In the autumn of 1781, shortly after being elected to the British Academy of Art as a landscape painter, Alsatian-born artist Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg was hired by the wealthy young aesthete William Beckford to prepare a private birthday spectacle at his mansion in Wiltshire. De Loutherbourg, who was also chief scenographer at Drury Lane theatre and the inventor of a recent commercial “moving picture” entertainment called the Eidophusikon, promised to produce “a mysterious something that the eye has not seen nor the heart conceived.” Beckford wanted an Oriental spectacle that would completely ravish the senses of his guests, not least so that he could enjoy a sexual tryst with a thirteen year old boy, William Courtenay, and Louisa Beckford, his own cousin’s wife.
The resulting three day party and spectacle staged over Christmas 1781 became one of the scandals of the day, and ultimately forced William Beckford into decades of exile in Europe to escape accusations of sodomy. However, this Oriental spectacle also had a special significance for the history of Romantic aesthetics and modern-day cinema. Loutherbourg and Beckford’s collaboration provided the inspiration for William to write his scintillating Gothic novel, Vathek, and impelled Philippe himself into revising his moving-picture program in dramatically new ways. Ultimately this saturnalian party of Christmas 1781 constituted a pioneering experiment in applying the aesthetic of the sublime to virtual reality technology. It also led Loutherbourg to anticipate the famous nineteenth-century “Phantasmagoria” of French showman, Gaspard Robertson, by producing in 1782 a miniature Gothic movie scene based on the Pandemonium episode in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The panorama is usually identified as the culmination, for the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, of Enlightenment attempts to produce a “second-order reality in which to play with or practice upon the first order”. It is therefore aligned with the modern attempt to contain everything within a single view or picture. In contrast, this paper argues that in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century the panorama and the hyper-realistic illusions it conjured, paradoxically relied on and at the same time intensified the late eighteenth-century sense that first and second order realities (the “physical environment in which one is really present” and the environments presented by material or textual media) had diverged to a degree that was unprecedented. This at first somewhat counter-intuitive phenomenon occurs not despite but because of the panorama’s ability to simulate the real. The hyper-realistic virtual realities of the early panorama intensified late eighteenth-century interest in the observation of observation; presented perception as an event that did not require the presence of its apparent object, thus radicalising the achievements of Trompe l’Oeil painting; drew attention to the figural space of representation; and provided new evidence for the constructed and contingent nature of the real. The paper takes as its key foci Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Wanderer above a sea of Mists” (1818), the Leicester Square Panorama (opened 1793), and Barker’s panorama of London (1791 and 1795).
This essay examines the visual propaganda produced by the popular radical movement in the 1790s, chiefly in London. It examines examples of caricatures, especially those by Richard Newton, the token coinage mainly produced by Thomas Spence, the mock play-bills printed by Richard ‘Citizen’ Lee and others, and the portraiture of contemporary radical leaders and heroes published by or on behalf of the movement. It discusses the effectiveness of these as radical propaganda, but its main concern is to ask why the movement seems to have been so little interested in developing a visual culture commensurate with its varied and voluminous literary culture. It looks for the answer chiefly in what it suggests may have been a strong distrust of the visual among popular radicals, and a concern that to exploit the resources of the comic and the grotesque in visual propaganda would have made the movement appear less high-minded, less polite, and easier to despise and dismiss.
The period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars is now widely viewed as seeing the emergence of the first modern or ‘total’ war, as whole populations came to be mobilised for the nation’s war effort. The period’s print culture and popular entertainments responded to these demands by creating a media spectacle, eliciting popular support for the war by enabling its audience to visualise scenes of conflict. Sir Robert Ker Porter’s work as both a writer and artist had a significant presence in this emergent spectacle of war. Utilising personal correspondence from eyewitnesses and placing enormous emphasis in his work on accurate depictions of warfare, he sought to enable the citizen to share the soldier’s view of war, allowing him or her to visualise and imagine conflict from the vantage point of the soldier and his subjective experience. Whilst Porter thus sought to provide images of willing sacrifice for the nation, there is nonetheless a transgressive aspect to his work. By privileging the soldiers’ personal view, the images presented by Porter could conflict with the state’s attempts to control information about the war. The articulation of a soldier’s subjective experience of war could be unsettling, eliciting affective and horrified responses to war that were far removed from the needs of a militaristic state.
In the evolving literary sub-genre of sports writing, Pierce Egan (c. 1772-1849) infused his prizefight commentaries with a theatricality that extended their appeal beyond the confines of a diverse sporting set (‘the Fancy’). This paper examines prominent factors that rendered Egan’s approach distinctive, and how it functioned as a means of invigorating the sporting narrative. A major feature is Egan’s blend of inventive imagery and linguistic exuberance, which constituted an integral part of his animated pugilistic writing, primarily in the Boxiana series (1812-29), and this could be identified as the ‘Boxiana style’.
Questions arise concerning the possibly limited accessibility of the ‘flash’ argot to more refined readers, and whether Egan’s classical and chivalric allusions are undercut by their collocation with pantomimic touches. Similarly, did the more cultivated references risk alienating those whose appreciation was limited to a mixture of the slang, slapstick, and gambling elements? My paper discusses how Egan’s Boxiana style transcended differing attitudes prevalent within a socially diverse readership that mirrored the fusion of Regency types attending pugilistic contests. Egan’s commentaries accentuated the spectacle of a sporting event, and promoted a visualisation process that eroded social barriers as a stage production might appeal to a heterogeneous theatre audience. The performance aspect, that played such a pivotal role in Egan’s pugilistic reporting, is a dominant theme in this discussion.
The OED defines “theatricality” in essentially negative terms, as the degraded cultural progeny of the theatre itself, and in the process associates it with spectacle. Assuming cultic proportions in late-Regency London, theatricality, I argue, comes full circle to engulf theatre itself. Epitomized by the mesmeric Kean and an increasing reliance on spectacular effects, this is the point at which Lamb enters the argument. A combined study of theatrical culture and periodical writing in the Romantic period, I demonstrate how such a spectacularization of theatre informs Lamb’s performance with Elia of an “essayistic figure”.
Through Elia’s ludic, phantasmal ontology in the London Magazine - in which the illusion of autobiography is enacted and the essay form transcended with assertions of fictive liberty - Lamb’s use of a persona is, like theatricality itself, derivative of theatre. Yet the frequent readjustment of expectations that Elia’s playfulness demands of the reader clearly designates Lamb’s as a readerly mode of theatricality that diametrically opposes the dominant model of ritualistic spectatorship.
Indeed, Lamb’s career seemingly embodies the Romantic ambivalence over theatre identified by Mary Jacobus. Both failed playwright and avid theatre-goer, Lamb famously priveliges the reader’s over the audience’s experience of Shakesperare’s tragedies, then later - as Elia - celebrates artificial comedy for the escape it affords from the “diocese of strict conscience”. Elia can perhaps, therefore, be read as Lamb’s attempt at managing theatre on his own terms: an appropriation of its illusory, emancipative qualities to the unspectacular format of the familiar essay.
This essay explores the aesthetic boundaries of sympathy and spectatorship through James Cobb’s adaptation of Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1788, 1789) into a comic opera for the London stage (1800). The aesthetic reach of a story differs when it is experienced in a solitary encounter with the text on the page or a public performance of actors on the stage. The virtual spectatorship experienced in reading might invite the reader to other worlds and shape the public into a transnational community of sentiment. By contrast, theatre-goers are engaged in a different performance of fellow-feeling: much as they identify with the action on the stage, their identity is also shaped by being part of the public that comes together at the theatre, where performances take on local and national forms of collective identity. Comparing the virtual and actual forms of spectatorship posited by the French novel and the English comic opera, this essay explores how the medium of the book and the theatre construct different aesthetic communities and project different models of citizenship and colonial governance. As Cobb transposes the story from Mauritius to the West Indies, his adaptation of the plot offers an ameliorist model of slavery. Through its imagined community and its comedic ending Cobb explores the possibility that the metropolis and the colonies might be united in a creole nation within the empire.
This essay explores the visualization of culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by examining the spectacle surrounding the death of a beautiful woman in sentimental texts. Focusing on Rousseau’s Julie, ouLa Nouvelle Héloïse, I argue that this novel highlights the relationship between interpretation and identity formation by outlining a style of reading that concentrates on the visual aspects of interpretation. Central to my study is the idea that Rousseau considered the imagination as the primary medium through which interpretation occurred. This is an unstable medium in that the passions were believed to influence the imagination and limit one’s ability to read properly. Rousseau thus sought to repress passion and contain the imagination through an image presented in the form of a spectacle – the image of the feminine ideal. This image, stabilized in death, needed to be internalized in the reader’s heart and mind. Readers would then interpret bodies/texts/objects – and their own identity – through an imagination that is controlled by this enduring symbol, allowing them to have access to “truth,” and to regain a sense of unity and happiness that is often lost in modern society.
This article examines Mary Robinson’s novel Walsingham (1797) from a Lacanian perspective. By offering readings of the novel’s two masquerade scenes from its narrator’s perspective within the imaginary order, and then tracing his confusion into the symbolic, this essay will seek to explain how (and why) Walsingham makes a spectacle of himself as he enters the very scene of social spectacle. We will find that Walsingham’s lingering in the imaginary—a product of his having made a series of specular identifications—establishes the conditions of his further humiliation even as it establishes the conditions for his eventual entry into the symbolic order. In attempting to forestall sexuation and even derive a certain enjoyment from its forestallment, Walsingham in effect reinforces the phallus and eventually bows to its demands. I argue that Walsingham dramatizes a transition between incommensurate modes of experience, that much of the novel’s plot stems from Walsingham’s entrapment in the imaginary, and that the novel is more invested in establishing characters within normative sexuated positions than enacting any sort of destabilizing gender trouble. Robinson’s novel reveals the force of the patriarchy (despite its unnaturalness) and suggests that sexual, gendered, and economic experience are interlaced through desire. The novel especially suggests that the subject is formed through the experience of the spectacle, and it deploys the entanglements of spectacle so that subjective experience can be seen to reorganize itself in the face of pressures political and social.
This paper explores William Blake’s creative and commercial positioning relative to late-eighteenth-century galleries, exhibition culture and artistic spectacle. Demonstrating a desire to reintroduce originality into reproductive processes while also embracing the exaggerated and politicised rhetoric often associated with the spectacular visual displays of exhibition societies and new media diversions, Blake confronts modern spectacle with corrective spectacles of his own, bringing clarity, detail and focus to bear on otherwise unmanageable sights. By combining the vocabulary of modern visual spectacles with a dutiful commitment to the maintenance of national strength and progress in the advertisements for and descriptions of his 1809 exhibition, Blake optimistically reconfigures his public as a homogeneously capable body of intellectual and consumer ability. Viewing his own artistic assertion as dramatic performance on national and political scales, he appeals to spectatorial intellect in an era of increasingly sensationalist visual displays, individually attempting to reconfigure the taste of his beloved “public” through a seductive hybridization of spectacular novelty and gallery traditions. However, his “failed” exhibition allows us to see the overall incompatibility between his intended functions for art on national and political fronts (the conceptual), the rhetoric of spectacle (the visual), the individualism at the heart of Blake’s revolutionary nationalism and the persistent economical/commercial foundations of this project. Blake’s vision of a direct link between the strength of artistic expression, the potential of the urban audience and the strength of a nation is complicated by the economic demands faced by the artist and the inherently commercial nature of spectacle.
During the Romantic period, it became possible to transform authorship into celebrity through a process of what might be termed ‘spectacularisation’. Verbal and visual representations of certain writers as private individuals, which often appeared in the periodical press, helped to mark them out within a massively competitive literary marketplace and provided their readers with a sense of intimate connection. This article considers this process in relationship to the women writers depicted in William Maginn’s “Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters” (Fraser’s Magazine, 1830-36). In particular, I argue that the 1836 article ‘Regina’s Maids of Honour’ is crucial for understanding not only how the “Gallery’s” mixed rhetoric of chivalry and prurience operates both to restrict and expose its female subjects, but also Maginn’s intense self-consciousness about this process. Throughout, he conflates references to his subjects’ works with descriptions of their looks, thereby ensuring that their public lives as writers cannot be separated from the inspection of their bodies by a masculine observer. Although “Regina’s Maids of Honour” places women writers in a genteel domestic setting, Maginn offers male readers a frisson of scandalous excitement with sexualized portrayals of those – Caroline Norton, Letitia Landon, and Marguerite Blessington – whose lifestyles challenged the strict boundaries of domestic propriety.
This essay explores the complex issue of Romantic visual enthusiasm –the power to self-generate images – which was seen as both a danger and a necessity to the project of constructing a visual culture for the nation at the end of the eighteenth century. I look at a range of important texts on this issue, beginning with an analysis of the contradictory responses which emerge in John Ireland’s 1798 discussion of Hogarth’s 1760 Enthusiasm Delineated. Ireland’s discussion is significant as it reflects the concerns of his publisher John Boydell, whose Shakespeare Gallery was beginning to falter by the end of the 1790s. The positions adopted by Henry Fuseli (a key artist in Boydell’s project), George Cumberland (a harsh critic of Boydell) and William Blake (passed over by Boydell) provide a map of the debate over visual enthusiasm. Hogarth’s satire represents the enthusiastic audience as inappropriately sexualised and includes an image of monstrous fertility in the figure of Mary Toft. Blake’s phrase ‘happy copulation’ from Visions of the Daughters of Albion reproduces the association of looking, sexuality, and the female gaze found in the satire. But Blake’s positive image of enthusiastic looking is mirrored by the negative account of the power of transformative viewing in the repeated formula ‘He became what he beheld’. In Europe, Blake produces a version of Fuseli’s Titania and Bottom as a critique of the power of the literary gallery to limit the scope of the political imagination. Blake’s powerful response to the experience of the London galleries and his complicated account of the construction of the viewer within the gallery space is suggested in his poetry of the 1790s in which enthusiastic viewing is both celebrated and feared.