British Gilt: Gold in British Painting from Blake to Whistler

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History of Art

First Advisor

Barringer, Tim


The nineteenth century was the age of Britain’s gold standard, an era when the storied metal held new roles as currency and imperial trophy, becoming as central to the culture as glass or steel. Drawing new attention to British painters’ radical experiments with gilding, this dissertation explores how nineteenth-century artists reinvented painting for the modern age by engaging with gold’s entangled associations with colonialism, ornament and excess. Insisting upon the metal’s dual status as material and symbol, this dissertation brings object-based analyses informed by techniques from art conservation into a conversation about gold, money, and value hitherto located largely in the field of literary criticism. The dissertation’s four chapters examine canonical British artists’ gilding practices, identifying pivotal moments in the metal’s evolving material and symbolic functions. These chapters are linked by a set of core interests: the connections between art and currency as forms of representation; the relationship between materials and meaning at the dawn of the global industrial economy; the connotations of the gothic across artistic and ethnographic contexts; and the status of the decorative within nineteenth-century painting. Revising a long-accepted chronology of British art that draws an artificial boundary between Romantic and Victorian painting, this dissertation opens with a chapter on William Blake’s experiments with gold. Focusing on two paintings from Blake’s poorly received 1809 exhibition—The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth and The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan—the chapter explores how Blake’s unusual gilding suggests gold’s new economic and imperial associations in the years leading up to the formalization of the gold standard. The second chapter recontextualizes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood within the culture of the mid-nineteenth-century gold rushes. Addressing the strangeness and eclecticism of Pre-Raphaelite gilding, this chapter suggests that their paintings embrace a feminized approach to gold that distanced them from the metal’s associations with the masculine-coded spheres of industry and empire. The third chapter focuses on Burne-Jones’s gilt gesso panels from the 1870s and 80s, technically innovative works existing in a liminal space between painting and sculpture. Gold emerges in Burne-Jones’s work as a material uniquely associated with the rise and fall of empires, one with the potential to offer either redemption or destruction. The dissertation concludes with a revisionist discussion of James Abbott McNeill Whistler as a user of gold centered around the infamous Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. Gold is revealed as central to Whistler’s project, a fraught material that creates an ethereal, exotic atmosphere which it simultaneously shatters by recalling the monetary.

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