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Romantic Spectacle – An Introduction[1]

  • Ian Haywood and
  • John Halliwell

…more information

  • Ian Haywood
    Roehampton University London

  • John Halliwell
    University of Bristol

Article body

The articles in this special issue of Romanticism on the Net are derived from papers delivered at the ‘Romantic Spectacle’ conference, held at Roehampton University London in association with the University of Bristol in July 2006. The focus upon ‘Romantic Spectacle’ aims to promote and stimulate new modes of thinking about the aesthetic and ideological impact of visual cultural production in the Romantic period. The word ‘spectacle’ is intentionally tendentious: unlike a more neutral word such as ‘image’, the idea of ‘spectacle’ implies the emergence of conspicuous new types of visual effects in British culture of the late eighteenth century.

It is clear from the variety of topics covered by the articles in this volume that this new cultural practice had numerous causes and manifestations. A crucial development was the cultural authority of theories of sensibility and the sublime, both of which placed an intensified emphasis on the visual representation of suffering.[2] The idea that sensational violent imagery could have a redemptive moral effect on the suitably refined reader or spectator had a profound impact on eighteenth-century literary and artistic culture. In response to the cataclysmic events which became the historical bedrock of Romanticism – revolution, global warfare, imperial expansion, the slave trade – an expanding Romantic print culture invested heavily in set-piece dramas of hyperbolic distress.[3] The Gothic imagination is the best-known and most enduring legacy of this cultural shift,[4] but one aim of ‘Romantic spectacle’ is to recover a much wider field of cultural production and consumption. The quest for sublime and awe-inspiring visual effects was not restricted to depicting (in verbal or visual form) scenes of violent or hyperbolic suffering. Burke’s influential writings on the sublime identified a range of proto-Romantic spectacles which would guarantee the (assumed masculine) frisson of elevated terror and awe: colossal natural scenery (mountains, caves), notions of infinity or vastness,[5] and ‘obscure’ or hyperbolic images of power. The notion of spectacle as a cultural tool of dictatorship was a particularly influential feature of the Burkean sublime: as Burke notes, ‘Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye’ (231). Thomas Paine was in little doubt about the degrading effects of displays of terror such as public executions: ‘The effect of those cruel spectacles exhibited to the populace, is to destroy tenderness, or excite revenge; and by the base and false idea of governing men by terror, instead of reason, they become precedents’ (57-8). Following Burke’s approval of ‘judicious obscurity’ rather than Paine’s critique of repressive spectacle, revisionist historians have argued that popular spectacles of political, religious and military power played a crucial role in shaping British national identity in the late eighteenth century.[6] But the political use of spectacle was not the sole prerogative of the state. From the 1760s onwards (the era of ‘Wilkes and Liberty’) popular politics became increasingly theatricalized and popular culture became increasingly politicized. Though the unreformed electoral system, as seen in Hogarth’s prints, could often resemble a carnival or urban riot, the disciplined mass political rally became the radical ‘answer’ to the loyalist military parade or royal procession.[7]

To mention Hogarth also reminds us that the spectacular vignettes of caricature prints became hugely popular modes of imagining and disseminating political ideas and social themes.[8] Though they are poles apart in many ways, Gillray and Blake were both concerned to visualize sublime power and hyperbolic experience. However their work must also be placed in a much broader and diverse economy of visual spectacle and display which embraced both polite and popular culture: the consumer boom in luxury items which beautified and commodified everyday life (Wedgewood’s pottery, the conspicuous presence of advertising);[9] the rise of institutions of polite leisure and ‘socioscopic’ recreation[10] such as urban pleasure gardens, the masquerade, landscaped country estates, and public art galleries; and, as Richard Altick has shown, the proliferation of popular urban ‘shows’ of all kinds, many of which exhibited new and innovative visual technologies such as the eidophusikon, panorama, diorama and phantasmagoria.[11] The illusionistic power of these new means of visual display has attracted considerable attention from critics who are keen to refute the lingering Wordsworthian disdain for ‘mimic sights that ape/The absolute presence of reality’ (The Prelude, VII: 248-9).[12] Terry Castle has argued that phantasmagorias participated in the Romantic secularization of the supernatural, an ‘uncanny’ process in which spectrality was displaced from religion to the psyche.[13] Castle and other critics have also investigated scientific ‘magic’, the intriguingly paradoxical use of illusionism to promote new scientific discoveries and technologies.[14] The ideological and aesthetic impact of panoramic realism has influenced recent studies of Romantic warfare and urban experience. Philip Shaw and Gillian Russell have shown that the panorama could claim to be the apotheosis of history painting, as it provided a unique means to represent (and celebrate) the vast scale of warfare.[15] James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin argue that the panorama made London the site of the first truly metropolitan sensibility, a structure of feeling defined by Walter Benjamin (in relation to Paris) as the ‘displacement of the sentiment of natural landscape by the sentiment of cityscape’. Their most intriguing insight is the claim that Wordsworth’s famous sonnet on Westminster Bridge is actually a response to Thomas Girtin’s ‘eidometropolis’ rather than a real bridge.[16] Iain McCalman’s work on De Loutherbourg’s eidophusikon proposes that Romantic illusionist spectacle was a forerunner of both cinema and today’s ‘virtual reality’, a theme which both he and Peter Otto develop in their articles in this volume. Spectacle is an important component of ‘technoromanticism’, an emerging area of scholarship which sees significant parallels between present-day computer-generated reality, surveillance, and Romantic illusionism.[17]

A recurrent theme in this critical work is the tension between polite and popular access to Romantic spectacle. The use of pricing mechanisms to regulate the social composition of the audience or readership is clear evidence that spectacle remained a conflicted cultural practice. Spectacle’s association with excess, sensationalism, populism and commercialism both undermined and contaminated polite standards of elevated culture, blurring the lines between the respectable and the vulgar. Yet as the articles in this volume show, spectacle was everywhere in the Romantic period. The topics covered by the contributors are diverse: ‘technoromantic’ illusionism and virtual reality (Iain McCalman, Peter Otto); radical tokens and satire (John Barrell); war and military painting (Neil Ramsey); pugilism and traditional rural sports (David Snowden); illustrations in novels (Michelle Landauer); celebrity portraits in periodicals (David Higgins); fictional masquerades (David Sigler); theatrical adaptations of novels (Luisa Calè); theatrical metaphors in the Romantic essay (Simon Hull); Blake and public art (John Saklofske, Susan Matthews). This array of themes is clear evidence of spectacle’s cultural mobility and its aesthetic and ideological complexity.

It would be misleading to suggest that ‘Romantic Spectacle’ constitutes anything as dramatic as an epistemological break in Romantic studies, and we are not proposing that this ‘visual turn’ heralds yet another valediction to Gutenberg. Put simply, we hope that the spectacular reconceptualization of Romanticism opens up new and exciting ways to think about the ‘material sublime’ of an inclusive Romantic culture.[18] The following collection of articles is, we hope, the first step in a much longer journey.