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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Evangeline Rouse

My interest in selfhood and object identification stems from my own relationship with particular objects such as jewellery, clothing and pictures/picture albums that I have inherited from family, friends and strangers. There is a particularity of the individual in the home and in their prescribed rooms, I have found intimacy between myself, the objects, their makers and their owners in researching and exploring historic homes. I have paused to reflect on our hierarchy of domesticity in design history. Pat Kirkham and Judy Attfield quote “Relationships between objects and gender are formed and take place in ways that are accepted as “normal” as to become “invisible.”’[1]

If we take this quotation and simplify it to the relationship between objects and identity we can trace a similar relationship in which the maker, owner and interactions between object and person are lost in the historical narrative. It is the aim of this research project and essay to bring forth an understanding of this intimate relationship as well as highlight the necessity of acknowledging such a disregarded aspect of object history. Often object history is simplified into production, economic and political histories and discussions. I wish to break this barrier and confront the very real attribute of object stewardship and ownership that offers an object its own history and value through its relationship and interaction with the objects physical owner. Kirkham and Attfield highlight that this is often ‘invisible’, I would contest it is not invisible if you consider the value of the peoples behind the object in all manners of its creation.

[1] Pat Kirkham and Judy Attfield, Introduction to The Gendered Object, ed. by Pat Kirkham (Manchester and New York: Manchester Press, 1996).

Image: Monk's House. Photograph: Evangeline Rouse.

Degree Details

School of Arts & HumanitiesV&A/RCA History of Design (MA)RCA2023 at Battersea and Kensington

RCA Battersea, Studio Building, First floor

Image of Evangeline Rouse

Evangeline Rouse is an interdisciplinary academic with a particular interest in literary histories and art cultures. Having studied English Literature and developing an interest in cultural heritage and historic homes she continued her interests into the RCA/V&A History of Design programme. Her undergraduate thesis Cultural Heritage: The Staying Power of the Gothic unpacked the historical understanding of Gothic literary heritage and its presentation in the Bronte Parsonage Museum [Haworth, England] and Mary Shelley's House of Frankenstein [Bath,England]. This project not only interrogated the literary history and interpretation of homes but looked at how a home is presented to represent individuals, communities and ideologies.

Her work continually seeks to investigate identity and selfhood through object preservation, presentation and interrogation. It is imperative to bring forth the hidden histories, meanings, and interactions with objects and spaces as this seems to be a negated area. In her practice, there is a particular interest in female discourses and histories and their presentation in contemporary discussions. Currently, her focus has dived further into historic homes but has also written for the Design History blog [publishing in July/August] to unpack the silenced identities of female presenting asylum patients. She is stimulated by this area of history as she feels can connect greatly to these areas and hope in doing so she contributes, in her shape and form, to the wider discourse of identities in Design History.

Textile objects and us.

Objects not only present the identities and memories of the makers and users but also mark a modernisation of a historical form. Moving away from the necessity of making, embellishing and Needlework has been assumed as a form of expression, this is particularly emphasised by Johanna Amos and Lisa Binkley in their introduction to Stitching the Self/ Identity and the needle arts.[1] Stitching as expression can be interpreted as stitching as identity as; ‘stitching – whether worked by the embroider, knitter, quilter, or dressmaker – enabled individuals and communities to remake themselves and the world around them.’ In this sense, then, there is also a sense of making oneself within the stitching process. As well as performativity and intentionality through stitch and textile making. Heather Pristash, Inez Schaechterle, and Sue Carter offer that needlework provides ‘the space in which to stitch not only a seam but also a self.’[2] Further to this, if we take Belk’s theory that discusses the possession and object as an extended version of the self; then, stitching and needlework is a further conscientious impressing of identity and expression into one’s objects and surroundings.

[1] Ed. by Johanna Amos and Lisa Binkley, ‘Stitching the self/ identity and the needle arts’, Bloomsbury Publishing 2020, p.1 (pp.1-111).

[2] Stitching the self/Identity and the needle arts, p.2.

Duncan Grant's berlin wool work firescreen.
Textile firescreenDesigned for the inhabitants of the home, an aestheticised textile fire screen centres itself amongst the room. Photograph: Evangeline Rouse.
‘Portrait of a Patient’, c.1855, Hugh Welch Diamond FSA FRPS (Dr), Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.
‘Portrait of a Patient’Hugh Welch Diamond FSA FRPS (Dr), c.1855, Museum no: RPS.2966-2017 (Victoria and Albert Museum).

This piece sought to draw attention to the photographs held in the V&A collection of unnamed and unknown women receiving treatment at Surrey County Asylum. Read on for the introduction of this piece:

Hugh Welch Diamond’s photography of female patients at Surrey County Asylum documents women suffering currently suffering from one, or multiple, mental diagnoses. The nineteenth century saw an expansion of mental illness diagnoses and an increase in asylum admittance, with reasons for admittance ranging from religious obsession, “hysteria” (a now firmly antiquated term), nervous dispositions and malady. Regarding the women in Diamond’s photography, their illnesses remain a mystery and little to no information exists other than their interactions with Diamond.

In discussing these photographs, I hope to bring forth an alternative reading of these women and suggest a multiplicity to the function of these photographs in medical practice. As depicted in the accompanying image, a patient is capture with a slight smile; an expression that we often associate with pleasantry and happiness, yet, there is an ambiguity to her smile. I immediately began to question the curation of this photograph and the role of the photographer behind this image as well as the presentation of a smile that expresses an alleged pleasantry. The text accompanying this image, found in the Metropolitan Museum of art collection, suggests that ‘because the image is not annotated the viewer may, like the metaphysician, muse on whether the woman’s engaging but ambiguous smile and almost cocky pose denote a state of madness, a return to health, or a challenge to society’s parameters of sanity.’ [1] The text suggests an autonomy of the patient in presenting herself in a certain fashion or light. Yet, there is no mention or allusion that, perhaps, Diamond orchestrated or posed his subjects to align with his own philosophies regarding mental illness. Diamond advocated a presenting relationship between physiognomy, a person’s facial features or expression, and their mental state and/or illness. Diamond, an early adoptee and enthusiast of photography, photographed these women between 1848 until 1855; a time in which the birth of photography and adoption of the photograph in medicine acts as ‘part of the visual culture of mental illness and represents a desire to identify and control mental illness through its visual identification.’[2] With this in mind, we witness the beginning of a present visual culture in presenting and documenting curated mental illness through photography. Yet, with this, we must also consider the manipulation of the subject within these images for a manipulated outcome. As an advocate of physiognomy, it is not unlikely that Diamond would be keen to present evidence and findings of his beliefs. Furthermore, Diamond believed photography could be used and aid the diagnosis and treatment of the mentally ill. Key to Diamond’s practice is his following of ‘physiognomics’; a theory that disease and character could be recognised from an individual’s features or physiognomy. [3]Diamond’s practice was conducted with the preconception that diagnosis led to cure and recovery. Diamond suggested that if a patient was confronted with their illness, then the self-reflection required to recognise the illness would inevitably result in an alleviation of symptoms and eventually in full recovery. ‘For Diamond, cure emerged from acknowledgement of insanity and […] Madness developed out of a schism between the way patients appeared and the way they thought they looked.

In this Diamond pushed physiognomical principles in a dramatically new direction.’ [4]I would suggest that there is a third layer that situates Diamond’s perception of the depiction of ‘madness’ and the way they thought he should appear.

To read more of this blogpost please keep an eye out on the Design History Society Blog in the upcoming months.

[1] ‘Patient, Surrey County Lunatic Asylum’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H.Lee Gift (2005). Available here:

[2] Jennifer Eisenhauer, ‘A Visual Culture of Stigma: Critically Examining Representations of Mental Illness’, Art Education, vol.61.5 (National Art Education Association: September 2008), pp.13-18 (p.15).

[3] Paul Gallagher, ‘Documenting Madness: Female Patients of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum’. Dangerous Minds, (2015). Available here:

[4] Sharrona Pearl, ‘Through a Mediated Mirror: The Photographic Physiognomy of Hugh Welch Diamond’, History of Photography, 33:3 (2009): 288-305 (pp.4-5). Available here:

Recipient of the Robert Beacroft Barker Bursary and Sylvia Lennie England Award, 2022.