Museum Secrets

The Invention of Empathy

January 13, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins Season 1 Episode 13
Museum Secrets
The Invention of Empathy
Show Notes Transcript

Podcast host Lucie Dawkins takes a look at John Singer Sargent’s drawing of Vernon Lee in the Ashmolean Collection. Vernon was a genderqueer trailblazer who invented the word ‘empathy’ in the English language.

Portrait of Vernon Lee – View it here

If you want to take a closer look at John Singer Sargent’s drawing of Vernon Lee, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer and Presenter: Lucie Dawkins

About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean. 

I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.

Today we are heading beck to the Western Art Print Room, which we visited with curator Lena Fritsch a few episodes back. It houses the a collection of works on paper, which can easily be damaged by long exposure to light, so are tucked safely away in dark draws. Usually, the print room is open to anyone, so long as you book in advance. For the moment, it’s closed due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take an audio trip into it today. 

Imagine we are sitting together at a long wooden table in a quiet study room. In front of us, there is a grey cardboard archive box. The label on the front tells us that contains drawings but the artist John Singer Sargent. With a little rustle of protective tissue paper, we open it up, and the light hits the surface of a delicate drawing.

We are looking into the eyes of a person at the very moment that they seem to have turned their head and caught us staring at them. The eyes have a spark of interest, but also seem wary. They weren’t expecting to see us here. The expression is poised on the edge - it seems just about the slide into either a smile or a frown, as if they haven’t quite made up their mind what to think of us. Their lips are slightly parted, holding their breath while they work us out. Every time I see this picture, it makes me catch my breath too. It seems completely alive, like you, I, and the person in this picture are holding in a lungful of the same air, waiting to see who is going to speak first. 

But who is this intriguing person? At first glance, we might assume that this is a young man, in a wide-brimmed hat, stiff collar, and jacket. Look again, and perhaps this a woman, with a feminine ribbon tied around her neck, and delicate features. 

We are looking at genderqueer icon Vernon Lee. Given the name Violet Paget at birth, she started using the name Vernon as a teenager. I am using the pronouns she and her because that is what Vernon used to describe herself, but if she were alive today, she might well choose gender neutral pronouns. She referred to herself as both Violet and Vernon throughout her life, embracing a fluid identity which crossed the gender spectrum. She was also a trailblazer of androgynous fashion, combining the feminine and the masculine, skirts with tailored jackets and ties. 

All of this is particularly astounding when we look at the date of this drawing. 


Vernon Lee was smashing the gender binary during the repressive Victorian era. And not only that. She also lived openly as a gay woman in a deeply homophobic society. Only four years before John Singer Sargent created this drawing of Vernon, their mutual friend Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for his sexuality. As for gay women, Queen Victoria reputedly once said that she didn’t believe they existed. 

So in a society which didn’t even have the language to acknowledge her identity, Vernon lived life fiercely on her own terms. She described herself as having been born too early into a world that was too young.

And she was quite a force to be reckoned with, with an insatiable curiosity and intelligence. Even though she never went to school, she published her first writing at the age of 14, and went on to write over 40 books in fields including travel, philosophy, psychology, art history, feminism, politics, gardening, and music theory.  She also wrote gripping ghost stories. Vernon is now acknowledged as one of the great polymaths of the 20th century. 

There is one particular gift that I am grateful to Vernon for. And that is, that she introduced the word empathy into the English language. A word to describe our ability to understand someone else’s feelings. To put ourselves into someone else’s shoes. 

Vernon first came up with this word in her work on psychology and art. She, and her partner Kit Anstruther-Thomson, developed a theory about what defines beauty in works of art. They argued that when we see shapes, colours and forms in artwork, our muscles and breath respond subconsciously. For example, looking at bright colours might cause us to inhale, and the curves of a sculpture might make us shift our own weight in reaction. They developed this new word ‘empathy’, or ‘projecting feeling’, to describe the idea that our bodies naturally respond to art. Kit and Vernon suggested that beauty is not something an artwork has by itself. Beauty is an act which happens in our bodies when we encounter art. Therefore, we, our bodies, our responses, are part of the art. Beauty is an active thing, and we are the crucial ingredient. We make beauty happen by being there. 

Beauty happened in the empathetic moment when we opened the archive box with this drawing in it, and held our breath when we locked eyes with Vernon. 

I think of the many months this year in which the museum has been closed, and the million objects in it have sat in the dark with no-one to look at them. If you think of the world in Vernon’s terms, then they have just been waiting for you to bring their beauty to life with your presence. The museum isn’t just the objects it holds, it is all the people who come to experience them. It is a place where we practice empathy. 

So, as we imagine sliding this sketch back into its dark, safe drawer in the Print Room, I can’t help thinking of the next person who is going to participate in an act of beauty when they open up this archive box and look into Vernon’s intelligent eyes. Maybe it will be you.

Join us tomorrow for a tale about another hidden picture of an extraordinary woman. It’s a story about love, a matriarch, and a murderer. It’s also got a great lion in it. If you want to see John Singer Sargent’s drawing of Vernon Lee, check out the link the podcast notes. And if you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate, review, and share the podcast. It helps other listeners to find us.