Joseph Joachim’s role in nineteenth-century English concert life is long celebrated. As yet unexamined, however, is how his performances and reception informed critical debates on sentimentalism. Joachim was a prominent celebrity in the domestic salons of mid-century, for example the Holland Park Circle, where his performances were described as perfect echoes of beautiful interior designs and his status confirmed by G. F. Watts’s famous portrait. This article builds on the relationship between “sublime sentimentality” and “domestic aestheticism” in the writings of John Ruskin, a prominent member of these salons. It explores how Ruskin’s idea of moving from domestic “sites,” through “patterns” to “states” in which the heartfelt is expressed in coded, synecdochal or allusive evocation, even in abstract design, can offer insight into the sentimental dimensions of Joachim’s salon performances.
Crucially, Ruskin considered both domesticity and sentimentalism as designs and expressions of feeling which are capable of expansion into large forms and contexts, of moving from the intimate to the public. The second part of this article explores sentimentalism in works composed for the concert hall, provoking critical debate at the turn of the century. Tovey’s Victorian tastes were strongly influenced by both Joachim and Ruskin, but Tovey’s assessments of Joachim as the violinist reached the end of his career exemplify the wide critical turn against mid-century sentimentalism. In 1902 Tovey praised Joachim for making no concession to public sentimentalism, in particular through demonstrating a “Classical” grasp of form, by contrast with those who seek sentimental effect through slowing down the performance of “beautiful” passages. In a late echo of Ruskin, Tovey desired that one must be susceptible to the beauty of “design.” The article ends by comparing Sargent’s late portrait of Joachim, presented at the Jubilee celebrations of 1904, with that of Watts.