Experimenting in the galleries with Vernon Lee

Dr Carolyn Burdett, Senior Lecturer in English and Victorian Studies discusses the life and stories of Vernon Lee, ahead of a ‘scratch’ performance and panel discussion, which will take place at 6pm, Friday 2 November 2018 at Birkbeck’s Keynes Library, to which all are welcome to attend. 

Ghosts haunt her brain, Vernon Lee admitted, publishing a collection of her elegant and mysterious ghost stories in 1890. Violet Paget was born in 1856 and named herself Vernon Lee to inaugurate a career as a writer. But stories were only a part of what appeared from the pen of this woman of quite staggering energy and intellectual range. Lee published studies of art and music, evocative travel writings, essays on gardens, dialogues about art and life, contentious novels, dense essays on aesthetic theories, and polemic interventions on vivisection, feminism and pacifism. She revived the form of the medieval morality play to protest the depredations of war and aggressive nationalism, and she devised her own questionnaires to test theories of art and music. She was an intellectual force of the Victorian fin de siècle, a true cosmopolitan, an outside-the-box queer thinker and, invariably, a very wise woman.

Still in her mid-twenties, and already author of a significant study of eighteenth-century Italy, Lee declared herself a ‘student of aesthetics’. For much of the rest of her life she researched and thought about why we find some things beautiful, how beauty affects us, and ‘what art does with us’. She was captivated by the prospect that the tools and techniques of the emerging discipline of experimental psychology could provide new and definitive answers to age-old questions about art and beauty.

In the 1880s, she met and fell in love with a Scottish artist called Clementina (‘Kit’) Anstruther-Thomson and the two women began to ‘experiment’ together in looking at art. Kit was sensitive to how her body reacted when she looked at objects. Looking attentively, Kit felt her muscles contract and her breath change. The object made her stretch up or sink down; it made her breath shallow and uneven or else deep and filled out on both sides: her body seemed a kind of barometer for the form she viewed.

Lee, avidly reading new research in ‘psycho-physiology’ – how the mind and body are imbricated – began to wonder whether they might have stumbled across the key to beauty. She took her cue from work associated with the psychologist William James who, in a famous essay on ‘What is an Emotion’ (1884), argued that our common sense understanding of, say, the fear we feel on seeing a bear – ‘I see a bear, I feel fear, my body responds to this feeling and I run’ – is in fact the wrong order. What’s really happening is that my body ‘sees’ the bear and responds (muscles tense, hair raises, breath shortens), and the fear I feel is a consequence of these instant, automatic bodily changes. Lee began to investigate the possibility that aesthetic response works on the same model: Kit sees a form, her body responds (her breath changes, her muscles tense or relax, her balance shifts) and these bodily changes make her feel calm or agitated, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the object that precipitates these subtle changes and the feeling accordingly attaches to it, as if it’s a quality of the object. ‘How beautiful’ translates as ‘how good this object has made my body feel’.

The two women experimented together for ten years, in galleries in Florence and Rome, in Paris and London. Their work was part of the pattern of their complicated love affair and, when the love stumbled, the theories and the thinking shifted and changed. But Lee never stopped trying to understand the power of art, why it affects us as it does, and what art can tell us about the mysteries of our minds and our bodies. This event, a collaboration between Dr Carolyn Burdett (English), Professor Rob Swain (Theatre), and Professor Matthew Longo (Psychological Sciences), working with playwright Nicola Baldwin and actors Penny Layden and Anna Tierney, explores Vernon Lee’s experiments in and with love and art and human psychology.

Find out more about the event. 


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