Narrative objects : decorative art in the museum and the novel, 1850-1880
In the face of financial disaster, Dr Lydgate attempts to share his concerns with his wife, Rosamund, in George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871). Rosamund's refusal to engage with the crisis, or to sympathise with her husband's despair, is repeatedly presented by Eliot as a preoccupation with inanimate, decorative objects: Rosamund 'turned her neck and looked at a vase on the mantelpiece'. 1 The mid nineteenth-century novel increasingly explores what it means to own, collect and display objects, and how personal and public lives can be constructed and defined by 'things'. Recent critical discussion has examined the significance of the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, and the subsequent international exhibitions, as a catalyst for, and an expression of, new ways of producing and consuming objects. 2 These dazzling exhibitions, in conjunction with the foundation of the South Kensington Museum (1857), began to formulate principles of design and models of taste for the public. Increasingly influential, however, was the development of the smaller, regional museum collections of decorative objects which began to emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century. Most of these shared with their national counterparts an intention to educate the public; almost all retained the intimacy and distinct authoring of their roots with local collectors. This thesis draws together common impulses from real and fictional evidence to suggest ways in which people's relationships to their objects were becoming increasingly sophisticated and intimate. It explores the growing role of local municipal museums in presenting manufactured and decorative pieces, in reinforcing moral and social messages around collecting and display, and in popularising decorative 'things' in the home and beyond, while also examining the growing fictional fascination with, and the increasing visibility of, objects in the novel.