Q&A with Tara Contractor, the 2019 Amy P. Goldman Pre-Raphaelite Fellow

July 24, 2019

Each summer, the Delaware Art Museum and the University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press offer a joint fellowship in Pre-Raphaelite studies, which is generously funded by the Amy P. Goldman Foundation. This one-month Fellowship is intended for scholars conducting significant research on the lives and works of the Pre-Raphaelites and their friends, associates, and followers.

The 2019 Amy P. Goldman Fellow was Tara Contractor, a PhD candidate at Yale University in the History of Art Department and a co-curator of an upcoming exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, Unto this Last: Two-Hundred Years of John Ruskin. Her dissertation topic, “British Gilt: Gold in painting 1790-1914″, investigates gold as a defining material of the nineteenth century; a material through which artists explored the economics of empire, and their place within new, global art histories. Her Fellowship research focused on a chapter of her dissertation examining Edward Burne-Jones’s gilt gesso panels from the 1870s and 80s, specifically the dialogue between these works and Victorian interpretations of gold art from Africa and Byzantium. Many thanks to Tara for spending the month of June in Delaware, and for answering a few questions about her research.

What is the focus of your research?

My dissertation “British Gilt: Gold in Painting 1790-1914,” investigates gold as a defining material of the nineteenth century; a material through which artists explored the economics of empire, and their place within new, global art histories. While in Delaware, I focused on the work of Edward Burne-Jones, who experimented with gold in a variety of media. I have been exploring his gilt gesso panels, thinking about his techniques and potential influences.

What did you look at during the month-long fellowship—here at the Delaware Art Museum and at the University of Delaware—in relation to your PhD research?

Hymenaeus, 1869. Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Oil paint over gold leaf on panel, 32 1/4 × 21 1/2 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935.

I spent the majority of my time examining Burne-Jones’s Cupid’s Hunting Fields, but I was also excited to look at Hymanaeus, an earlier work in which Burne-Jones glazes color over gold leaf. I particularly enjoyed viewing these works within the gallery, alongside period furniture such as the parlour cabinet by Bruce James Talbert. The installation helped me  to get a sense of how a painting’s gilt surface might exist in dialogue with a larger decorative scheme. Studying conservation reports in the Museum’s object files was also a major part of my research, providing me with a better sense of Pre-Raphaelite pigments and techniques.

At the University of Delaware, I looked at Pre-Raphaelite material in the Mark Samuel Lasner collection. It was truly a delight to see items like Burne-Jones’s Guest Book, which is filled with the funniest caricatures of his friends and family. In Special Collections at the Morris Library, I also spent time studying popular nineteenth-century manuals which instructed readers on how to make their own illuminated manuscripts, objects which helped me  to get a better sense of the materials available to Victorian artists, and the sheer popularity of gilding in the period.

Cupid’s Hunting Fields, 1880. Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Oil and gold paint on gesso relief on mahogany panel, 39 1/4 x 30 1/8 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Purchased in memory of Betty Bancroft, 1977.

What was one of the most exciting things you discovered while researching the Museum’s collection?

I was excited to learn more about the materials and techniques used in Cupid’s Hunting Fields—these have turned out to have strong connections to nineteenth century frame-making techniques, suggesting a possible dialogue with Burne-Jones’s father, who was a frame-maker and gilder. Comparing Cupid’s Hunting Fields with other gilt gessos in the coming months, I hope to gain a clearer picture of Burne-Jones’s studio practices.

Why did you pick 19th century British art as your field to study?

At first, I came to nineteenth-century British art through literature—I was an English major at Scripps College and did my undergraduate thesis on George Eliot’s discussions of visual art. I was drawn further into nineteenth-century British art because I was excited by the conviction with which artists like William Morris grappled with questions about the value of art and beauty in society.

Why do you think collections like this are important to preserve for future generations?

The Delaware Art Museum is probably the strongest collection of Pre-Raphaelite painting in the United States, and is a precious resource for anyone interested in the nineteenth century. Pre-Raphaelite paintings demand in-person viewing—their innovative experiments with color, gilding, and frame design make them some of the most difficult paintings to photograph well. At the Delaware Art Museum, American viewers have a rare chance to fully experience the qualities that make Pre-Raphaelite painting so innovative and exciting.

The Bancroft collection also offers viewers a unique opportunity to think about Pre-Raphaelites in a transatlantic context. Not only is the collection’s existence a testament to the interest in Pre-Raphaelite painting in nineteenth-century America, but the Museum offers a rare opportunity to walk between galleries and see real connections between the Pre-Raphaelites and American artists of Gilded Age. There are few, if any, other collections where this complex transatlantic element of Pre-Raphaelitism is so clearly on display, and this element is crucially important for understanding both British and American art of the period.

Could you talk a bit about the upcoming Ruskin exhibition at Yale Center for British Art?

2019 marks the bicentenary of the birth of the great nineteenth-century artist and critic John Ruskin. Drawing on the Center’s rich collection of Ruskin’s drawings and publications, with significant loans from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions, Unto this Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin (September 5 through December 8, 2019) will position Ruskin as a pioneering ecological thinker, social reformer, educator, and preservationist. Bringing together an array of diverse materials including paintings, drawings, literary manuscripts, mineral samples, and memorabilia, the exhibition will highlight Ruskin’s impact in his own time and his enduring significance today.

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin has been curated by three PhD Candidates in Yale University’s Department of the History of Art: Tara Contractor, Victoria Hepburn, and Judith Stapleton, working with Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale and Courtney Skipton Long, Acting Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Yale Center for British Art. A fully illustrated catalogue, with an introduction by Barringer, essays by Contractor, Hepburn, and Stapleton, and an epilogue by Long, will accompany the exhibition. The book Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin will be published by the Center in association with Yale University Press this fall.

For more information about the Amy P. Goldman Fellowship in Pre-Raphaelite Studies, click here.

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