Tag Archives: Dickens and the Visual Imagination

Dickens’s buildings and the partial perspective

What do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why?

This was the question with which Lynda Nead began her keynote at Dickens and the Visual Imagination this week, and one which I kept coming back to over the last few days, with a couple of instances prompting further reflection on Nead’s talk.

The first instance was watching David Lean’s Great Expectations, having realised this week that I’ve never seen the film in full; crucially though, I felt as though I had because its key images are so familiar – as Nead said, it’s so much a part of our visual imagination of Dickens. On reaching the scene in which Pip arrives in London for the first time, I was reminded of an instance a few years ago when my memory of the text had become confused by memory of the film, which previously I’d seen fragments of in undergraduate lectures. At the time, I was writing a section of my PhD thesis on arrivals into London, and dug out Great Expectations intending to write about Pip’s entrance into London and the foreboding vision of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral that looms over his arrival. Upon re-reading the book, I was surprised to find that the episode is only a slight, brief mention in which Pip recounts “I saw the great black dome of St Paul’s bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison” (chapter 20); a mere handful of words for what had become, for me, a strikingly visual image.

Pip

Image of Pip’s arrival in London in Lean’s Great Expectations

I was convinced that the episode was textually described in far more vivid and lengthy detail; it wasn’t the text, but the image from Lean’s film that I had in mind. The image had mingled into my memory of the text to create a new, composite image existing, for me, somewhere between text and film. Nead spoke this week about how the visual imagination isn’t so much a process of “geological layering” but rather one of creative transformation which explodes the boundaries of both text and image and creates new imaginative forms in its wake; it’s a description that seemed more than fitting for my memory of Great Expectations.

In watching Great Expectations this week I was particularly attentive to a further point of Nead’s talk, in which she noted that we never see a complete vision of the exterior of Miss Havisham’s house, only partial fragments – the clock tower, the gate, the steps. We might think that we have a complete vision of the house, but in fact this is largely constructed through the house’s interior; so powerful are the images of Miss Havisham’s rooms that they work to build a vision of the house from the inside out.

Great Expectations

The interior of Miss Havisham’s house

This resonated strongly with the theme of Andrew Sanders’s talk on Dickens’s rooms, in which it was notable that so many of the illustrations from the novels depict interiors; rarely (at least, from what I can think), do we see exteriors of the houses. And today, as I was reading Julian Wolfreys’ Writing London, these ideas came to mind again. Discussing a passage from Our Mutual Friend, he notes the resistance to the whole, complete vision in Dickens’s architectural description: ‘the entire architectural meaning is brought into question, deconstructed as it is into a series of ambiguously architectural details… The eye is moved from piece to piece, but the gaze is ultimately refused an overall meaning, a monumental, organized presence on which it can fix’ (p. 150)

How often does Dickens give us a description of the exterior of a house? When are we given the complete perspective of the whole, or is Nead’s idea of Lean’s construction of Satis House from “inside-out” true also of the written descriptions in Dickens’s novels? How often are buildings constructed only from within or with a view to partiality?

And, to reorient Nead’s question, what do we imagine when we think of Dickens’s houses, and why? That is to say, what role does film play in the visual imagination of Dickens’s buildings? Where do film/tv adaptations give us the complete exterior perspective that the text denies, and how does this play into our visual idea of Dickens’s houses and other architectural forms?

***

David Lean, Great Expectations (1946)

Julian Wolfreys, Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens (Palgrave, 1998)

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Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 2)

Day 2 of Dickens and the Visual Imagination took us to the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Artin London. The wonderful cavern of an underground library provided the perfect setting for a day of papers that focused more specifically on art and film historians’ perspectives on Dickens.

The day began with Lynda Nead’s keynote “‘To let in the sunlight’: Dickens, Lean and the Chiaroscuro of Postwar Britain”, a fascinating analysis of David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations. Nead started with some stimulating questions that pushed at the wider frameworks of the conference: what do we mean by “the visual imagination”? What is our “visual imagination” of Dickens: what do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why? Nead began by thinking about how we read the relationship between text and film, arguing for a reciprocal relationship in which neither text nor film is privileged but rather seeing adaptation as a process of creative transformation evolving new forms and opportunities – this, she suggested, might offer one way in which to understand the concept of a visual imagination. With this in mind Nead moved on to read Lean’s Great Expectations in the context of postwar Britain, providing a detailed analysis of a selection of stills from the film which focused on the complexity of Lean’s use of black and white.

great expectations

The use of chiaroscuro – the interplay between light and shadow- constructs a subtle “language of shadow” which achieves a rich depth to images, and constructs an aesthetic of decay and ruin which was highly resonant with the postwar Britain in which the film was produced. Nead seemed to be suggesting that the aesthetic language of the film is not “Dickensian” as such, but rather creates a visual language of its own that very much belonged to the moment in which the film was made.

The next panel on Perception and Perspective began with Andrew Mangham’s paper (read by Greg Tate) on Dickens, Hogarth and Perspective, an interesting analysis that took Dickens’s references to Hogarth in the preface to Oliver Twist as a starting-point for identifying a Hogarthian sense of visual perspective in Dickens’s realism. Janice Carlisle followed with an exploration of Great Expectations and JMW Turner’s painting; this worked towards centring Estella in the novel’s visual economy, particularly in terms of how Estella constructs Pip as artist. Aleza Tadri-Friedman presented on “Art Appreciation and Visual Perception in Dombey and Son“, considering the recurrence of art throughout the novel with a particular focus on how the transgressive Edith Granger is positioned within wider debates about art and perception in the nineteenth century; in another indicative text-illustration reading, Tadri-Friedman looked at the interplay between the narrative construction of Edith through Dombey and Carker, and the illustration that accompanies one key scene in this narrative.

Dombey and Son

Panel 2 explored Dickens and Painting, beginning with Dehn Gilmore’s “Reading the Dickensian Gallery” which suggested ways in which art and artistic vocabulary in Dickens might offer a new way of understanding Dickens’s relationship to his early reviewers. Pat Hardy’s Dickens and Portraits looked at the ways in which Dickens employs the language of portrait painting, focusing on Bleak House which represents a key moment in engaging with ideas around portraiture, exploring key ideas about physiognomy and using this not only as a way in which to read individuals, but also with an interest in how people see one another. Vincent Alessi finished with a paper on the influence of Dickens on Vincent van Gogh, offering a complex examination of van Gogh’s development as a painter and analysing particular paintings of or influenced by Dickens.

The day concluded with a final keynote presentation by Kate Flint on the subject of “Pavement Art”. Flint began with a short story by Dickens, “His Brown Paper Parcel” (“Somebody’s Luggage”; All the Year Round, 1862 Christmas edition), in which the narrator is a pavement artist: why, Flint asked, would such a figure be so interesting to Dickens? In what followed, Flint offered a wonderfully rich exploration of pavement artists in the nineteenth century and explored the questions raised through this unique form of visual culture. Pavement art occupies an interesting, often contradictory, space: it is emphemeral yet immobile/immoveable; outside of institutions and the marketplace, yet necessarily public and invites the viewer to participate in a form of artistic patronage; often produces a copied image but never produces a definitive replica and depends upon being constantly reproduced; creates delight amongst its audience through the process of its creation more than in existing as a finished product. Pavement art troubles and challenges the definition of art and artist, and in turn raises complex questions about the relationship between author and art work, raising issues of ownership and authorship, creation and performance, and the position of art in the public sphere- all especially important to Dickens at a time when he was touring the country performing extracts of his own work in his final years. Ideas were raised here too about the mobility of the artist and the circulation of art, resonating with the rise in print circulation throughout the nineteenth century and Flint picked up on this relationship, as well as questions around the legitimacy of wandering and loitering.

Pavement Artist

Illustration of a pavement artist from The Graphic, September 1874

Flint’s talk provided a stimulating end to the day, and in its analysis of a different form of culture also spoke to some of the issues that Lynda Nead had raised in questioning the idea of the visual imagination: there was here an idea about how we might define the visual imagination as being, like pavement art, something transient, ephemeral and almost impossible to truly grasp, something forged and re-forged in different contexts and places, resisting (or defeated by) the permanence of the art forms that it tries to get a hold of, and always part of a process of creative transformation that evolves, adapts, and opens up new possibilites for interpretation.

Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 1)

This two-day conference at the University of Surrey and the Paul Mellon Centre in London gave a fascinating array of responses to the idea of Dickens and the visual imagination, from Dickens’s engagement with visual material, the interplay between text and image in his writing, and the lasting influence of Dickens in visual culture.

The conference began with Andrew Sanders’s keynote on “Dickens’s Rooms”. Sanders covered a myriad of rooms – prison cells, grand rooms, poor rooms, ship berths, empty rooms, and many more – often drawing on both written description and accompanying illustrations, the latter often playing against or revealing more about the text, particulary in the inclusion of objects, portraits, and the interplay of light and shadow within rooms. Sanders’s discussion focused particularly on class and characterisation, offering some suggestive insights about the wider textual resonances of small details of rooms.

David Copperfield

Illustration “I am hospitably received by Mr Peggotty” from David Copperfield

The first panel I attended took London as its theme. Christine Corton presented on “London Fog: from the Verbal to the Visual”, exploring the particular visual resonances of the fog metaphors that Dickens frequently employs in his writing on London – such as the variety of different colours that the fog takes (the “pea-souper” of Bleak House, for example). This gave a greater complexity to the use of fog as a metaphor for ambivalence, and revealed the changing nature of fog throughout Dickens’s writings. The murkiness of London was also present in Ursula Kluwick’s paper on “The Dickensian Thames in Word and Image” which looked at the interplay between visual and verbal representations of the River Thames in Dickens’s writing. The river frequently features as dirty and unhygenic, echoing contemporary concern over the condition of the river by those calling for sanitary reform; it is also used as a metaphor for the moral corruption of London, although takes on a contradictory, more pleasant appearance in rural scenes. However, Kluwick noted that in accompanying illustrations the river is often less prominent, obscuring these issues to suggest ambivalence at facing up to the state of London.

Old Curiosity Shop

Illustration of Quilp’s death from The Old Curiosity Shop

A final paper in this panel by Estelle Murail took us above the city to look at the influence of sketches and panoramas on Dickens’s cityscapes. Sketches and panoramas are different forms of urban representation, the former a detailed close-up of particular sites whilst the latter provides a sweeping vision of the city recreated in an all-encompassing visual experience. A panorama by Rudolph Ackermann challenges this, as Ackermann incorporated detailed sketches into his construction of the panorama, and Murail used this as a basis to explore how Dickens’s writing also challenges the distinction between the two modes of viewing the city, moving between panoramic perspective and the detail of a sketch. Murail finished with some indicative ideas about the function of technologies of vision in the new landscape of modernity, drawing on Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s ideas about the urban panorama teaching a particular mode of vision that served as preparatory for the panoramic perspectives of the railway journey.

The next panel focused on architecture and interiors, starting with a paper by Emma Gray on Victorian domestic interiors in Dickens’s writing. Emma spoke last year at my conference on Rural Geographies of Gender and Space 1840-1920, and it was interesting to hear her discussion of country houses such as Tyntesfield and Hughenden Manor in the context of Dickens’s writing. Gray suggested that Dickens’s depictions of domestic interiors often resonate with the work of distinguished decorators JG Crace & Son, and she analysed scenes such as the redecoration of Dombey’s house in Dombey and Son and the handling of the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend through contemporary fashions in home decoration. Clare Pettitt considered Dickens’s response to visual material during his time in Italy in the mid-1840s, suggesting that his viewing of Baroque art and architecture effected a profound stylistic change in his work of the period, opening up a new understanding of historical time and mode through which to understand the present through reference to the past. Dominic James finished the panel with a paper that considered the depiction of gothic art and architecture in The Old Curiosity Shop, in which the contemporary ambivalence to the gothic revival is revealed in complex and contradictory ways.

A second keynote by Sambudha Sen concluded the day. In a paper titled “City Sketches, Panoramas and the Dickensian Aesthetic”, Sen explored how Dickens constructed an urban aesthetic heavily influenced by visal technologies such as sketches and panoramas. Discussion focused on Bleak House which Sen argued demonstrates an impulse to grasp visual modes of representing London, constructing a spatial aesthetic that contrast with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in which time provides depth and organisation to social experience. This provided a rich and detailed reading with which to finish the first day of the conference, and I’ll be thinking more on Sen’s reading as I come to revise work on Bleak House this week.

The first day also provided two opportunities to enjoy visual material associated with Dickens. At the University of Surrey we viewed “Dickens Illustrated“, an exhibition of illustrations from and inspired by Dickens’s works – a nice opportunity to see a huge range of editions of Dickens’s works, from the earliest editions illustrated by Phiz to more recent childrens’ books and comics inspired by his writing. After the conference, we headed to a reception at the Watts Gallery in Compton, where an exhibition on Dickens and the Artists is currently on display, exploring the influence of Dickens on artists of the 19th century such as the image of the conference, Buss’s “Dickens’s Dream”. This was an excellent end to the day, and apt preparation for the art history focus of day 2, on which more in my next post.

“The Watts Gallery is a place where the past meets the future,

where myth joins reality,

where the principle of beauty embraces the facts of truth”

(Andrew Motion)