My research cuts across disciplinary boundaries and presses against the conventions of periodization in attempting to make sense of the formations and shifts, the debates and conflicts, in the history of nineteenth-century Britain. My early work was influenced by the history and philosophy of science and resulted in Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression in Nineteenth-Century Culture (Cambridge, 2001), which sought to explain the revival of the physiognomical tradition and its undermining by physiological studies that provided inner, scientific rationales for the expression of emotions.
I proceeded to shift the focus of my research towards art history and political theory in order address what I came to see as a limitation of the first book in tracing an intellectual tradition without fully exploring its social consequences. My essays on, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill and aesthetic theories in the nineteenth-century novel, work out some issues relating to the process of democratization especially around individuality and a common culture.
My second book examines a debate about what it means to be interested in beauty and whether being interested in beauty is necessary to public political life. Democratising Beauty in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 2017) begins with the proposal that interest replaces virtue in the nineteenth century, and demonstrates how the shifting senses of interest – from the ancient legal sense of having a right or title to, or a claim upon and share in something to the senses of financial gain, concern and curiosity, advantage or detriment, and the pursuit of what matters to oneself – shape a new language for speaking about beauty. At issue, I argue, are two key questions. Could the expansion of the arts, in terms of production and consumption, be a limitation on the appreciation of beauty? And could the self-interested pursuit of the pleasures of beauty establish the moral and political norms that enable democratic society to flourish?
My current book project is a study of the ‘practicable socialism’ of Henrietta and Samuel Barnett, founders of the Whitechapel Fine Art Loan Exhibition and Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, London who dedicated their lives to alleviating poverty and building bridges between the classes through education, limited state support, and friendship.