Elizabeth A. Fay


On her book Fashioning Faces:The Portraitive Mode in British Romanticism

Cover Interview of September 12, 2010

In a nutshell

Fashioning Faces, a cross-disciplinary study, looks at how literary and visual portraiture in the British Romantic era embodied a newly commercial culture.

I consider the Romantic era as a transitional period characterized by a pre-modernist focus on identity formation and legibility. The widespread cultural shift toward a world of faces and figures foreshadows today’s world of increasingly available self-reflections and depictions.

So I invented the term “portraitive mode” to describe a diversity of cultural and material expressions of identity—visual and verbal portraits, miniatures, poetry, collections, caricatures, and biographical dictionaries.

The book integrates portraiture within broader cultural currents such as fashion and consumption, the rise of celebrity culture, collecting and house museums, and travel literature.

My focus is on synthesizing different kinds of material—tying together diverse artistic, literary, and cultural modes to shed new light on the historical significance of portraits and the centrality of Romantic portraiture as a vehicle for expression and subjective exploration.

An important aspect of the book is its examination of individuals who contributed to this phenomenon in innovative ways, or who exemplified the portraitive reflex.

Josiah Wedgwood, for instance, took great care to create chinaware that would reflect consumers’ conception of British character, and in the process established his own character and self-portrayal as the “face” of British table services.  Sir John Soane, the architect, designed his house museum as a self-portrait, particularly rooms such as his Gothic parlor that contain biographical references; he “published” this self-portrayal by making his museum open to the public.  Mary Robinson and Lord Byron used their popular personae to dramatize self-portraits that could enhance their literary careers and fame.

Many of the techniques pioneered in this period for creating self-portraits, manipulating public exposure, and combining biographical and pictorial portrayals are ones still in use in today’s self-conscious culture.