Tag Archives: Interiors

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 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)

Dickens and London exhibition @ Museum of London, June 2012

The Museum of London has been celebrating the Dickens bicentenary with an exhibition on the author’s connections with the city. Given the wealth of associations betweeen Dickens and London in his life, works and on-going legacy, this exhibition promised much and it certainly did provide an impressive range of material relating to Dickens and Victorian London. Ultimately, though, I felt this didn’t quite deliver what it could have done.

We began with biography, looking at paintings and photographs of Dickens, his friends and family, before moving into the main part of the exhibition which was organised thematically, commencing with Dickens and the theatre. Playbills, puppets, a model theatre and costumes illuminated Dickens’s lifelong interest in the theatre, and playbooks of theatrical adaptations of Dickens’s works demonstrated the two-way direction of this engagement.

Dickens

“Dickens’s Dream”; Robert William Buss, 1870

From there it was on to Dickens and the home, where we were told about Victorian ideals of domesticity and Dickens’s strength of attraction to the idea of the home. The painting Dickens’s Dream was brought to life in an animated film, whilst Dickens’s letters, a selection of household objects, and contemporary paintings provided visual illustration of the ideas being raised. A section on Progress had a particular focus on transport and communication technology – a particular highlight for me was a wonderful selection of photographs showing “the coming of the railway” into city spaces – and we finished with Life and Death, exploring Victorian ideas of mourning and Dickens’s last years.

Throughout, many (if not most) of the artefacts on display were from the Victorian period more generally, rather than specifically related to Dickens, providing a visual exploration of Dickens’s life and times. This wasn’t altogether a bad thing: amongst the objects on display were an ornately carved piano and model railway train that were displayed at the Great Exhibition, pieces of telegraph cable, all of which were rather more interesting than many of the truly “Dickensian” objects – whilst his writing desk made for reasonably interesting viewing, Dickens’s soup ladle did not. The paintings also offered interesting points for discussion and nicely drew out some of the links being made throughout the exhibition. It was also especially valuable to see so many manuscript and proof copies of the novels: Dombey and Son, Bleak House, and David Copperfield were among the copies on display, and whilst these were safely stowed behind glass cabinets, plastic-bound replica versions of the periodical issues were available at benches throughout. I particularly enjoyed seeing the performance copies of the texts that Dickens used in the readings he gave in his later years: a copy of Oliver Twist was heavily annotated with Dickens’s performance notes, “Action!”, “Mystery”, “Terror to the end!”

manuscript

Whilst this was all nicely done, I felt that the links between the material on display, and between Dickens and London, could have been much more strongly drawn out. The visual material made for pleasant viewing, and gave a decent enough overview of Victorian life, but it didn’t feel like it particularly added anything to the idea of Dickens and his works; with the exception of the Dickens letters and manuscripts, this could have been any exhibition about Victorian life. Similarly, the connections between Dickens and London felt underexplored; much of this could have been an exhibition about Dickens more generally, and there was little that really explained what this was adding specifically to an understanding of Dickens and London. I felt this all lacked an overarching narrative that really drew out the potential connections of the objects and texts on display, and that used these objects to offer something more to the understanding of Dickens.

I suspect that this lack of narrative arose from a focus on the design of the exhibition space which sought to “recreat[e] the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections” so as to take the viewer “on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired his writings.” The dark, dimly-lit space was decorated with big letters, moons and stars hanging from the ceiling, supposedly aiming to replicate the idea that we were going on one of Dickens’s famous night-walks around the city. It was a nice touch but added little to the experience; in so far as it attempted to provide a narrative journey through the exhibits this was definitely a case of style over substance.

The exhibition made for interesting viewing, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed with what the exhibition had achieved, and the sense that it could have been more given the subject at hand. This was rather emphasised when we went on to explore the rest of the Museum of London: it is a rich resource of artefacts from the prehistoric period to the present day, and the eighteenth and nineteenth century collections which I spent most time in present a wealth of material and much more successfully draw together themes, ideas, and narratives. Although the Dickens and London exhibition has now closed, I’d highly recommend a visit to the rest of the museum.

Spaces of Work, Britain 1770–1830 @ University of Warwick, 28th April 2012

Work

This one-day conference held at the University of Warwick provided an excellent interdisciplinary analysis of the intersections between space and various forms of work in the Romantic period.

The discussions began with Karen Harvey’s paper “Thinking through Boundaries: The House, Gender and Work” which explored masculinity and domesticity in the eighteenth century. Harvey began by suggesting a conceptual shift from the use of the word “home” to the concept of “the house” in studies of domesticity, positing that “house” can be used to signal more than the physical shell but that it carries a set of meanings that are distinct from the idea of “home”. Harvey then turned to look at masculine identity and the house, exploring men’s role in the management of the house through a selection of notebooks of 18th century men. These displayed the active role of men in household management, and demonstrated the irrelevance of the division between discourses of home, work, business and so on. She ended by moving out to the position of the house in the wider space of national community, and how men’s domestic management helped to understand the porosity of the house to the wider world. The paper drew on her recently published book The Little Republic: Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain which I’m hoping to read at some point.

Of the papers on the two panels that followed, I was most interested in Kate Smith’s paper on “The Work of Shopping”. Smith argued for a reconceptualisation of shopping as “work”, by way of offering a renewed understanding of critiques of female shopping – which become repositioned as critiques of the public act of female work. Smith looked at how shopping could be understood as skilled work, involving embodied knowledge, active participation, and a keen eye for quality; this focused in particular on the importance of female hands, looking at the surrounding contexts of female hands as signifiers of identity and class status, and the problematic visibility of female hands on display when shopping. This opened up an interesting set of intersecting discourses between embodiment, space and work, drawing out new ways of understanding the typical discourses around female bodies in public spaces; I was also reminded of ideas around the meanings of skin as a physical boundary, and associated issues around encasing the female body.

Other spaces of work discussed throughout the day included the bookshop, rural spaces, wharfs and warehouses, and theatres – a rich and varied set of contexts that made for an interesting and engaging day.