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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[Record]

  • David Chandler

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  • David Chandler
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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 …