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Quakerism and Visual Culture 1650–1800

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The doctrine of Quakerism taught the evils of superfluity. Its practice, however, required the negotiation of a specifically material – and materialist – culture, a complex intertwining set of signs with powerful public values. And this became increasingly true with the success during the eighteenth century of this metropolitan group within business, science and medicine. The vast mass of documentation that Quakerism offers the historian has often, of course, been drawn upon by historians of English and American non-conformism. My reading, however, questions the notion of a simple negative relationship between Quakerism and visual culture: questions of representation in general, and portraiture in particular, questions of the production and consumption of luxury goods, questions of the aesthetic, and questions of visual pleasure. It is, arguably, a group like the Quakers – with their procedures for monitoring display – who recognized and sought to control the political power of the visual. This paper asks how members of a group that was firstly controlled by well-documented and rigorous regulations concerning display, and secondly highly successful in the public arenas of commerce and business where self-images were a recognized mechanism, negotiated the apparent contradictions in their position. How did individuals with highly developed views about the effects of visual experience deploy their sophisticated knowledge for their own or their community’s benefit?
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: University of Manchester

Publication date: 1997-09-01

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