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Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896

Aestheticism and Arts and Crafts


Edited by Jason Edwards & Imogen Hart


Farnham: Ashgate, 2010

Hardback. xi-277 p. ISBN 978-0754668176. £70.00


Reviewed by Jennifer Way

University of North Texas



The anthology Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896, Aestheticism and Arts and Crafts consists of an Introduction and ten essays that explore “Victorian interiors” [1] as places, in other words, “spaces which people have made meaningful”; places are “spaces people are attached to in one way or another” (Tim Cresswell. Place : A Short Introduction, 2004 : 7).  Editors Jason Edwards and Imogen Hart note that Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896 follows in the wake of Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council’s funding an Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of the Domestic Interior from 2001 to 2006 [3-4]. To this point, Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896 is one of several books that subsequently bring welcome, renewed attention to the nineteenth-century interior. Some have taken the form of surveys treating the nineteenth century as a point of departure, such as Designing the Modern Interior : From the Victorians to Today by Penny Sparke, Anne Massey and Trevor Keeble (Berg, 2009), Performance, Fashion and the Modern Interior : From the Victorians to Today by Fiona Fisher (Berg, 2011) and Interiors of Empire : Objects, Space and Identity within the Indian Subcontinent, c.1800-1947 by Robin Jones (Manchester University Press, 2007).Others present in-depth discursive studies, for example, Material Relations : Domestic Interiors and Middle-Class Families in England, 1850-1910 by Jane Hamlett (Manchester University Press, 2010).

Within the latter group some publications emphasize fine arts if not also mass visual and material culture as contexts shaping and shaped by interiors. However, in distinction from The Poetic Home : Designing the 19th-Century Domestic Interior  by Stefan Muthesius (Thames & Hudson, 2009), which surveys changes in designers’ work and explores their dissemination through products and venues geared to the middle classes, and also different from a focus on a specific cultural figure, as in The House Beautiful :  Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior by Charlotte Gere (Lund Humphries, 2000), or on one group, like Artistic Circles : Design & Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement, also by Gere (V&A, 2010), Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896 emphasizes “the local, European, Circum-Atlantic and imperial contexts of Aestheticism and the Arts and Crafts movement” [2]. Aestheticism and the Arts and Crafts movement were “the two principal vanguard British artistic movements between Pre-Raphaelitism and early Modernism” [1].

The British aspect of the nearly thirty-year period the book studies is important not simply because, as the editors point out, until recently, the standard international contexts for Aestheticism were American or continental European [19, note 5]. Focusing on British places, people, things, events, ideas, and experiences also reverses the disciplinary geography of the scholarship of interiors by transposing it from the margins to the center. To this point, the volume “rewrite[s] Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts interiors from the presumption of their disciplinary centrality, historiographic importance, and assured interest for scholars in other fields and parts of our own discipline” [12]. Achieving this goal meant putting aside a consideration of “French, German and Scandinavian modernism” in relation to the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movement” [12] to emphasize “the last third of the nineteenth century, a particularly significant moment in British cultural and architectural history, and a period of rapid and dramatic social, economic and cultural change” [4]. Victorian eclecticism and clutter are features of this history on which the essays dwell, and the editors explain that they set forth to “find some alternative, empathetic frameworks through which eclecticism might have been viewed then and could be appreciated now” [13].

In several ways, the authors’ dedication to using alternative frameworks for interpreting interiors in regard to the two British art movements and their interrelationships and, conversely, for illuminating how the art movements constituted the meaning and significance of interiors, resonates across their essays. Foremost is the authors’ respective treatment of a very specific period of British vanguard fine arts activity as a primary context in which to identify and analyze “complex relationships between specific spaces, objects and images within given rooms”, “ideas, attitudes, and feelings and contexts they may relate to or purport to embody” and the ways “specific, irreducibly idiosyncratic visitors or spectators responded to them in their own idiomatic ways” [13-14]. Underpinning this project is their tacit thesis that “[a]estheticism and Arts and Crafts were interrelated in some complex and specific ways” [8] and “that Aestheticism is more political and Arts and Crafts more aesthetic than standard accounts have tended to allow” [8]. In addition, the authors collectively reject treating Victorian and modern culture as a binary relationship [11]. Instead, they narrate more nuanced interconnections that happen to revise additional prevailing views of their material. For example, “our case studies challenge the popular consensus that Aestheticism was an urban fashion and Arts and Crafts a rural phenomenon” [1]. Ample notes follow each chapter and, together with black and white reproductions and a lengthy bibliography serving the entire volume [241-266], the source material demonstrates that the authors developed their respective accounts by integrating a wide range of primary source objects and texts with relevant primary and secondary texts in art, architecture, design and cultural history, visual and material culture, social history, regions, nations and empire, political economy and theory. In these respects, the editors can rightly claim that the essays in Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896 advance scholarship on the relationship between the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements through the close study of specific interiors” [4].

An important facet of this achievement concerns the many methodological innovations that the authors bring to their collective task of examining unstudied material and revisiting well published places. A key example is their commitment to “challenge the still-dominant sociological account of the interior, which emphasizes issues of generalized class distinction” [6]. To be sure, a volume that features discussions about well-known cultural figures—William Ruskin, William Morris, Frederic Leighton, Walter Crane, John Singer Sargent—may, on the surface, seem to reiterate the tendency of previous scholarship to combine biographical accounts of specific designers and artists with empirical description and stylistic analysis of the spaces they created. On the contrary, however, as the editors explain, the essays engage with an “expanded range of characters” in the various art movements [2], which is somewhat borne out in the eight-page “Timeline” [231-239]. Ranging from 1807 to 1938, it notes individuals’ birth and death dates along with dates for the publication of certain essays and journals, the inauguration and completion of projects, and exhibitions. Moreover, rather than reduce their accounts to “particular patrons, producers and visitors,” they embrace “a more iconographical and queer theoretical account of the specific meaning of interiors” [6]. Along the lines of but also more thematically and chronologically focused than Interior design and identity edited by Susie McKellar and Penny Sparke (Manchester University Press, 2004), because they problematize the ways Victorian interiors have served as indexes or “immediately apparent, neutral windows onto the Victorian world,” in Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896 the authors also are able to show how “interiors are mediated by historic and contemporary subjectivities and through a range of genres” [15]. In this respect the book contributes to broad if not well-established revisionist pathways in art history, in this instance, concerning the role of evidence in “the modern discipline of art history” (Preziosi. “The Question of Art History,” 1994 : 203-226).

Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896 also participates in art history’s turn to subjectivity. Predominantly, the essays examine self and place as interrelating subjects. In framing this disposition the editors cite several works from outside art history and the history of interiors. Key among them are Marcel Proust’s reflections on memory, time and place and several publications on queer sexuality and culture by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, about whom editor Jonathan Edwards published a book for Routledge’s Critical Thinkers series. Furthermore, in  Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896, the authors even rely on their own “embodied first-person” to understand “the actual interiors they were working on” [17].

Many of the essays’ discussions about subjectivity and place turn to gender and sexuality. Interestingly, the editors seem a bit vexed about what they call the “remaining masculinist bias of the volume,” which they attribute to the material they study. They explain, “the Victorian gender bias of architecture and the upper echelons of nineteenth-century British fine and decorative arts more broadly. It also reflects a contemporary academic field in which, to our surprise and dismay, women’s contributions remain too little explored, a state of affairs requiring further redress” [19, note 7]. It would be interesting to read their views about why so many of the essays take up gender and sexuality as a main way to advance scholarship on Victorian interiors, what it is about either Victorian interiors or a turn to subjectivity and place that warrants the framework of what they refer to as queerness, what if any relationship there is between what they call queerness and the “masculinist bias” they note, and why proceeding in this way is preferable to delving into class or other social and cultural matrices to advance scholarship on interiors. In addition, it would be helpful for them to clarify why they reference the interiors that they do as Victorian, in other words, what significance this has for identifying or interpreting the interiors the authors study, and whether, besides eclecticism and clutter there are other tropes concerning Victorian interiors that warrant research.


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