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Walter Pater and Portraiture

Wednesday 28 November 2018, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Lene Østermark-Johansen

During his relatively short career, Walter Pater (1839-94) wrote eight completed pieces of short fiction which he entitled Imaginary Portraits. In addition there are several manuscript fragments of Imaginary Portraits in the Houghton Library at Harvard, in very different stages of completion. The term ‘Imaginary Portrait’ contains an apparent paradox; portraits are meant to be likenesses, to include some mimetic element, to be representations in art of a real individual, and the notion of the imaginary undercuts that. I would like to think about the ways in which portraiture functions within Pater’s texts, about a few contemporary contexts in which we might consider his new and hybrid genre, and about the complex interrelationship between the type and the individual which in many ways is fundamental to portraiture, no matter whether it is literary or visual. I would like to argue that the visual arts are very strongly present in Pater’s texts. He famously never illustrated any of his books, published by Macmillan on cream-coloured, woven paper in austere dark bluish-green bindings with gold lettering on the spine, thus keeping the visual within the realm of the imaginary, making his readers fellow creators who would have to conjure up the images suggested by his writings in their own minds. Yet paintings, in both English and European collections, were important sources of inspiration for Pater, and new readings of his texts bring this visual material to the fore.


LENE ØSTERMARK-JOHANSEN teaches English art and literature at the University of Copenhagen. She is author of Sweetness and Strength: The Reception of Michelangelo in Late Victorian England (1998) and of Walter Pater and the Language of Sculpture (2011). Among her edited volumes are Nose Book: Representations of the Nose in Literature and the Arts (2000) (with Victoria de Rijke and Helen Thomas) and Victorian and Edwardian Responses to the Italian Renaissance (2005) (with John Law). She has a long-standing interest in word–image relations and in the nineteenth-century reception of the Italian Renaissance, and has published essays and articles on Oscar Wilde, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Vernon Lee, Arthur Symons and, most extensively, Walter Pater. Her annotated edition of Pater’s Imaginary Portraits (2014), the first ever, was received with great critical acclaim, and an expanded version has recently appeared as the third volume (of ten) in The Collected Works of Walter Pater (Oxford University Press, 2018). She is currently working on a monograph about Pater and portraiture.

Location: Berrick Saul Treehouse