1. The context—plainness

To move into the substance of the debate requires a more thorough exploration of the Quaker testimony on 'plainness', and of Quaker aesthetics.

Clarkson treats of what Quakers called 'plainness' in a section entitled 'Peculiar Customs of the Society of Friends'. Though undoubtedly intending the adjective in the sense of 'distinctive', it is also the case that many non-Friends, at this period, would have regarded some of these customs as peculiar, in the sense of 'odd' or 'exotic', regarding them perhaps with a curiosity approaching disdain. Quakers, for instance, always addressed people as 'thee' or 'thou', long after the second person singular had become wholly obsolete in common parlance. Similarly they avoided using the conventional names for days of the week and calendar months, preferring 'First Day' to Sunday, and 'First Month', to January; and so on. (1) This way of speaking was referred to as 'plain speech.' Plain behaviour was also expected, which included not displaying unseemly deference to authority by unnecessarily removing one's hat, for example. And plainness in apparel, which in the seventeenth century had had an egalitarian effect, as well as encouraging modesty and humility, had ossified, so that Quakers no longer wore merely a simple and un-showy version of the conventional dress of the day, but instead a distinctive costume that marked them out as different from all their contemporaries.

In a similar fashion to their dress, Quakers were expected to use plain furniture: 'The choice of furniture, like the choice of clothes, is left to be adjudged by the rules of decency and usefulness, but never by the suggestions of show.' (2)

Plainness was not always as simple as might have been intended, and there was clearly considerable subjectivity about what was seemly. In particular, the richer members of the Society of Friends found themselves torn between what was expected of them by their co-religionists, and what was expected of them as upholders of a certain position in society. Sir Alfred Pease (3) noted that 'The best of curtains, the best of Turkey carpets, and elegant but solid furniture were in use in Friends' houses,' with the pithy justification that 'The richer members used the best articles because the best wear longest and are the most useful.' (4) Earlier in the century Joseph John Gurney—a wealthy Norwich banker, and a member of a family which formed almost an aristocracy among Friends—noted in his journal:


Spending money is better and less injurious to the spirit, than saving it unduly; nevertheless, Christian moderation, in mode of living, furniture, &c., is called for by my profession. . . . I am living according to the mode of life, in which those with whom I associate are accustomed to live. How far, in doing this, and in aiming at a generous system, I exceed Christian moderation, I doubt. But on the whole, my uneasiness on the subject does not dwell deeply with me. (5)

Quaker customs and beliefs were embodied in what was referred to as the 'Book of Discipline', which acted as a guide for members. (6) Plainness of speech, behaviour and apparel were explicitly sanctioned in this publication. Additionally, standards were upheld nationally by Friends' principal decision-making body, then known as London Yearly Meeting, which annually issued a series of Queries to its subsidiary meetings throughout Great Britain, amounting to what would now been known as a 'performance monitoring' exercise; the Query on plainness was prominent among these. (7)

It is necessary to make some preliminary remarks about what may be called 'theological trends' within nineteenth-century Quakerism, as these will be seen to have some relevance to the debates around portraiture. The eighteenth-century is perceived (8) as the great age of Quaker 'quietism', in which the Society of Friends, having finally gained official acceptance (9), retreated from its seventeenth-century radicalism, before emerging once more, in the nineteenth-century, as a major liberalising force in the public arena. In the early decades of the nineteenth-century, quietists were still dominant in British Quakerism. Quietist theology had many implications for Quaker social and cultural life: it was predominantly anti-intellectual, feared organisation even for missionary or philanthropic purposes, and clung to the concept of a 'Peculiar People', who should live in isolation from the wider community. (10) By the 1830s, however, a different movement was in the ascendant among Friends, an evangelicalism which had grown in parallel with other nonconformist developments. Significantly, Elizabeth Isichei went so far as to say that 'A Quaker evangelical felt himself closer to a non-Quaker evangelical than to a quietist from his own church.' (11) Quaker evangelical attitudes were fundamentally opposed to quietism, and it was Quaker evangelicals who were to lead the way in the process of re-integrating Quakers into the mainstream of British Christendom, in particular by persuading them to put aside their peculiarities. (12)

The issue of a possible parallelism with other—non-Quaker—religious tendencies, has occasionally been noted by other writers. Candida Palmer, for instance, wrote in 1972 that 'Critics who deplore the Quaker deficiencies in the arts must keep in mind that . . . similar attitudes were widespread among contemporary Protestants.' (13) In general terms, however, it is difficult not to conclude, with Geoffrey Cantor, that, as desirable as would be a comparison between the Quaker aesthetic and that of other religious groups, 'Unfortunately the secondary literature on this topic does not permit such comparisons.' (14)

1. It is quite common to retain Quaker terminology for dates, in works of Quaker historiography. Deeming this somewhat affected, conventional dating is used throughout this dissertation, unless in direct quotation from contemporary sources.

2. Clarkson (1869): 80. As the Shakers may spring to the reader's mind, in this connection, it is perhaps worth noting that this early American schism from Quakerism is excluded from consideration here, as both too early in time and irrelevant to Britain.

3. In the 'Essay on Quakerism' by which he introduced his published Diaries—see Pease (1907).

4. Pease (1907): 22.

5. Braithwaite, ed. (1854) I:180.

6. The first printed edition was in 1783, and the work was revised several times during the nineteenth century.

7. London Yearly Meeting was the highest tier of four in the Quaker administrative hierarchy, the others, in descending order, being Quarterly Meetings (usually covering a single county), Monthly Meetings (an aggregation of local meetings), and Preparative Meetings (individual local meetings, comparable to a parish). This structure operated from the 1660s through to the end of 1966. London Yearly Meeting may be considered as the Annual General Meeting of British Quakers.

8. By historians of Quakerism.

9. Although conflict with authority continued over issues such as the payment of tithes.

10. Isichei (1970): 23.

11. ibid.: 11.

12. From the late 18th century evangelicalism as a movement was animated by the conviction that a connection existed between the inward spiritual state and its outward activity, and that consequently its responsibility lay in both spheres. It can be viewed as a Protestant school of theology, marked by four distinctive qualities: "conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross" (Schlossberg 2000a, 2000b). Schlossberg, referring to Bebington's Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, implicitly endorses Isichei's view s, that "often the only thing separating the evangelicals from others is a shift of emphasis" (Schlossberg 2000a). Isichei sees the Gurney family as pivotal in contextualizing Quaker evangelicalism within the movement generally: Joseph John Gurney was a friend of the Anglican Evangelical William Wilberforce, as well as reading widely in nonconformist sources, recognizing similarities between some Quaker doctrines and the teachings of John Wesley; Isichei also does not shrink from acknowledging that Quakers like Gurney would also have been attracted by the wealth and social status of some Anglican Evangelicals (Isichei 1970: 4-5).

13. Palmer (1972-73): 7. Anticipating a later stage in the development of the argument, in the interest of despatching this issue without too much further ado, there is also an occasional reference in the literature to non-Quaker religious attitudes to photography, in which in general terms it is accepted as a metaphor for truth. For example Alexander Keith's Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion, with plates from daguerreotype views—Ewer (1997); or some of the writings of the Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy—Hannum (1997).

14. Cantor (1999): 16-17. Primary sources seen in the course of the present research would support this view. Although the contrary view has been expressed, there is not space to develop this discussion further.



© 2001–2023 Benjamin S. Beck

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