chapter thus represents a long awaited intervention, especially in its treatment of Sir John Soane, Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy of Art and the most prominent architectural mind of Romantic period. Soane designed England’s first public picture gallery, the Dulwich, which opened in 1814, and his own house – with a breakfast room designed as a mausoleum – became an official museum in the 1830s (by which time it already had been open to visitors for two decades). While Soane has long been treated with seriousness by architectural historians, he has until now evaded the majority of literary scholars. Fay more than rights this wrong, offering a full-scale reading of his remarkable house-museum (still one of the grandest visits a tourist in London can pay) as a quasi-literary phenomenon. Approaching Soane’s work as an architectual demonstration of the portraitive mode, Fay prepares for a brief, but rich, consideration of Keats’s odes as in themselves a “museum practice, together constituting an imaginative architecture of sentient and collected space” (188).
Fashioning Faces marks an important contribution to several fields, including British Romanticism, cultural history, art history, and museum studies (not necessarily in that order). It is a welcome addition to a growing subfield within Romantic studies that is interested in museums, cultural institutions, and specifically in reassessing Romanticism in these new contexts. What makes Fay’s book uniquely satisfying is the wealth and variety of detail that she manages to explain under the specific rubric of the portraitive mode, from the portraitive imagery of Wordsworth’s Prelude (where “the outward face of things” exists as a “resemblance” of the “glorious faculty” of the poet’s own mind) to the popular books filled with fashion plates featuring portraits of “Distinguished Females.” To forge meaningful connections between the high-Romantic ethos and everyday consumerism – between, for instance, a key aspect of Wordsworthian nature imagery and a fashionable publishing phenomenon – is no small feat, but Fay pulls this off with aplomb, showing just how deeply interfused the Romantic disposition was with the reflexive phenomenon of consumer psychology. Fay’s eclectic interests in performance, book history, architecture, cultural theory, and urban history all find a meaningful place in her book, and it is one of the rewards of reading it that one continually discovers common ground not only among distinctive figures within the field we call Romanticism (from Hemans to Soane to Byron), but among seemingly disparate disciplines, as well.
Christopher Rovee teaches in the Department of English at Louisiana State University.
- Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
- Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography.” In Selected Writings, vol. 2: 1927-1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al., 507-530. Cambridge, MA, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.
- Mayhew, Henry. “Statement of a Photographic Man.” In London Labour and the London Poor, vol. 3, 206-10. London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, 1861.