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B. E. Maidment, Reading Popular Prints: 1790-1870. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0 7190 3370 5 (hardback). Price: £35

  • David Chandler

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  • David Chandler
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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Between 1783 and 1786 the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge, London, provided a site for the construction of a large, elegant, Palladian building. In appearance this was somewhat deceptive, for beneath the classical veneer steam-power was deployed in a revolutionary manner for the large-scale production of flour. Public response was naturally divided: the Albion Mill could represent, as B. E. Maidment writes in Reading Popular Prints: 1790-1870 , 'triumphant technological progress, radically changed economic organisation based on mass production, a violent attack on the economic survival of farmers and working people, or a sublime monument to human ingenuity' (27). When the Mill was destroyed by fire on 2 March 1791 there were rumours of arson.

The spectacular demise of the Albion Mill naturally inspired several prints that reveal 'a struggle for control over the meaning of the event.' A side-by-side 'reading' of them would certainly be fascinating, but this is what Maidment - despite large, though vague promises signally fails to deliver in his second dithering and muddled chapter, one of four studies of groups of prints produced in the 1790-1870 period. He reproduces just one contemporary print of the fire, and it is dull and annoying to be expected to read 'readings' of prints that one cannot see. Especially, it may be added, when Maidment's capacity to misread is displayed. Discussing a later aquatint by Pugin and Rowlandson, and bothered by the fact that it 'rob[s] the scene of its social content', giving instead (merely?) the 'visual pleasure in urban spectacle', he insists nevertheless that it shows a 'zoned and distinctly class divided metropolis ... The divisive river separates out the powerfully symbolic mass of St. Paul's from the crowded industrial street scene in Southwark' (35). This is a 'reading' clearly distorted by a constant underlying assumption - false to my mind - that any illustrative act of this nature must be political in some way. In fact, as the reproduced aquatint makes clear (36), the Southwark street is far more spacious than those that can be visualised on the other side of the river. With the elegant balustrade of the bridge and iron railings outside the Mill (which appears like a grand public building) the 'industrial street' is very genteel - not obviously 'industrial' at all. And it is patently crowded only because of the fire. All this may seem unduly pedantic, but the point is that a book of this nature must provide the visual evidence before proceeding to the fine nuances of (frequently contestable) critical interpretation .

Another serious question is why the Pugin/Rowlandson work appears at all. It was published in 1808, so long after the fire that it seems nonsense to waste time comparing it with prints produced in the immediate aftermath of the event. This chapter goes badly astray because of Maidment's desire to demonstrate that different visual media (aquatint, drawing, water-colour, woodcut, etc.) had a sort of generic tendency to portray the fire in certain ways. One must accept this as highly probable, but Maidment has neither the evidence (hence the rather desperate use of a much later depiction), nor the scope (in a chapter of less than twenty pages of text) to argue the point at length, as he tries to do. Yet more important space is wasted in discussing a straightforward (not quite straightforward, claims Maidment) engraving of the Mill made before the fire. When Maidment finally turns to the popular prints of the fire at the end of the chapter, his discussion does raise interesting questions of meaning, but is crippled, as noted above, by the absence of the prints themselves. What business he has raising questions like 'Are the devils meant to represent the malicious spirit of "the people" ... ?' (39) when the reader has nothing to refer to beyond Maidment's own discussion baffles conjecture. The longest discussion concerns the only reproduced print of the fire, Samuel Collings memorable 'Conflagration! or the Merry Mealmongers' (showing millers dancing while the Mill burns in the background). Maidment's (over argued) conclusion that it is a politically ambiguous image seems reasonable, and his analysis demonstrates how much better this chapter would have been if limited to the prints of the fire, with reproduction and full discussion in each case. Other contemporary material - such as poems and letters in the London papers - might have been usefully incorporated.

It is a shame that the second chapter of Reading Popular Prints is so disappointing, because the underlying idea of a comparative 'reading' of groups of prints is an excellent one, and this is the chapter that would naturally be of most interest to Romanticists. The third chapter, 'Educated dustmen', is superior in every respect. Discussing a group of prints produced in the decade and a half after 1826, Maidment fascinatingly shows how the dustman (the lowest and grubbiest member of the working classes) became a symbol of 'the uneducated manual labourer attempting to engage in self-improving reading' (53). This tendency of the times could seem excitingly progressive or threatening, depending on one's perspective, and the prints illustrate a range of social commentary. Despite the inclusion again of much tediously repetitive introductory and linking material this chapter has the great merit of presenting a series of detailed 'readings' of reproduced prints, and Maidment proves an insightful guide to their representational codes. This chapter also skilfully interweaves references to contemporary literary works, proving that Maidment is far more at home in the second half of his period.

The fourth chapter, 'Coming through the cottage door', studies mid-nineteenth century images that 'focus on the cottage doorway as a transitional or liminal space between outside and in, work and leisure, men and families, men and women' (101). After another over-long, rather vague introduction that at least establishes the 1848 and 1850 title pages of The Family Economist as test-cases for analysis, Maidment finally gets round to discussing 'The pastoral trope of the evening return of the agricultural labour' (112) in the context of Gray's 'Elegy' and Burns' 'Cotter's Saturday Night'. One might quarrel with these choices from certain vantage points, but the fact that they were beloved of nineteenth century illustrators supports their exemplary status for the present context. Drawing on the work of Victorian artisan poets, and with (unusually) brief reference to Mrs. Gaskell's novels, Maidment argues that by the mid-century the trope had come to emphasise the house as 'an antithetical element to the factory' (121). In an increasingly industrialised and urbanised world 'the returning labourer may be vicious, drunk, out of work, alienated' (125). Maidment effectively demonstrates the tension between the old heroic and new disruptive visions of the returning labourer in illustrations of the period.

The fifth and final chapter of Reading Popular Prints is concerned with mid-nineteenth century images of women's suicide. Maidment posits three possibilities: that these might be read as 'a form of socially motivated self-analysis, an extension of the ethos of the statistical society' (140), or as 'deterministic ... argu[ing] that the prevalent tendency towards self-destruction among isolated and alienated young women in London ... was beyond social intervention and institutional reform' (141), or simply from the point of view of 'outright prurience'. 'The discourse of suicide in these prints,' Maidment continues, 'is both the discourse of social engagement and the discourse of principled laissez-faire.' There is again a deal of largely superfluous matter to negotiate before the discussion begins properly, but, when it does, Maidment is thought provoking.

Altogether then, this is not a book for those who strictly define themselves as Romanticists. If the parameters of the study were set at 1830-70 Reading Popular Prints would be a better book, and then, no doubt, it would not be reviewed in this journal. The study grew, Maidment says in his preface, from 'a kind of wondering curiosity, a naive pleasure in finding out ... not quite the same as ... academic investigation' (xiii). The initial idea was to present 'detailed and extended readings of popular prints.' The book works best at this simple, but nevertheless compelling level. Somewhere along the line Maidment decided that he should attempt a broader study of 'the ways in which meanings and values are constructed, negotiated, transferred, and received within a complex industrial society' (19). To do this effectively - it is sadly almost fashionable to do it badly but sensationally - one must be saturated in the history and culture of the period studied, and although Maidment partially succeeds in the Victorian chapters, there are throughout too many gaps between the weight of the evidence presented and the floating generalisations. For all this, Reading Popular Prints is sufficiently interesting on one hand, and annoying on the other, to provoke and inspire further interest in its subject. It is excellently referenced, and there is a useful bibliography.