Heritage & Herstories: Buildings of Concubine Gulabrai in Jodhpur
In a recent blog post, Nandini Thilak described the architectural patronage in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, which was provided by Gulabrai, the beloved concubine of Vijay Singh (r.1752–93). As the post highlights, Gulabrai was one of the most powerful women in eighteenth century Jodhpur. The purpose of this blog is to further elaborate and expand the conversation with Thilak in highlighting the agency and ambiguous status of concubines by examining the stories and plaques woven around Gulabrai and her buildings. I do so, by bringing forth some of the crucial points which are available in the array of sources that I have consulted in my recently finished doctoral work.
Founded in 1459, Jodhpur served as the capital of the erstwhile Rajput kingdom of Marwar which was ruled by the Rathor clan of Rajputs. The janana or the women’s space in the Rajput household was composed of multiple queens, princesses, and several non-elite women placed in secondary positions as handmaids (davris),entertainers (gayans,nirtakis) and concubines. In Rajasthan, women designated as royal concubines were formally titled as paswan and pardayat, a fact that Thilak misses to indicate but is significantly crucial for understanding the historical value of their architectural commissions.
Journey of the Concubine
Gulabrai entered the Rathor house in 1766 seemingly as a ‘gift’ from a local household in Jodhpur. Narratives of her entry nevertheless vary. One chronicle, for instance, states that Gulabrai was a badaran (head servant) in the household of a man named Bhurat Argadram before she was given to the Rathor house. Another narrative states that Gulabrai was a professional singer and a nazr (eunuch) mediated in bringing her to the elite house. In her discussion, Thilak identified Gulabrai’s caste as Jat only, but in actual fact Gulabrai’s caste oscillates between Jat and Oswal in the Rajput records, adding a valuable layer of nuance and ambiguity.
Gulabrai’s subsequent journey can be traced through local sources such as haqiqat bahis (everyday ledgers), patravalis (letters)and khyats (chronicles). These sources tell us that Gulabrai began as a singer in the Rathor house and was gradually raised to the status of a khawas (servant) followed by that of a pardayat (concubine). In 1774 her status was further elevated to that of a paswan (superior concubine) of Vijay Singh. Derived from the word ‘pas’ meaning ‘to be close’ and ‘wan’ meaning ‘to’, the title of paswan indicated ‘being close’ to the ruler, which brought greater prerogatives for women so designated. Gulabrai’s ardent inclination towards the Vallabh Sampradaya, to which Vijay Singh had formally initiated, was an important factor in cementing their intimacy that lasted for about twenty-five years.
Over the years, Gulabrai earned a strong position in the kingdom, sitting as a personal and political confidante of the ruler. Such was their closeness that when Gulabrai’s only son Tej Singh died an untimely death, her sadness prompted Vijay Singh to subvert the customary Rajput restriction on cross-class adoptions by allowing her to adopt (khole-baithe) one of his princes’ Sher Singh. This event disturbed many nobles who were further infuriated when the ruler supported Gulabrai’s proposition to nominate Sher as his successor over the more senior heir, Zalim Singh. Consequently, a coterie of nobles killed Gulabrai (16th April 1792) and struck with grief, the ruler died the very next year on 14th July 1793.
Buildings of the Concubine
The architecture of Jodhpur reveals widespread involvement of women patrons, primarily those who inhabited the royal house, but like the hesitant visibility of female stories, their buildings have remained sidelined in mainstream his-stories. Women financed constructions from their monthly hath kharch (stipend) given to them from the state treasury or from earnings received from designated jagirs (lands).Owing to her political acumen and the trust shared with her master, Gulabrai received an exceptional patta (land deed) of the pargana (cluster of villages) of Jalore that comprised around 457 villages. She used this actively to exercise power, most prolifically by investing in extensive buildings that stand as long-lasting symbols of her personal legacy in Jodhpur.
Gulabrai’s first building project was a palace (mahal) which she commissioned for herself in 1775. Popularly known as Mahila Bagh (lady’s garden), she shifted to her mahal from the royal janana in 1777 after a verbal altercation with one of the queens, Shekhawati Maharani. Subsequently, Vijay Singh also began to reside with Gulabrai, thus making clear her elevated status over other women. Such associations were not exceptional, since polygyny did not foreclose development of intimacy and favouritism towards one woman. Gulabrai’s palace now functions as a local school, but its enclosed jhalra (stepwell) lies in a neglected state.
Following her mahal, Gulabrai sponsored two huge public buildings both of which were completed in late eighteenth century. These are Gulab Sagar (1788) and Kunjbihari temple (1790), which form the primary focus of Thilak’s piece.
I will draw attention to the inscription placed near Gulab Sagar which begins with a religious prayer commemorating the completion of the building and then describes the name of its benefactor as Maharaja Vijay Singh Ji Ki Swayam Dharampatni Maharani Paswan Gulabrai.
As Thilak indicated, a significant incident from Ranimanga Bhato ki bahi (a genealogical record of Rajput queens) is worth retelling here. A year before Gulab Sagar was completed,Gulabrai had asked the then compiler of Ranimanga, Bhaat Aidaan to record her name along with the queens, which was refused by Aidaan stating that she was not a rani (hence, not an official wife or of royal lineage). For this action, Aidaan was expelled from the state territory. Collating this fact with the evident prefix of dharampatni (lawfully wedded wife)and maharani (head queen)in the inscription of Gulab Sagar articulates the desire of a concubine to change the image of her inferior conjugal status because contempt towards her status by courtiers such as Aidaan was not uncommon.
While Thilak delves on the insertion of dharampatni in the epigraphic pronouncement, she misses to note the title immediately following, that of paswan which is significant in comprehending the tenuous nature of Gulabrai’s position. The sequential presentation of two titles connotating two different normative worlds of power, status, authority, intimacy, and recognition is actually the crux of the ambiguous zone of identities in which some concubines and ranis lived. Stories of Zubeida and Sandra McBryde, represented in some accounts as wives and others as concubines of Hanwant Singh (r.1947-52), best resonate such dwindling identities, their appropriation premised primarily on caste leanings. In fact, Thilak also notes such appropriation when she highlights a twentieth century correspondence where the former chief priest of Kunjbihari recalls Gulabrai as a Rajput princess who was secretly married with the ruler and sponsored the structure with the wealth endowed by her mother. This portrayal, as Thilak indicates, was an attempt to preserve the exalted status of the structure by endowing respectability to its patron. However, I wish to emphasise that the temple plaque still maintains that its patron was Vijay Singh’s ‘paswan’, which alters the interpretation of its patron’s identity. Clearly, a caste informed patriarchy drew limits to the extent to which a woman could command power. This becomes more affirmative because despite the expulsion of Aidaan, Gulabrai’s name was never included in Ranimanga. Alternatively, in the inscription at Gulab Sagar too, her identity as a paswan was never erased.
The public structuration of status vis-à-vis the personal desires of a concubine echoes again when one compares the plaque at Kunjbihari temple with its frescoes. Exhibiting devotion towards state religion, the paintings in this temple are redolent with both political and emotional significance as they avidly announce Gulabrai’s proximate position in the life of the king and the kingdom’s processes.
Interestingly, while the local population hesitate to recall erstwhile concubines and thus appear influenced by modern (oriental) notions of concubinage as illicit relationships, mass reverence for this temple does not seem to be affected by the status of its patron. It is therefore befitting to state that, through the patronage of symbolic monumental structures, Gulabrai has traversed her assigned subordination. Her buildings are living examples of the agency and negotiated power of this concubine.
As a closing remark, I find it prudent to highlight that while the story and structures of Gulabrai have been relatively explored, seemingly owing to her exemplary political visibility, there are several water resources, temples, gardens, and walls of the city that were sponsored by other concubines of Jodhpur, but these and their patrons, remain victims of academic and public neglect. Most of these structures are now in a deteriorating condition, with their inscriptions ruined and historical significance overlooked. They also do not appear in any tour book of the city. In my larger work, I am attempting to bring forth these hitherto side-lined sources that reveal multi-layered stories of concubines, who had different life trajectories, but whether overtly or in submissive negotiations, these women played significant roles in Rajput state formation, which was clearly not limited to just having sex with the ruler.
Priyanka Khanna holds a PhD in History from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She specializes in the histories of women, gender, and early modern Rajasthan. Her doctoral thesis examines the status, roles and lived experiences of women who had to live as the concubines of Rajput Maharajas in early modern Marwar (Western Rajasthan). She has presented her work on several platforms including the University of Texas, NTU (Singapore) and the University of Zurich, and has parts of her work printed with publishers such as Orient BlackSwan and Studies in History. Dr. Khanna is working as an Assistant Professor of History at GD Goenka University in Gurgaon and she is currently working on her book monograph. She can be reached at email@example.com
1] Marwar Ri Khyat, 82.
 Priyanka Khanna, “Half-Wed Wives: A Study of Concubines in the Rajasthani Kingdom of Marwar, c. 17th–Mid 19th Centuries” (Ph.D. diss., Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2016). Parts of it, with Gulabrai as its protagonist, were published in, Priyanka Khanna, “The Female Companion in a World of Men: Friendship and Concubinage in Late Eighteenth-century Marwar”, Studies in History 33, no. 1, 2017, 98-116.
Building Herself Up: The Architectural Legacy of a Concubine-Queen from Jodhpur, India
Jodhpur, a city on the edge of the Thar Desert, in what is now the state of Rajasthan in Western India, was once the capital of the kingdom of Marwar. In my doctoral research, I examine the architectural patronage of women from Jodhpur’s royal zenana or harem, composed of concubines, queens, princesses, and queen mothers who lived under the strictures of the pardāh or veil. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, patrons from the zenana commissioned a slew of monuments—mainly waterbodies, gardens and temples—that still dominate Jodhpur’s urban landscape today. This post introduces one such zenana patron—the concubine Gulab Rai.
As a side note, I must add that women were active as patrons of architecture in this period and earlier not only in Jodhpur, but also across the western Indian region. Examples can be found in prominent cities such Jaipur and Bundi, as well as smaller towns across Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat. However, due to the general lack of scholarship on the patronage of arts by pre- and early modern Indian women outside of prominent imperial centres such as Agra or Delhi, almost nothing is known about these women or the architecture they sponsored. As a result, scholarship on and popular perceptions of women as patrons in the Indian context still hinge on an exception narrative, whereby praise and attention (no doubt well-deserved) paid to a handful of well-known female figures (think the Empress Nur Jahan or the Mughal princess Jahanara) works to prop them up as exceptions or anomalies amidst a sea of male patrons, confirming the general perception/rule that women in general contributed little to the history of art and architecture.
Now, let us return to Gulab Rai and eighteenth century Jodhpur. Between 1772 and 1792, Gulab Rai executed some of the largest architectural commissions ever made by a woman in Jodhpur, among them a temple, a garden complex, a stepwell and a mammoth water tank named after herself called the Gulab Sagar. A powerful force in eighteenth century Jodhpur, she was keenly aware of architecture’s visibility and durability, both as a statement of power and as a claim to collective memory. She used monumental commissions to resist attempts to write her out of Jodhpur’s official histories as an upstart concubine, indelibly inscribing the city with her presence in the process.
Gulab Rai was a concubine from the court of Maharaja Bijai Singh (r. 1772-92) of Jodhpur. As with all concubines, nothing much is known of her origins. Some believe that she belonged to jat caste of peasants and pastoralists. She entered the zenana either as a court dancer or a servant and quickly rose through the ranks to become Bijai Singh’s favorite companion, and thus one of the wealthiest women in the kingdom. She wielded influence in matters of state, even managing to get her adopted son designated as heir to Jodhpur’s throne against royal customs that disqualified the progeny of concubines from inheriting .
Zenana Women in Dynastic Memory
Rajasthan has a rich tradition of genealogical records, oral and written, maintained by various bardic castes who hereditarily received the patronage of specific groups. A hereditary line of male bards (bhāṭ) were responsible for maintaining a genealogy book of Jodhpur’s queens called the Rāṇi Maṇgā Bhāṭon Kī Bahī. In a context where royal women rarely found a place in dynastical accounts, inevitably centred around male rulers, the Rāṇi Maṇgā Bhāṭon Kī Bahī is a rare document dedicated to royal wives. However, concubines, being women of low caste status (the kings and queens of Jodhpur were upper caste Hindu rajputs) were ineligible to be royal wives and thus considered unworthy of a place in this geneology. This exclusion, strictly enforced, meant that once a ruler died, the names of his concubines were essentially erased from dynastic histories.
Despite her forceful attempts to overturn custom in this regard, Gulab Rai too was denied a place, however peripheral, in royal genealogies. Convinced that she, Bijai Singh’s most beloved, deserved a place in the geneaology of queens, Gulab Rai had approached the bard in question, insisting that he record her name and that of her forefathers. He refused, angering Gulab Rai, who then had him expelled from Marwar. The interventions that the concubine made on Jodhpur’s urban fabric can be read as openly defiant reactions to this and other attempts to deny her a rightful place in Jodhpur’s history.
In the buildings she commissioned, Gulab Rai took charge of public perceptions of herself in dramatic ways. To cite one example, an inscription on a marble kīrtistambh (commemorative pillar) she had erected at the Gulab Sagar describes the patron Gulab Rai as Maharaja Bijai Singh’s chief queen (mahārāṇi) rather than a concubine. Defiant of royal customs that forbade inter-caste marriages, it also refers to her as the king’s lawful or dutiful wife (dharam patni). The inscription is easy to dismiss as wishful boasting. However, Gulab Rai’s attempts to fashion a noble identity for herself had an impact on public imagination. Her claims to a queenly status morphed over the years into myths that crystallised around her monuments.
One such myth emerges in a document from 1929 which is part of state correspondence surrounding the Kunj Bihariji temple, one of the Jodhpur’s most prominent shrines. In a letter he wrote to the British Government in India, a former chief priest at the temple, Vallabhdas, narrates his version of the monument’s origins, including the story of its patron. In the history he relates, Gulab Rai is mystically transformed into an aristrocratic rajput woman. According to him, Maharaja Bijai Singh met Gulab Rai while on a pilgrimage to Haridwar, where she, a rajput princess (“kuṃvarāṇi”), was staying with her widowed mother, a queen or “mahārāṇijī”. Enamoured by the princess, Bijai Singh convinced the pair to move to Jodhpur where he married Gulab Rai in a secret religious ceremony and made her his chief queen. According to Vallabhdas, Gulab Rai then built several edifices in the city, using the wealth bestowed on her by her mother. Thus, the prestige the temple commanded in Jodhpur at the time, and likely a desire to exalt and preserve its status, appears to have endowed its patron with respectability that she was denied in her own lifetime. Even today, questioned about the origins of her monuments in the Jodhpur, locals often refer to Gulab Rai as a rāṇi or queen.
Gulab Rai’s acts of construction not only cemented her own legacy, but encouraged her successors to follow suit, leading to a dramatic rise in the number of architectural commissions funded by zenana women, many of them concubines, in the period immediately following her death. During the reign of Bijai Singh’s grandson Maharaj Man Singh (r.1803-1843), members of the zenana, then composed of 13 queens and around 25 concubines and singers, financed an unprecedented number of monuments in the city. Amidst this explosion of architectural activity, the Gulab Sagar became a place invested with special significance. By 1846, zenana women from Man Singh’s court had constructed four temples directly on the tank’s banks and many more in surrounding area. Thus, in the years after her death, the Gulab Rai’s most ambitious commission seems to have become a consecrated site for similar claims to power and memory made by successive generations, forming a dialogue in architecture among women patrons from different periods.
In mainstream histories of Jodhpur, Gulab Rai’s reign is usually dismissed as an aberration, using the familiar trope of harem women who ‘interfered’ in politics. In her own time, she was severely punished for her claims to an equal status with queens. Her dramatic rise and the designation of her adopted son as heir to the throne riled Jodhpur’s nobles such that they assassinated her in 1792.
In 2020, Gulab Rai’s garden has disappeared into urban growth. A palace within was turned into a state hospital in the first decades of the 20th century. However, the Gulab Sagar, the stepwell, and the Kunj Bihariji temple continue to function as major landmarks in the city around which circulate memories of a concubine-queen who once held sway over Jodhpur.
 Reu, Marwar Ka Itihas, 1:344.
 Gulab Rai’s adopted son Sher Singh was born to a Rajput queen. Though customs of the royal house forbade cross-caste adoptions, Gulab Rai was able to get Bijai Singh’s assent for this adoption. She then campaigned to designate Sher Singh as heir apparent, ignoring objections from the rajput nobility. See Anandkumar and Singh, Mahārājā Bijai Siṃhjī Rī Khyāt, 158.
 The term bahī refers to a handwritten manuscript or book, especially accounts books. I have relied on an edited version of the Rāṇi Maṇgā Bhāṭon Kī Bahī published in 2002. This version is based on a copy of the original bahī made in 1918. See Naggar, 2002 for a full discussion of this document.
 Naggar, Rāṇi Mangā Bhāton Kī Bahī, 69.
 File no. DD 127C 6/1A-I, Major Head: Devasthan Dharampura, Jodhpur Branch of the Rajasthan State Archives.
Nandini Thilak is an art historian based in Stuttgart, Germany. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Heidelberg, Germany and works at the South and South-East Asia Referat of the Linden- Museum in Stuttgart. Her doctoral project, supervised by Prof. Dr. Monica Juneja, is tentatively titled Inscribing the City—Women, Architecture, and Agency in an Indian Kingdom, Jodhpur 1750-1850. It is centred on zenana women who acted as patrons of architecture in 18th and 19th century Jodhpur, India, and examines issues of agency in art production, urban memory, and the afterlife of monuments.
Spindly Skeletons and Decentring Doom: Georgiana Burne-Jones’s ‘Death and the Lady’
In 1860, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Georgiana Burne-Jones and artist-poet Elizabeth Siddal planned to write and illustrate ‘a book of Fairy Tales’ together. Though the project was never finished, they both made contributions for it. Siddal’s art and poetry is the lifeblood of my thesis. Its disruptive medievalism haunts my chapters (if you want to hear more about that, you might enjoy my podcast episode Elizabeth Siddal’s Chaotic Medievalism). But Siddal and Burne-Jones’s unfinished project intrigues me anew. How might one study its fragments? I see the unfinished state as an opportunity, opening the contributions to interpretations which foreground the queerness of their relationship with the expectations and genres in which they do not entirely partake. The contributions consider similar ideas, unpicking incomplete, ill-fated situations for new possibilities. Siddal and Burne-Jones’s works revolve around a shared premise, albeit explored in different settings and stories: a lady in a disastrous predicament, avoiding or reconfiguring her own impending doom.
I cannot fit all the contributions into one blog post, nor can I lure you into the full extent of my queer-theory-addled exploration of the project’s pieces today – but I can offer you what I hope is an intriguing glimpse. I will focus on the lesser-studied visual content produced by Georgiana Burne-Jones. Her contributions were exhibited in Jan Marsh’s 2019-20 Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: two small pencil-and-ink drawings, pasted into a scrapbook, both labelled ‘Death and the Lady’. In this discussion, we will delve into the smaller drawing, where the titular ‘Lady’ gazes into a mirror, behind which lurks a shadowy skeleton.
Burne-Jones’s work depicts a moment of incompleteness. The lady has been marked for doom by the skeleton’s presence, but the terrible fate has not yet struck her down. Instead of just drawing a doomed damozel, Burne-Jones’s design considers what the lady might be doing in this space between disaster and consequence. This incomplete moment, and the ‘sideways growth’ that fills it, is part of why I use queer theory to think about the work – in this instance, Kathryn Bond Stockton’s idea of ‘sideways growth’, ‘the elegant, unruly contours of growing that don’t bespeak continuance’ towards a doomed ending. The drawing resists the implicit temporality of its subject-matter, postponing the deadly conclusion of the lady’s story and exploring alternatives in the captured moment.
To create space for these alternatives, Burne-Jones’s work must disrupt the hostile precedents which threaten the lady. Skeletons and living bodies have a long history of encountering each other in art, and it does not usually go well for the living. The late medieval period saw two primary manifestations of this theme – the Three Living and Three Dead legend and the Danse Macabre. In the former, three people confront three corpses, who warn them not to forget the transience of life, whilst in the latter, death triumphs over worldly affairs as frolicking cadavers tug busy people into a mass dance. This didacticism also underpins pairings of corpses and women, like Hans Baldung Grien’s painting Three Ages of the Woman and Death. A young woman gazes admiringly into a mirror, oblivious to the skeleton behind her, even though the child and elderly woman beside her confront and quail from it. The woman with the mirror is a cautionary tale, ignoring the doom approaching her; the painting’s viewers are implicitly encouraged not to emulate her.
Burne-Jones’s drawing sits intriguingly beside these pictorial arrangements of dead and living. The image does not depict an erotic encounter between death and this lady, though casting death as a ghastly bridegroom was a popular trope in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Instead, the drawing engages with elements found in the medieval precedents: the role of the mirror, the didactic idea that knowledge must be gained (by the living or by viewers) and, indeed, the question of what might be happening inside the mind of a lady who will not react for her cadaverous counterpart.
Instead of looming behind the lady, exemplifying her ignorance, Burne-Jones’s skeleton is hidden behind the mirror. The mirror draws attention to a bigger compositional mirroring: the skeleton’s pose, the mirror, and the dresser reflect the shape of the lady’s chair and pose, with bent knees, crossed hands and ponderous head-tilt. The skeleton is not a separate character, but the lady’s double – or what art historian Michael Camille, speaking of the Danse Macabre, evocatively calls a ‘rotting alter-ego’. It is not a Pre-Raphaelite doubling in the vein of How They Met Themselves, where both parties take up equal space; rather, the shape of the mirror and dresser reflect the lady’s chair on a massive scale, shrinking and overshadowing the skeleton. Meanwhile, the lady is our focal point – large, central, her face the lightest part of the picture. We are drawn to her contemplative expression, whilst the ominous future threatened by the skeleton is decentred.
Due to her look being so pictorially significant, we are invited to wonder what she is pondering. Now that the expected division of space and visual cue of the skeleton have been disrupted, potentiality abounds. Gazing into a mirror can signify oblivious vanity, but a mirror can also be what Stefanie Knöll calls ‘an instrument of self-knowledge’ – self-reflection, in another sense. The lady’s self-reflection is growing sideways, frustrating the expectations of vanity, fear, didacticism and doom that are created and subverted by the distorted grouping of mirrors, skeletons and women. The design creates a space where she can enact her self-reflection – and estrange it from us.
That is where I would like to leave us: staring at that stare. We can see both mirror-images – in our eyes, the lady’s doom is still there. Yet, though we have this privileged viewpoint, the lady has her own privileges: we cannot access her ‘self-knowledge’, and thus that power dynamic is quietly evened out. The potentiality of the lady’s self-reflection allows the design to offer something more unfixed and intriguing than the inevitable destruction of its central figure. The moment of incompleteness, like the project itself, brims with possibilities. For that lady, for all we know, impending doom might be nothing of the sort.
Camille, Michael. Master of Death: The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Illuminator. London, Yale University Press, 1996.
Knöll, Stefanie. ‘Death and the Maiden: A German Topic?’ in Women and Death: Representations of Female Victims and Perpetrators in German Culture 1500-2000, edited by Helen Fronius and Anna Linton. New York/Rochester, Camden House, 2008.
Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. London, Duke University Press, 2009.
Nat Reeve is a TECHNE-funded doctoral candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, working on all that’s spectral, queer, medievalist and disruptive in Elizabeth Siddal’s art and poetry. They’re especially intrigued by Siddal’s weird reworkings of medieval objects, persistent destabilisation of visual and literary sources, and shifting attitudes towards nineteenth-century creative practice. Nat’s also the 2020 Pre-Raphaelite Fellow at the University of Delaware/Delaware Arts Museum, and the 2019-20 Assistant Director of the Royal Holloway Centre for Victorian Studies. Chase them on twitter @natfiereeve, if you wish.
The “Spectacle of Nature” and Artistic Production in Late Eighteenth-Century France
As a literary historian and historian of science, I’ve become interested in how aspects of late eighteenth-century visual culture that pre-condition knowledge-making projects during the period translate—or don’t—into actual artistic production. To that end, I’d like to organize this post around a question – a genuine question – about how modes of spectacular vision associated with natural historical description and literary culture more generally circulate in visual media. Digging into this question not only promises to shed light on the forms for envisioning Nature that were available in the eighteenth century; it also promises to illuminate these forms’ posterity through the present day (think of a David Attenborough special, with its characteristic “spectacular” review of one earthly locale after another). At a time, moreover, when visual art has never been more variable in media or aim, never more inclined either to critical historical reflection or to dialoguing with knowledge-making ventures or other art forms, this question may additionally help attune us to shifts in the shape of art production—how, when and why such complex interactions among fields of cultural production came about and what their limitations have been in the past.
Take an engraving commemorating the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, produced not long after his death in 1788 by Nicolas Ponce and Clément Marillier.
The engraving appeared in Ponce and Marillier’s series Les illustres français (1790-1816), which matched short biographical sketches of famous Frenchmen with engravings epitomizing their work. I encountered the image in E. C. Spary’s Utopia’s Garden: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution, where it illustrates debates over Buffon’s legacy during the French Revolution. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Ponce and Marillier had each made names for themselves with engravings for works by Voltaire, Rousseau, Raynal and others, and in Les illustres français they teamed upto produce portraits of figures like Henry IV, Descartes, Mirabeau or the sculptor Puget. For them, at least, Buffon remained France’s greatest natural historian; centered in the image, he looks rather imperiously askance as a small dog (?) paws at his pedestal.
Buffon’s bust anchors what at first glance appears to be a scene of barely controlled chaos. A big cat edges dangerously close to a group of fowl, while a duck rears from the water in mid-quack; a raptor coasts in under a bough holding a monkey as a cortège of big mammals hustles in from the left. On closer inspection, though, the image incorporates a number of organizing principles that were important to Buffon’s work, including the grouping together of animals by kind (large and small quadrupeds, birds, minerals, and so on), and the foregrounding of domestic animals like the dog and horse over exotic animals like the elephant (Buffon tended to place the descriptions of animals his readers would be most likely to encounter first). Moreover, the nude man standing on a hill reaffirms humans’ superiority in the chain of being. Exultant, he incarnates Buffon’s conviction that humankind alone is “capable of knowing and worthy of admiring Nature, God made him spectator of the Universe and witness to its marvels; the divine spark that animates him makes him a participant in the divine mysteries” (“On Nature. First View”).
Ponce and Marillier’s image in fact doubles this construal of Nature as an admirable spectacle (I’m maintaining the capitalization of “Nature” where it reflects writers’ usage, or efforts to visualize it as an entire, discrete entity). In both the initial chaos and the emergent order it expresses, it embodies the “spectacle of Nature” as Buffon had presented it in his Natural History: “Writ large,” Buffon affirmed in the “First Discourse”, “natural History is an immense History, which embraces all the objects the universe presents. This prodigious multitude of quadrupeds, birds, fish, insects, plants, minerals, etc. offers to the curiosity of the human mind a vast spectacle, so great in scope that it appears and effectively is inexhaustible in detail” (29). Comparing engraving and description reveals how ingenuous Ponce and Marillier were in finding visual corollaries for Buffon’s rhetoric. Both the image and the description combine boisterous profusion with incipient order—in Buffon’s case, the list of the objects of natural history not only groups kinds of beings together but does so in descending order on the scale of being. Both, further, create a sense of profusion through similar means, given the affordances of their respective media. In the engraving, it is the physical juxtaposition of animals, plants and minerals that creates the impression of diversity and abundance, while in the written description, it is the form of the “list” that cinches these juxtapositions. Where in the engraving the line of quadrupeds disappearing behind the hill hints that more animals may be on their way, moreover, so the “etc.” at the end of Buffon’s list suggests the inexhaustibility of natural history objects. Buffon, and Ponce and Marillier working after him, each attempt to evoke Nature as a whole not through allegory but through a kind of metonymy. Each constructs a spectacle that attempts to encompass all of Nature through a logic of epitome, in which contrasts among disparate objects index the diversity and abundance of Nature as a whole.
In the book I’m writing, I try to show how a broad range of writers envisage Nature as a spectacle through similar descriptive protocols. Ponce and Marillier’s engraving is the only image I’ve stumbled across which translates those protocols faithfully. But what happens when we turn to images that aren’t so paratextual in intent—not made to illustrate or comment on a text? To what degree does painting, for example, embody or deform the “spectacle of Nature”? And what might this tell us about painting’s relationship to other sites of eighteenth-century visual culture?
Some elements of a response may be found in the canvas The Eruption of Vesuvius (1771) by Pierre-Jacques Volaire.
It is certainly spectacular. And just as the engraving thematizes spectacular seeing through the image of the admiring man, just as indeed Buffon’s verbal description conjures spectacular seeing by labeling the description a spectacle, so Volaire has alerted us to the spectacular character of the scene by arranging spectators around the border of the chasm. Further, the painting resembles Buffon’s description and the engraving by assembling a picture of nature’s variety and vastness through juxtaposition. Volaire pits the explosion of the volcano and a seething river of lava against the placid moonlit sea, violent activity against implacable calm, warm colors against cool. Just as the other artifacts sought to convey nature’s vastness, moreover, Vesuvius organizes a depiction of nature’s power and immensity, the geological convulsions of the left contrasting with the ocean’s placid immensity on the right. Yet Volaire’s image also seems too tethered to a specific site and a specific time (Vesuvius’ eruption) to be fully universal in the way delineated by Buffon’s or Ponce and Marillier’s spectacles of Nature. While the Vesuvius scene is spectacular, it remains a landscape, not an effort to imagine Nature as a whole. And this coincides with a documentary quality that departs from the epitomizing or apotheosis of Nature in the other pieces.
If—if—Volaire’s canvas is indicative of tendencies in painting more broadly, is it possible to conclude that the imperatives of landscape impede, or reshape, the totalizing aesthetic of the spectacle of Nature during this period? Did the impetus toward totalization migrate instead into other spaces of visual culture, like the panorama? And if so, what might the strictures of landscape tell us about the epistemic, as opposed to the aesthetic, qualities of the period’s painting? Is it only in pictures of ruins, for example, that painting imagines the completion of larger wholes? To the extent that painting favors “scenes”, it may have steered a middle course between what Buffon defined as the naturalist’s oscillation between the minutiae of natural history and the spectacle of Nature as a whole.
Travis Wilds received his PhD in French from UC-Berkeley in 2015. His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation and other sponsors, and he is currently at work on a book entitled Empire of Exactitude, on the entanglements of literature and science in post-Enlightenment Paris. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), 989-90. My translation.
Lost in the Margins: The Art of the Victorian Theatre Manuscript
Undeniably, without the scholarly edition of the Victorian theatre manuscript, so much of our modern (and perhaps not-so-modern) scholarship would be impossible. From obscure archives to easily accessible and often relatively inexpensive editions, the scholarly edition brings arcane archival material into the hands of students, researchers, and enthusiasts alike. This important work only stands to be expanded further with the advent of digital humanities, putting even more texts into the hands of many more people across the globe. The rapidly expanding and widespread availability of this material imbues the work of literary historians with an unprecedented visuality, offering an abundance of possibilities for scholarship straddling the disciplinary divide between literary criticism, art history, and material culture. Manuscripts used in the Victorian theatre, as I discuss below, wholly embody this disciplinary intersection through attention to their visual characteristics which can breathe new life into scholarship on nineteenth-century drama.
Literary critics have grappled with the centrality of the written word for decades, and, characteristically, there is little consensus about whether that is even a problem, let alone whether it needs a solution. Discussions tend to gravitate to the the text and its attendant endnotes, footnotes (always preferable), introductions and critical essays. Even the name given to material that is specifically not the text – paratextual – draws attention to the centrality of the text, perhaps at the expense of that material itself.
My own research considers the adaptation of novels on the nineteenth-century British stage, and thus engages with archives of unpublished manuscripts and printed play-texts. Many hours have been spent tracking down performance copies, and many more transcribing those texts, all to facilitate the cross-referencing of a novel with its performed version onstage. Dutifully completing each pilgrimage to archives on both sides of the Atlantic in search of these plays, I found myself producing miniature critical editions in order to render the amalgam of material into workable information. The more I did this, the more I became painfully aware of the wealth of information sacrificed to this endeavour, particularly in the heavily annotated performance copies which were used by Victorian theatre practitioners as a catch-all for stage direction, lighting, set design, acting notes, and costuming guides. In the heady euphoria of discovering that the dramatisation of a novel departed radically from its original ending, this treasure trove of information suffered the perennial fate of marginalia and was relegated to the sideline. Building on H. J. Jackson’s pioneering Marginalia (2002), my interest in these annotations echoes recent scholarship on marginalia that includes Abigail Williams’s work on Jonathan Swift and Liz Potter’s on William Blake.
The task, now, is to restore these marginalia to the executive importance they once held in the expansive enterprise of the Victorian theatre. A small dash, an indented stroke of the pen, a hastily thrown together diagram of a practicable door once had the power to determine what would end up thrilling audiences for weeks, months, and even years to come. Even more striking is that the way these annotations look – not their content, but their visuality – is both richly human and familiar. One can sense, for example, a writer’s mounting frustration in increasingly illegible handwriting, which begins with polite suggestions in the first act and barks in a ravenous scribble by the final curtain. Who knew that a sentence which has been stricken through could be so evocative of a personality? Did the writer in question opt for a single, harsh line, a winding crack in the text’s foundation, or a series of wild pen strokes cascading across the page? Is there anything more indicative of human frustration than underlining multiple times a sentence one has written?
It was as if, in the manner you hold a conch shell up to your ear to hear the sea, spending time with these heavily annotated texts plucked me from the hardwood chair of the archive and deposited me into the Victorian theatre in a way the scholarly edition never could. The annotations in the photos shared in this essay, for example, are from some of the dramatizations of Wilkie Collins’s novels. Characteristically, the notes on costuming and diagrams of set design are crammed above, below, and next to the script itself. There is no dedicated document, master guide, or stage-manager’s notebook; only the harried scribble of a theatre practitioner documenting ideas as and when they arose.
The visual culture of the nineteenth century, particularly in the theatre, has been the topic of much recent scholarly interest. The intersection of theatre history and digital humanities offers exciting possibilities in addressing a problem that theatre historians have faced for decades: how do we engage with, conduct research on, and think critically about the theatre if its magic is grounded so firmly in its effervescence? Restoring the human element, in the form of the abundant tapestry of visual information found in the theatre manuscript, is one answer. In the simplest of terms, the ability to widely distribute the kinds of heavily annotated material discussed in this essay can redefine our relationship with “the primary source.” In tandem with the scholarly edition, these texts – annotations, deletions, and messy scribbles included – can bring the Victorian theatre more powerfully into the minds, eyes, and hearts of contemporary readers than ever before.
Robert Laurella is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at the University of Oxford. His research explores the relationship between Victorian culture and the adaptations of popular novels on the nineteenth-century stage. He is particularly interested in how omissions, editions, and revisions in stage versions of novels reveal deeper concerns with local and international affairs, and how adaptation as a historical phenomenon has informed modern versions of the same practice. You can reach him on twitter @RobertLaurella.
Dr Melissa Gustin
Melissa’s paper, ‘Sporegasbord: Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Tanagra and Mushroom Temporalities,’ was delivered on 27th July 2020. A recording of her talk can be viewed via our YouTube channel.
Can the exhaustion of travel, museum fatigue, and an insufficient quantity of overpriced gallery cafe espresso be productive for an art historian? What happens when we take the weird, personal responses to works of art that we have in museums, under less than ideal circumstances, seriously? After all, it’s rare that a work of art is encountered under laboratory conditions, with no distractions and perfect energy, attention, and focus, either by professionals or interested non-professionals. Moreover, even professionals rarely have perfect foreknowledge of every work of art they encounter in a museum, especially on a first viewing, nor can we predict what pieces will stick in our minds long after leaving them behind. This exhaustion is not always productive— sometimes it just makes us cranky— but sometimes, the lowered boundaries brought on by travel and unfamiliar surroundings, and the unexpected encounter, bring about weird and wonderful ideas.
In 2016, on my first visit to Paris as an art historian, visiting the Musée d’Orsay, I had exactly this kind of weird, exhaustion-induced encounter with a sculpture: Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Tanagra (1890) (FIG 1). This was a whirlwind trip, planned specifically to jam as much sculpture into my eyeballs and memory and external hard drive as possible, because no matter how good a database a museum has, my recall works best when I’ve seen a thing in person rather than on the screen. The Musée d’Orsay was late in the trip, after I’d spent three nights in a hostel, eaten nothing but jambon beurre and croissants, run myself absolutely ragged wandering aimlessly around the city, Pere Lachaise, and all day at the Louvre— and I mean all day, from 9:30 am to 8:45 pm. Late openings: a gift to caffeine addict walkaholics with multiple 16gb memory cards, what can I say? So by the time I made it to the d’Orsay, I was not, frankly, at my best; I was tired, footsore, and overwhelmed by trying to think and speak in a language in which I am not particularly fluent. And the Musee d’Orsay is an overwhelming gallery for a nineteenth-century sculpture person, possibly even more so than the Louvre. (FIG 2)
By the time I made it up to the first floor balcony, where the late nineteenth-century sculpture is, the insufficient quantity of coffee and croissant I’d had for breakfast had worn off, and travel exhaustion was properly setting in; several wild emotional journeys had already taken place in front of bucket-list paintings (L’Origine du Monde, a classic) or their absence, (lookin’ at you, Bougeureau’s Birth of Venus) and some new friends (this headpiece, for which I would pay an incredible amount of money to have a laser-cut acrylic replica to wear for conferences, or Paul Dubois’ Narcisse). It was here, cranky and already wrung out, that I stumbled onto the Tanagra. Although now she looms above viewers on a plinth, hieratic and imposing, in April 2016 the sculpture was displayed on a low, large riser, back to a wall. From a distance, and at an angle, with tired eyes, the small polychromed statuettes around the main figure’s feet seemed at first to be mushrooms, visibly growing and erupting from marble ground, colourful and intoxicating (FIG 3). This brief hallucination cleared only moments later: of course the diligent curators and conservators of the museum wouldn’t allow fungus to grow on a sculpture like that; of course they were tiny Tanagra figurines; maybe it was time for more coffee and a proper lunch. The label had no information beyond the basic object data, so I took my photos for my own personal image bank, made a note, and moved on down the gallery.
And then came back on another lap, and again, and again, until it was time to leave. Even after leaving Paris, the image of the Tanagra-mushrooms stuck with me; later that year at a conference co-organised with Dr Meg Bolton and Dr Ciarán Rua O’Neill, one speaker showed Sculptura vitam insufflat picturae (Art Gallery of Ontario), one of Gerome’s paintings showing Tanagra, and I started tracking down the variations of the sculpture, the Hoop Dancer, and related works. I also started researching mushrooms, mycelia, and rhizomes. I had been, essentially, inoculated with the intellectual spore, the reproductive mode of the mushroom: the sculpture had landed in my mental grounds and found a fertile, productive host, and I now carried both knowledge of the work and the idea of these works as a mycelial network with me, to reproduce through scholarly platforms like NDENCA. The physical and psychological state in which I first encountered the sculpture, the angle from which I saw it, the conditions under which my trip was made— specifically looking at antiques and antique citations in nineteenth century art— meant that this work hit me and stuck in a certain way, spreading tendrils through my work and across the systems through which I access, think about, and discuss art and artefacts.
The mushroom isn’t the only weird, productive way I’ve visualised sculpture, artefacts, and paintings, but it was this brief hallucination in 2016 that really kickstarted the weirdness, and made me consider how the personal encounter could shape the scholarly research. Sure, I talk about hallucinating in the museum, but in the following months and years, I have used that first weird moment as a starting point for traditional academic work— archives, museum visits, the secondary literature, following trails. But would the work have been as interesting if it hadn’t given me a moment of pause, a moment of what the hell, and planted itself in my brain? Probably not, and I invite all of you to embrace those weird little moments in the museum as part of your process, your method, or just for fun in scholarship.