Abstract for Constructions of Love and the Emotions of Intimacy, 1750-1850 (9 February, 2019)

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Serena Reading, by James Hopwood Sr, published by Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, after George Romney
stipple engraving, published 1 October 1811 5 7/8 in. x 3 7/8 in. (148 mm x 99 mm) paper size. National Portrait Gallery.

I’m hugely excited that my paper ‘‘Pledges of an highly-prized friendship’: Anna Seward, Portraiture, and the Poetics of Exchange’ was accepted for the 2019 conference, Constructions of Love and the Emotions of Intimacy, 1750-1850, which examines the roles love and intimacy played in interpersonal relationships throughout this period. My abstract is included below.

‘Pledges of an highly-prized friendship’: Anna Seward, Portraiture, and the Poetics of Exchange

This paper unpacks the complex networks of emotional, artistic, and poetic exchange that surrounded a highly emotional portrait-object: a printed version of George Romney’s painting Serena given to Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831)—the so-called ‘Ladies of Llangollen’—by the poet Anna Seward (1742-1809). Seward identified the image as a ‘perfect similitude’ of her deceased step-sister Honora Sneyd, so much so that the print played an active role in Seward’s commemoration of their lost friendship. Like Butler and Ponsonby’s own infamous ‘romantic friendship’, Seward and Sneyd enjoyed an intensely close and deeply affectionate relationship that flouted social norms, with both Sneyd’s marriage to Richard Edgeworth in 1751, and her eventual death in 1780, devastating the poet. Discussing both Seward’s copy of the print, as well as Butler and Ponsonby’s facsimile, the paper places the image within two contexts: firstly, in relation to Seward’s volume of poetry Llangollen Vale with Other Poems (1796), a sentimentalising series of verses dedicated to Seward’s intimate relationships with Butler, Ponsonby, and Sneyd; and secondly, within an intricate display of gifted portraits at Plas Newydd, Butler and Ponsonby’s home at Llangollen in Wales. Using methodologies from the history of the emotions, material culture studies, and queer theory, it will demonstrate the image’s deep embedment within Seward’s emotional and creative consciousness: on the one hand, allowing Seward to actively ruminate and comment upon her close connections with Sneyd, Butler, and Ponsonby; and on the other, functioning within a dynamic web of literary, material, and loving gestures enacted between Seward and her friends.

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