Elizabeth A. Fay


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

Cover Interview of September 12, 2010

The wide angle

Fashioning Faces begins with the assumption that cultural history as an approach and a methodology can capture a cultural phenomenon such as the Romantic fascination with biography and portraiture more accurately than standard histories.

Cultural history is cross disciplinary, meaning that it assumes that a range of disciplinary approaches and perspectives will be necessary to engage the larger questions arising from the object of study. In this instance, standard histories of portraiture don’t usually consider the close association of biography and portraits—e.g., how in literary portraits these are in a metaphorical sense the same thing. Similarly, studies of biography don’t consider how portrait cameos and buttons are narratives of the self.

Books on portraiture don’t usually take into account china sets, uses of portraits in novels, biographical dictionaries, house museums, or how a miniaturist like Richard Cosway could use portraits of others to create an intricate portrayal of himself.

Histories of consumer culture are not likely to consider how Wedgwood’s gigantic dinner service for Catherine the Great is a portrait of British character made for export, and very similar to landscape “portraits” of the period.

And histories of fashion don’t use their information about the rapid shifts in fashion to consider how this allowed people to constantly adjust their self-portrayal to others, and therefore to subtly (or not so subtly) to change their character.

We know that new character types were invented during the Romantic period—the dandy is a well known example of this—but not as much about how people used these new types to modulate their own personae and play with their self-portrayal even within the context of the traditional “sincere” character.

I began the project by sheer chance, when browsing through second hand bookstores and becoming fascinated by old “portraits of the age” volumes such as those by Sainte-Beuve. Then I started to notice all the references to portraits, portrait lockets, and miniatures in the novels, plays and poems I teach in my courses on British Romantic literature.

I also noticed portrait lockets and other jewelry in society portraits of the day, and then became fascinated by studies of consumerism during the period.  I began to think about how today we collect objects in order to fashion a self-portrait that is meant both for our own enjoyment and to show to others.

Eventually I realized that twentieth-century American popular culture figures like Andy Warhol, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna have their analogues in figures like Richard Cosway, Beau Brummel, Lord Byron, and Mary Robinson.