Elizabeth A. Fay


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

Cover Interview of September 12, 2010

A close-up

Toward the end of the second chapter I discuss William Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age.  For me, this section embodies all the concepts I try to engage in the book.

I look at how Hazlitt consciously uses biographical sketches of exemplary literary figures to reveal the character of the Romantic era; how his own theory of what he is accomplishing in those sketches anticipates twentieth-century theories of identity in consumer culture; and how writers’ own self-portrayals could be used against them by an expert portrait artist.

The fact that Hazlitt first trained as a portrait painter underscores how his Spirit of the Age so consciously engages the current fascination with portraiture. My favorite essay is the one on Jeremy Bentham in which Hazlitt describes Bentham’s “mechanical” theories of social control so as to portray Bentham himself as mechanical, a kind of kooky clock whose mechanisms are a bit askew.

I’m also very fond of the sections on Horace Walpole’s playhouse, Strawberry Hill.  Here he created a fanciful self-portrait that was open to the public and for which he wrote a guidebook. The different rooms in the house parody rooms in Elizabethan-era estates, mocking the chivalric codes of those stately homes, and at the same time tantalizingly tease the visitor about Walpole’s own homosexual identity. Walpole’s extraordinary sense of fashion and willingness to combine authentic and valuable works of art with paper mache and faceted mirrors to imitate real Gothic interior décor allowed him to create an extraordinary architectural self-portrait.

At the same time, I would also direct a reader to the first chapter, where I lay out the book project and some of its main ideas and explain how theories of consumer culture can be very helpful for understanding how fashion and portraiture go hand-in-hand when consumption rather than tradition or family inheritance rule people’s sense of the everyday world.