“Do you imagine, that through this tragical disguise, I have not found you out?” – Clarence Hervey in Belinda by Maria Edgeworth (23)
The 1760 snuffbox (Figure 1) contains nine images depicting scenes from Miquel de Cervantes’ book “Don Quixote” as well as a watch on its inside. It was created by George Michael Moser, a prominent person in the London art world and the first Keeper of the Royal Academy (Victoria and Albert Museum). The snuffbox is made of gold, enamel, and many jewels, and the watch component is intended to represent the sciences (Victoria and Albert Museum). By examining a critique of eighteenth-century England’s consumer behavior proffered by Neil McKendrick and two poignant moral tales of the time, a 1749 translation of Don Quixote by Charles Jarvis, Esq. and Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 Belinda, the snuffbox will be oriented spatially and temporally to the historical goings on in England during the 1700s to suggest that the snuffbox was made, used, and valued for its representation of Enlightenment ideals and for the user to present their identity in a particular fashion.
Commercialism was on the rise in eighteenth-century England and people were intent on acquiring what they could to present themselves to the public in the best light, even if this resulted in a sort of false representation. In The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, McKendrick explains that by the dawn of the nineteenth century, the “first of the world’s consumer societies” had emerged in England (13). He asserts that England’s then-characteristic close class stratification, shifting philosophical ideals, and changing economic intellect provided an atmosphere ripe for a “contagion of desire” (McKendrick 13, 28). “Spurred on by social emulation and class competition, men and women surrendered eagerly to the pursuit of novelty, the hypnotic effects of fashion, and the enticements of persuasive commercial propaganda” (McKendrick 11).
As consumption increased, people chose to purchase niceties that depicted themselves as they preferred to be seen – a means of challenging the social hierarchy and aligning with certain emerging philosophies. In Don Quixote (Figure 2), the title character is fixated on chivalric ideals and beseeches a knight to give him such a title “ … for the benefit of mankind” and for “ … the relief of the distressed, as is the duty of chivalry” (Cervantes 12). Don Quixote is understood and accepted as a madman and eventually becomes sane by renouncing such romantic notions. Events that unfold and supporting characters serve as symbols of a burgeoning educated lower class and the debate between faith-based virtue and pragmatic reasoning. The decadence of the snuffbox’s design along with its literary iconography aligns the maker, user, and collector with eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideas of science, skepticism, and criticism (Koscak).
Not only would the snuffbox associate the owner with the Enlightenment movement, but in so doing it also could have subliminally served to mask the user’s actual class and intellect. In an environment of rampant consumerism and social emulation, “many objects, once the prized possessions of the rich, reached further than ever before down the social scale” (McKendrick 11). This situation enabled and encouraged people to present themselves in a manner unrestricted by their social position. Edgeworth illuminates this phenomenon in Belinda when Lady Delacour and the eponymous character are readying themselves for a masquerade. “Why, my woman, Marriott, says, I ought to be tragedy; and, upon the notion that people always succeed best when they take characters diametrically opposite their own … ” (Edgeworth 19). Edgeworth uses Lady Delacour’s character to address false representations that were present in England in the 1700s. Lady Delacour has a confident public persona that hides her private concern about her health and makes overt displays of wealth that hide the actual dismal state of her finances. Therefore, it is not farfetched to think that the owner of the snuffbox was perhaps putting on airs of being well read, modern, and progressive.
Other eighteenth-century English snuffboxes provide similar themes of fashionable consciousness and representations of identity. Perhaps none better than the mid-eighteenth-century porcelain snuffbox created by an unknown artist that is in the shape of a girl’s head and painted to have fashion-forward pasty-white makeup, rosy cheeks, red lips, beauty marks, and a black mask (Figure 3). Another, an 1800 gold and lacquer snuffbox created by George Hall (Figure 4) depicts the Japanese god of abundance and is associated with the growing popularity of acquiring goods from abroad to represent an exotic flair.
A fledgling consumer society, aping one’s social betters, and trying to present one’s self in the best way possible were ubiquitous themes in England during the Enlightenment period. These themes are ever present in the literature and material culture discussed here.
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. The life and exploits of the ingenious gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. Charles Jarvis, Esq. London, 1766. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of California, Los Angeles. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. <http://find.galegroup.com/ecco/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=uclosangeles&tabID=T001&docId=CW109644182&type=multipage&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0&docLevel=FASCIMILE>.
Edgeworth, Maria. Belinda, ed. Kathryn J. Kirkpatrick. Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
Hall, George. 1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum No. LOAN:GILBERT.453-2008. Victoria and Albert Museum. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Koscak, Stephanie. “Playing at Patriotism: What then is this American, this new man?” University of California, Los Angeles. Los Angeles, CA. 4 Feb. 2014. Lecture.
McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. London: Europa Publications Limited, 1982. Print.
Moser, George Michael. c. 1760. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum No. LOAN:GILBERT.390-2008. Victoria and Albert Museum. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.
Unknown. Snuffbox. c. 1760-1765. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum No. LOAN:GILBERT.497-2008. Victoria and Albert Museum. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.