Vernon Lee: The Psychology of an Art Writer

With a republished collection of her writing by David Zwirner Books, the Italophile critic is shown to be as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent

Galleries, for Vernon Lee, were exhausting places. Standing in front of Il Sodoma’s painting San Sebastiano (1520), she developed ‘palpitations’; looking at Raphael’s fresco The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila (1514), she had a snatch of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi going round and round her head. Still, seeking to understand the means by which great artworks affected their viewers, Lee was keen to undergo these trials, and made a record of some in her ‘Gallery Diaries’ of 1901–04, which David Zwirner Books have recently republished as one half of The Psychology of an Art Writer. (The title essay, from 1903, is the other half.) Lee would travel to museums and churches everywhere from Assisi to Rome, and when at home in Florence, where she lived from 1889 until her death in 1935, she walked a mile downhill to the Uffizi Gallery, day after day after day. ‘A great picture’, she noted to self, ‘is made to be seen at several goes’.

Most things about ‘Vernon Lee’ were uncompromising. Her real name was Violet Paget, she lived with a female lover for 11 years (the art theorist Kit Anstruther-Thomson), and as fast as she made friends in Italophile circles, she would alienate them. Today, she is best known for her supernatural tales – in Karl Miller’s words: ‘feminist ghost stories’ – although she contemned them, instead treating her aesthetic theories as her life’s real work. Her contemporaries were usually impressed by her, at least until bridges were burned. In 1893, Henry James gave an ambivalent report to his brother William, saying Lee was ‘as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent, which is saying a great deal’.

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Vernon Lee, The Psychology of an Art Writer, 2018. Courtesy: David Zwirner Books

While James’s praise is quirky, it implies a genuine respect. After all, Lee made a claim to his brother’s field: she considered herself a psychologist, one whose work was ‘purely scientific’. Her major aesthetic essay, Beauty and Ugliness (1897), was jointly written with Anstruther-Thomson and predates ‘The Psychology of an Art Writer’ and the ‘Gallery Diaries’ by several years. In their remarks on pleasure as an embodied sensation, the pair were (without yet knowing it) in tune with both the German theorists Karl Groos and Theodor Lipps and the new notion of Einfühlung (‘in-feeling’ or ‘empathy’). In 1905, when Lee’s ‘Gallery Diaries’ were published in the academic journal Revue philosophique, they received some thin praise from another leading psychologist, Oswald Külpe. But Külpe was a systematic and clinical man, and shared his peers’ reservations about Lee’s methods. Lee was just as unconvinced, even after visiting Külpe’s university lab in 1911. ‘My aesthetics,’ she wrote, ‘will always be those of the gallery and the studio, not of the laboratory.’

Both texts in this volume, with their brisk, first-personal prose, kick against the idea that artistic experience might end up in a graph. Lee had a horror that her writing would explain away what (and how) she saw; that it would lapse into what she called ‘poetic suggestions’ and ‘literary amplifications’. Spectatorship was about sensing the physicality of form, not reaching to decode or contextualize it. (‘I think statues are not often really doing the action we attribute to them.’) Today, with her insistence on slow, introspective attention, she’s in good company. Think of T.J. Clark, spending months in front of two Poussin works for The Sight of Death (2006), or Arden Reed, who begins his book Slow Art (2017) with a story of being enchanted by Manet’s Young Lady of 1866 (1866). A century before these men, or our current vogue for ‘affects’, Lee was in fin-de-siècle Rome, being struck by three tyrannicide statues and how ugly she found the ‘eagerness’ of their shape. ‘This action,’ she wrote, ‘is an intrusion in my life.’

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John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee, 1881, oil paint on canvas. Courtesy: Tate, London

Such intrusions could be glorious or painful – or both. For Lee, it was impossible to know exactly why you felt something, at a given moment, on a given day – and this was part of aesthetics in the wild. Contingency wasn’t a threat to her experiments, but central to their point. Frequently in these diaries, she can’t even get drawn into a picture: she’s often too bored, or narky, or filled with ‘unwillingness to look’. Aren’t we all? In one 1903 entry, we find her in Venice, trying to figure out Bonifazio Veronese’s Dives and Lazarus (1540). It gives her ‘three or four minutes’ of nothing, then a little success, then music and palpitations, then several empty minutes more. Eventually it comes. ‘I find I am beginning to care for background… I like it, enjoy it, go with eye into the charmille of garden.’ The editor Dylan Kenny puts it well: ‘The stage of [Lee’s] investigations was the world, where tourists intrude, friends die, days are sunny, you have a tune in your head.’ His order seems wrong, but things happen like that.

Main image: Photograph of Vernon Lee by Mary Robinson

Cal Revely-Calder is a writer and editor from London, and the winner of the 2017 Frieze Writers’ Prize.

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