Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain

November 1, 2012

“What is the use,” asks Alice at the opening of her Adventures in Wonderland, “of a book without pictures or conversations?” If we extend her argument, what could be of more use than a book that takes pictures as its focus, places pictures in conversation with each other and offers energetic conversations about them? Janice Carlisle’s Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain does just that, bringing together a disparate range of images - from the commemorative group portraits that marked significant moments in the political life of the nation, such as Sir George Hayter’s The House of Commons, 1833, to the satirical cartoons featured in Punch, to representations of current events found in the engravings published in The Illustrated London News - in order to illuminate the ideological implications of graphic responses to the reform movement that for many has defined the Victorian age.

Still, I suspect Alice would not have lasted very long with this book: at the heart of her “use” is pleasure, not utility, and I must confess that, despite its many excellences, I found Picturing Reform less pleasurable, although perhaps more useful, than I had anticipated.

To begin with, Carlisle faces a significant challenge in the format of the volume: reducing Hayter’s painting, “a work of graphic art executed in such a great deal of space that finding a room large enough to hold it became a decades-long problem”, to a 4in by 7in black-and-white picture makes exceptional demands of the reader’s imagination. Yet many of the smaller images drawn from newspapers and periodicals are also disappointing, given the often dark or faded quality of the originals and the fact that many of the most complex images are reproduced at half scale. I kept thinking as I was reading how much more effective the visual component of the study would have been with colour reproductions and a coffee-table format. The medium of the standard academic monograph doesn’t do justice to the vitality of Victorian visual culture.

What the book lacks in visual impact, however, it more than makes up for in both scholarly weight and intellectual enthusiasm: Carlisle weaves her narrative as adeptly through the intricacies of the language of the reform bills as through the complexities of spatial relationships in illustrations for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the engravings of Reform League meetings in Hyde Park from the Illustrated Times. In many ways this study attempts to do for Victorian art what Catherine Gallagher’s The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867 did for Victorian literature. Gallagher’s book drew a comprehensive analogy between representation as a political concept and as a literary act, and in the process managed to make accessible the complicated relationship between the form of the “social-problem novel” and the politics of the age.

Carlisle’s study offers to do the same for visual culture representing class conflict and political and social reform, but raises the stakes: “Although the relation between literature and politics is often taken to turn on the various meanings of the word representation, Bagehot and Ruskin suggest that the political implications of the formal features of an image depend on questions of composition or constitution.” Staging what she terms “analytic encounters, opportunities to gauge the status or significance of one phenomenon in relation to that of its opposite”, she offers the reader unexpected pairings from a variety of media. Her approach is less simplified but therefore also less readily grasped, and sometimes the line of argument can be obscured by an overwhelming attention to detail.

Still, at its best, as it is in the energetic discussion of representations of mob violence in the illustrated papers of the day, Picturing Reform offers a long overdue translation of visual culture from the margins to the centre of discussion of reform.

Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain

By Janice Carlisle. Cambridge University Press. 290pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780521868365. Published 1 June 2012

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