Views and Reviews


Tim Barringer, ‘Aspiring to the Condition of Music’

Sunday, 3 March, 2013 by Tom Balfe

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor), 1879, oil on canvas, 186.7 x 139.7cm. Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco.

In 1879, infuriated at having been denied full payment for The Peacock Room, the daring interior design scheme he had created for the London townhouse of shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, James McNeill Whistler satirised his miserly patron in a remarkable portrait. The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre transforms Leyland, shown wearing one of his beloved frilly shirts (hence ‘frilthy lucre’), into a deranged peacock playing a piano loaded up with money bags. While the piano is included here for satirical effect, mockingLeyland’s pretensions to the role of talented amateur musician, it also points to an important if largely overlooked connection between music and art in late Victorian culture. In a lecture this past October, Tim Barringer drew our attention to this neglected subject, using a series of visual and musical case studies (the latter relayed at impressive volume via the robust speakers in the seminar room) to give a more complete picture of the sensory worlds within which artists and collectors moved.

By the time of the Whistler-Leyland spat, the music room equipped with a grand piano had become a key space within the home of the connoisseur, where music and painting were enjoyed together as a single aesthetic experience. For artists sympathetic to the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, moreover, music could serve as the model for a radical kind of painting in which formal concerns take precedence over social or political ‘content’ (something which throws light on Whistler’s use of musical terms in his titles, such as nocturne, harmony and symphony). Yet, as Barringer went on to argue, works by late Victorian artists often acknowledge the alarmingly powerful effect of music on the emotions. In The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt, a piano is employed as a weapon of seduction by the male philanderer, who fingers the keys in order to spice up the atmosphere in the claustrophobic room where he is entertaining a female companion, probably his mistress. The young woman, though, wears a rapt, distant expression which suggests that her ear has been caught by sounds of a higher order – reformed preaching, perhaps, or the stirring harmonies of an edifying hymn.

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9cm. Tate Britain, London.

In discussing the aural dimensions of The Awakening Conscience, Barringer made the interesting remark that certain groups, including women, were believed to be particularly susceptible to the impact of music. One question left unanswered by the talk was whether contemporary scientific accounts of how sound operates on the mind provide additional perspectives on the visual material considered here. Possibly this is an area that will be dealt with in Barringer’s forthcoming book, one that the author admitted he is finding difficult to finish because the research is so fascinating.

Categories: Research Rhythms | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off