Sociology and Anthropology
discussion of the painting known as "The Yarmouth Collection"
(pictured below) is excerpted from the Introduction to Empire
of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (Howes 2004).
on the above image for a larger view
painting (pictured above and also reproduced on the cover of Empire
of the Senses) is a remarkable depiction of a seventeenth-century
collection of valuables belonging to the Earl of Yarmouth. As
well as being a record of material abundance and cultural refinement,
however, ‘The Yarmouth Collection’ (by an undetermined
artist) is a portrait of a particular sensory order - or rather,
of a number of sensory orders, which interact and challenge each
other. That the painting is not just the record of the contents
of a magnificent cabinet of curiosities or treasure chamber is
indicated by the prominent presence of fruits and flowers. What
one sees most immediately in this painting, in fact, is an empire
of the senses constituted by the best the world has to offer.
Fine fruits and a lobster are served up for the sense of taste.
Roses and perfume bottles cater to the sense of smell. Musical
instruments and a singing girl are ready to delight the ear. Intricately
carved vessels and soft folds of cloth await a sensuous touch.
The colorful assemblage with its glittering surfaces provides
a feast for the eyes. In this microcosm earth, sea and sky are
all symbolically present through representative objects and animals:
minerals, plants, shells, birds. Space and time are themselves
symbolized by the globe and the clock.
closer look at the painting informs us that this ‘empire
of the senses’ is very much a political empire. Rich and
rare sensations have been brought together from all over the world
(as is suggested by the presence of the globe). Not just artefacts
and plants, but also animals and humans form part of this empire.
The monkey, the parrot, and the enormous lobster all speak of
wealth, exoticism and dominion. The African servant and the English
girl (exemplars of the subordinate social groups of non-Westerners
and women) are also valuable collectibles and docile subjects
in this microcosm. We see here that everything has been displaced
from its original setting and brought together to form a new world
the arrangement of the collection in the painting might appear
to be haphazard or dictated only by aesthetic concerns, the different
objects and beings are in fact entwined through powerful bonds
of sensuous and moral significance. The African and the monkey
form a pair, mirror images, in fact, as they gaze at each other.
The monkey is a customary emblem of the sense of taste and the
African stands ready to serve the sense of taste with his ewer.
Together they suggest the traditional trope of African lasciviousness
girl and the parrot form another pair. The parrot, as a symbol
of chattering speech, duplicates the orality of the singing girl.
This pair is suggestive of feminine loquacity. In her left hand
the girl holds a bouquet of roses, making another symbolic allusion
to the nature of women - attractive but insubstantial. That all
the parts of the collection are at the disposal of the owner,
that they are all, in a sense, dead to their own selves and living
only as collectibles, is emphasized by the brilliant but lifeless
lobster at the center of the painting.
empire of the senses, however, is not without its own internal
critique. Neither of the human members of the collection appears
content with his or her lot. Neither appears interested in the
collection itself. The African is turned away from the collection,
distracted, disturbed. As he looks at his fellow captive, the
monkey, is he trying to reconcile a confusion of sensory worlds
or to remember a former way of life? The English girl gazes wistfully
beyond the collection. What is she longing for that cannot be
found in this hoard of riches? The drooping roses in her left
hand indicate that she cannot be preserved indefinitely, like
a marble statue. Among the words written in the songbook she holds
in her right hand are ‘death’s black’. The parrot
which stands on the book is poised to fly away. Other elements
in the painting also suggest that all is not well within the empire.
The clock, watch, hourglass and smoldering candle are all reminders
of mortality. While earthly treasures might be plentiful, time
is running out for storing up treasures in heaven. In fact, time
was also running out for the Yarmouth collection. Deep in debt
the Earl was obliged to sell much of his collection, perhaps shortly
after its commemorative portrait was painted.1
papers brought together here also represent a collection, as sensorially
rich and variegated as the display depicted in ‘The Yarmouth
Collection’, and as full of interpretative delights and
challenges. Whereas ‘The Yarmouth Collection’ is conventional
in its use of sensory symbols, however, the essays here herald
a revolution in the representation and analysis of culture.
A complementary analysis of the symbolic elements of ‘The
Yarmouth Collection’, along with a historical background,
is offered by Robert Wenley (1991). See further Pamela Smith's
'Science and Taste' (1999) for an account of how the senses were
constructed in seventeenth century Netherlands (the probable birthplace
of the artist).
C. and D. Howes. 2005. The Sensescape of the Museum. In Sensible
Objects, ed. E. Edwards, C. Gosden. and R. Phillips. Oxford: Berg.
D. 2004. Introduction: Empires of the Senses. In Empire of the
Senses, ed. D. Howes. Oxford: Berg.
P.H. 1999. Science and Taste: Painting, Passions, and the New
Philosophy in Seventeenth-Century Leiden. Isis 90: 421-61.
R. 1991. Robert Paston and the Yarmouth Collection. Norfolk Archaeology
XLI, pt. II: 113-44
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
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