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Victorian Women and Parlour Art – Waxwork (Part One)

Victorian Women and Parlour Art – Waxwork (Part One)

By Eliane Pineault-B.

The Industrial Revolution resulted in many changes in the every day lives of Victorians; from the development of the middle class to the change of landscapes to new technologies, society saw rapid transformations. As a result, upper and middle class women found themselves with a surplus of time, which many used to create ornate and decorative art fit for Victorian parlours and drawing rooms. In the nineteenth century, parlour art became an activity practiced by many Victorian women. Indeed, women were encouraged to use materials found around them to create; several surviving examples showcase parlour art made out of shells, wax, hair, leaves, seeds, wool, glass, paper, beads, feathers, and even taxidermy.[1] The pieces were most often finished with the addition of a glass dome or put into shadowboxes.

At the same time that railways and industrialized cities were developing, the natural world became a topic of great importance to study in Victorian society. Influenced by naturalists and their writings, such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published in 1859, parlour art became a great tool for education while allowing to bring and contain nature within the home.[2] With the proliferation of how-to manuals and magazine articles to create these crafts along with the presentation of various types of parlour art shown at The Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851, the activity gained great popularity with Victorian women.

Among the types of parlour art frequently done was waxwork, with the modelling of flowers and fruits in beeswax being especially popular. Creating arrangements without worrying about seasonality or availability, plus the fact that they would never wilt or rot was very appealing.[3] Wax modelling is a technique that has been used for various purposes throughout history. Indeed, it has been used to create religious art and for scientific modelling for teaching and research since the sixteenth century.[4] The scientific tradition would later mix with artistic skills. Most famously, Marie Tussaud learned to model wax from her uncle who was talented at creating anatomical works and later portraits. In the 1830s, Madame Tussaud opened a museum in London to showcase her wax sculptures.[5] However, the modelling of flowers really gained in popularity in 1840, after Queen Victoria commissioned Emma Peachey to make 10,000 white wax roses to celebrate her wedding.[6]

As a result, many step-by-step guides were published to help women create arrangements for their homes. For example, Lessons in Flower and Fruit Modelling in Wax [Fig. 2], first published in 1870, contains instructions for crafting camellias, roses, passion flowers, lilies of the valley, geraniums, forget-me-nots, clove carnations, water-lilies, as well as leaves and fruits. The book even includes a list of materials and their cost. Additionally, flower-making kits were also available for purchase that included powdered pigments to die the wax, molding tools, tin petal cutters, petal patterns, and molds.[7] Even with guides, women had to have great artistic skills whilst also having a great knowledge of botany. Indeed, the best examples of flower modeling accurately reproduced every part of the flower; everything from the pistil to the veining of the leaves was carefully observed.[8] These examples would be topped with a cloche to protect from dust and fingers and be displayed in parlours, and they could even be used to aid in girls’ education.

The popularity of waxwork did not stop at making flowers and fruits. Indeed, king and queens, famous people, characters from popular stories, and even everyday life scenes were also sculpted in wax.[9] Commercial products were also manufactured. As such, “Valentine domes,” which normally showcase sweet pastoral scenes, were made using press molds; they were then hand painted and glued into a papier-mâché base before being enclosed under glass. [10] Two artifacts in Craigdarroch Castle’s collection are examples of Valentine domes [Figures 1 & 3]. The sweet scenes of the playing children in these fine examples would have made great Christmas gifts for Victorian children.

Along with wax, parlour art was created in a number of different mediums, with each their own tradition. For example, the framed artifact below is a great example of seed work made in 1869 [Fig. 4], but any material available to women could have been used to create these décor pieces. If you are interested in learning more about parlour art, please see part two and three of this blog series that will be dedicated to the techniques of hair work and taxidermy.

In the meantime, the amazing seed wreath can be seen all year long in the Breakfast room of Craigdarroch Castle while the waxwork dioramas can be seen with our toys collection at Christmas time.

 

Images:

[Fig. 1] Unknown. Waxwork Diorama, c. 1840-1890. Wax, papier-mâché, glass, wood, & paint, 16.5 x 14 cm. Craigdarroch Castle 2015.005.003.002.

[Fig. 2] John Mintorn. “The Rose,” Lessons in Flower and Fruit Modelling in Wax, London, Routledge, 1870, p.34 & 35. Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/lessonsinflowerf00mintiala/page/34/mode/2up

[Fig. 3] Unknown. Waxwork Diorama, c. 1840-1890. Wax, papier-mâché, glass, wood, & paint, 16.5 x 14 cm. Craigdarroch Castle 2015.005.003.001a-b.

[Fig. 4] Mrs. Thomas Cunningham. Seed Wreath, 1869. Craigdarroch Castle 985.037.



Footnotes:

[1] John Whitenight. Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, Schiffer, Atglen, 2013, p.8.
[2] Ibid, p.8-9.
[3] John Whitenight. Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, Schiffer, Atglen, 2013, p.11.
[4] Ann B. Shteir. ““Fac-similes of Nature”: Victorian Wax Flower Modelling,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 2007, 35, p.650.
[5] Ibid, p.651.
[6] Ibid, p.649.
[7] John Whitenight. Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, Schiffer, Atglen, 2013, p.22-23.
[8] Mary Scott. “Wax Flower Making in Victorian Times,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 1924, Vol. 72, Iss. 3748, p.764.
[9] John Whitenight. Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, Schiffer, Atglen, 2013, p.37-39.
[10] Ibid, p.40.