Tag Archives: Objects

A new Crystal Palace?

It’s a couple of months now since the first press release announcing plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace. My initial response was amazement that it may be possible in coming years to see the rebuilding of one of the most important buildings of the nineteenth century; but as further details unfurl I, like many others, am increasingly ambivalent about the project, which would see a £500 million investment by a private Chinese corporation into the building and surrounding parkland. While the regeneration of the park seems long-overdue and supported by the local community, the corporation currently have an exclusivity agreement with the local council that prevents other proposals for the site’s development to be submitted until February 2015; during this time there is a call for the community to express their feedback on the scheme but it seems this has come rather late in discussions and from what I’ve read of the news articles, local people are unconvinced that this is the right sort of investment for the park. I’m not familiar with the area to comment further on the local impact of the project, but have been wondering from a Victorianist’s perspective what would be the value in rebuilding the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 - 1852 (courtesy of V&A Museum)
Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 – 1852 (courtesy of V&A Museum)

It’s easy to say that the Crystal Palace was one of the most iconic building of the Victorian age, but its history is much more complicated and complex than that: its a story of two phases, and the symbolic meaning of the building changed over the years. In its first incarnation, the Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations: the first international Exhibition of its kind, showcasing over 100,000 objects from all over the world. The Exhibition organising committee ran a public call for proposals for the design of the building, and after many unsuccessful suggestions it was Joseph Paxton’s design that caught the imagination of the organisers. Paxton had long been designing specialist greenhouses made from glass and iron for the large collection of exotic plants at the Chatsworth estate (including the famous giant Victoria Regia water lily). His design for the Exhibition space replicated the basic principles of these glasshouses, but at 562m long, 124m wide, and with an interior height of 39m, the building was by far the largest structure of its kind, and required sheets of glass bigger than any produced before. It was a piece in Punch that saw the building christened “the Crystal Palace”, a name that captured the semi-mythical, iconic status of the new building.

"The Dispersion of the Works of all Nations" by George Cruikshank, 1851
“The Dispersion of the Works of all Nations” by George Cruikshank, 1851

The Crystal Palace inspired mixed responses, ranging from hyperbolic praise at the wonder of its design, to ridicule that it was simply a very large greenhouse. So too was it site of contestation: as one Household Words article points out, not so far away from the great building lay “our over-crowded burial grounds, generating a poisonous atmosphere in the thick of the living and loathing people! There, runs the polluted Thames, of which we are compelled to drink!” (Richard Horne, 22/03/1851). Once filled with the exhibits, the wonder of its design was that although the structure was such a spectacle in and of itself, it receded into the background as a translucent space in which the objects on display could take centre-stage – as the colourful “Watercolours of the Great Exhibition” nicely demonstrate.

'View in the West Nave' by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851 (V&A Museum)
‘View in the West Nave’ by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851
Crystal Palace Sydenham - photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte
Crystal Palace Sydenham – photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte

But it is arguably in the second phase of the Palace’s life that the strongest ideological meanings became invested in the building itself; the wealth of objects on display at the Exhibition overwhelmed visitors and ultimately preside most strongly in accounts of the Exhibition), but devoid of these things the Crystal Palace was both more open to interpretation, and open to retrospective investment as a symbol of a past era. After the closure of the Exhibition in October 1851, it was decided that the Palace should be rebuilt at Sydenham and, from its construction in 1854, it remained there until 1936. But while retaining the original features of Paxton’s design, this was an altogether different building: shorter in length, but with a much greater footprint (nearly 100 acres more) and rising to six stories (from the initial three), resulting in a much larger capacity than its first incarnation. Just from looking at pictures, it is clearly a much more commanding, overpowering presence as a structure, and I think this is crucial to the way in which the Palace (and, by association, the Great Exhibition) retrospectively became symbolic of a golden age of British imperial superiority to a much greater extent than in its original incarnation at the time of the Exhibition. The new Palace was put to a range of uses as a leisure space, hosting many concerts, events, exhibitions, and surrounded by 200 acres of park land used for recreation and sport. In 1936, the building was destroyed by a fire but the park has remained, and over the years there have been many suggestions for rebuilding or otherwise restoring the site of the Palace.

So what would be gained by rebuilding the Crystal Palace today? I suppose my initial fascination with the idea stems from an inability to quite grasp the scale and size of the building (both the original, and the redesigned version), and particularly the effect of being inside such a large glass structure. To be able to see and experience that wouldn’t be able to recapture the Victorian experience of the building in any real way, but it would provide an interesting exercise in accompanying the interpretation of accounts from the period. Perhaps more indicatively, it would represent a very interesting contribution to a contemporary neo-Victorian landscape which is marked by a fascination with the buildings and places of the past as sites of meaning, and I’m intrigued as to how a rebuilt Palace would play into both public perceptions and contemporary critical responses on these themes.

Because if there’s one thing that’s noticeable about the design (see the brochure download), it’s that the proposed building is evocative of a neo-Victorian aesthetic that befits the contemporary landscape, rather than standing as a monument to the past. While in images of Paxton’s design the iron bars of the structure are heavily visible, the design foregrounding the contrast between glass and iron, light and dark, weight and weightlessness, in the new design this is gone or at least downplayed in the overall visual effect: transparency, light, airiness are the themes of this structure, emphatically a reinterpretation rather than a straightforward homage to the Victorians. At the same time, heritage looms large over the project: “The park will be restored in line with the approved masterplan to create a modern 21st century park of national importance which reflects Joseph Paxton’s original ideas and responds to the needs and aspirations of local residents” (p. 5). It’s a rather empty statement however, with no explanation of what is understood by “Paxton’s original ideas”, and the talk of “originality” is further interesting given the Palace’s two design formulations – the new building uses the second design, not the true original from Hyde Park.

This reinterpretation is also interesting in that it demonstrates the global afterlives of Victorian Britian’s national heritage. The plans have come from the Chinese ZhongRong Group, and in the opening statement Mr Ni states that “the former Crystal Palace is celebrated in China as a building of great achievement. Its ingenuity and scale is magnificent and this project is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring it back to life […] I have admired the Crystal Palace for many years and am passionate about this project. The Palace’s story is fascinating and I am hoping to add the next chapter by providing a gift to London and the world” (p. 3). It’s a telling statement about the ongoing resonances of the Victorian period and the dis- or re-location of national culture into international contexts, and to see that re-located back into Britain would bring interesting opportunities to analyse these currents further.

As the project gets underway it will be interesting to see how these themes develop; I’m not, from what I’ve heard so far, in favour of the project and hope that the local concerns around it are taken seriously. Insofar as the potential for discussion around the Victorians and their neo-Victorian afterlives goes, though, the project raises some indicative questions and I’d be intrigued to hear more about what other Victorianists make of the proposals as they unfold.

Advertisements

Global/mobile values: BAVS 2012 @ University of Sheffield (part 2)

In my first post on this year’s British Association for Victorian Studies conference, I focused on the main theme “Victorian Value” and its resonance to the current academic climate; in this post, I draw together a few of the papers that were closer to my own research interests in Dickens, mobility and material circulation.

In a panel on “Dickensian Things”, two papers explored the intersections of objects, circulation and commidification. Claire Wood (York) spoke about “Mortal Values: Life, death and the entrepreneurial spirit in Martin Chuzzlewit“, exploring human commodification, mortality and market value in Dickens’s 1844 novel. Wood spoke about the two systems of economy in the novel, a concrete form of money vs a more illusory sense of finance, and within this explored the representation of people as things, the market value of mortality, and ideas around bodies as producing money. The discussion of death drew out particular links with the novel’s transatlantic mobilities and the way in which the novel uses and represents America.

Following this, Hannah Lewis-Bill (Exteter) gave a paper titled “Not for all the tea in China: Dickens, Opium and the cultural value of things” which took us to the end of Dickens’s career to discuss the global circulation of things in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Lewis-Bill explored the issues of cultural identity raised through portable property in the novel, suggesting that novels like Drood question how the increasingly reflexive relationship between Britain and the rest of the world can be managed. Focusing particularly on tea and opium, she explored the ways in which opium remained a distinctly foreign object in Victorian Britain, whilst tea became absorbed and naturalised into British life through a process of assimilation that relies upon the separation of the object from its locale – with the suggestion, I thought, that movement through national networks of mobility enacted a process of distancing from the global networks that brought tea to British shores. Lewis-Bill also picked up on the importance of touch with objects, quoting this fantastic excerpt from chapter 4 of the novel by way of example:

If I have not gone to foreign countries, young man, foreign countries have come to me. They have come to me in the way of business, and I have improved upon my opportunities. Put it that I take an inventory, or make a catalogue. I see a French clock. I never saw him before, in my life, but I instantly lay my finger on him and say “Paris!” I see some cups and saucers of Chinese make, equally strangers to me personally: I put my finger on them, then and there, and I say “Pekin, Nankin, and Canton.” It is the same with Japan, with Egypt, and with bamboo and sandalwood from the East Indies; I put my finger on them all. I have put my finger on the North Pole before now, and said “Spear of Esquimaux make, for half a pint of pale sherry!

I love the implicit sense of proximity and global collapse in this passage, the complete annihilation of space not just between distant places but between foreign locations and the individual body – locating the subject within and connected to the global spatial economy, and firmly emphasising the significance of the physical body through the repeated emphasis on touch, literalising the idea of foreign contact. Lewis-Bill drew on John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move throughout her paper and offered some interesting extensions to Plotz’s arguments particularly in achieving a much more rigorous and rich exploration of “reverse portability”, something which I think is lacking from Plotz’s otherwise excellent study.

There was more Dickens to follow in an afternoon panel on Global Value, which began with Paul Young (Exeter) and “‘Bird, be quiet!’: Little Dorrit, Free Trade and Frictional Globalisation.” Young explored Little Dorrit as a global novel which refuses the spatio-temporal divisions of modernity, articulating a spatial economy of commodity interdependence such that circulation can be read as the novel’s organising imperative. Young emphasised the importance of attentiveness to the world, not just the Empire, in literary texts, particularly with regard to structures of British capitalism. Regenia Gagnier (Exeter) followed this theme in her paper “Victorian Studies in the context of World Literatures and Globalization Studies” which surveyed the developing themes of world literatures and global modernity within Victorian Studies. Gagnier’s paper gave an expansive overview of the state of the field and new directions that are emerging; particularly interesting to me were her reflections on the negotiation between local and global concerns, something which is prominent in my thinking as I write my monograph on these very issues, and which (happily!) will also form the theme of next year’s global convergence of Victorianists at the BAVS, NAVSA and AVSA conference on “The Global and the Local“.

Local-global relations were also the subject of Josephine McDonagh‘s paper “The Village Elsewhere: Mitford and the Politics of Place”. McDonagh discussed Nancy Russell Mitford’s Our Village a text which, in the vein of Cranford and Barchester Towers, depicts a very familiar idea of English village life, focused tightly on the local with the wider world just beyond its bounds (which I’ll be blogging about in reference to Cranford very soon). However, McDonagh identified that Our Village was much read among emigrants in the period (often villagers themselves), referred to by emigrant settlers as a handbook for creating an ideal village and inviting comparisons between Indian and English villages – ideas which resonated nicely with my recent reading of Ian Baucom’s Out of Place: Englishness, Empire and the Locations of Identity which identifies a strong locational impulse at the core of English identity, thrown into doubt by imperial expansion raising key questions about whether the Empire could contain “English” spaces. McDonagh’s paper addressed the significance of literary spatial productions in these spatial negotiations, and demonstrated how the strongly local Our Village was embedded in an international network of print exchange.

Print culture and emigration was also the subject of two further papers on this panel by Mary Shannon and Fariha Shaikh (both King’s College London). Shannon’s paper “Cultural Capital and the Emigrant’s Body: R. H. Horne and Melbourne Punch” looked at the emigration of print culture from London to Melbourne, and the establishment of a new print culture in Melbourne which resided in the adaptation of its old world connections. Fariha Shaikh explored emgirant travel narratives in a paper on “Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush: Domestic and Narrative Values”. Shaikh’s analysis of Moodie’s text looked at how emigration is not just a thematic concern of the narrative, but deeply embedded into the form and structure of the text, a highly indicative study of the relationship between mobility and narrative form.

Finally, in a slightly different direction was a paper by Catherine Malcolmson (Leicester) on “Investing in Sentiment: Finding Value in Dickensian Collecting” which looked at the enduring popularity of collecting things associated with Dickens and his works – different editions, character figurines (pictured is a Royal Doulton Mr Pickwick), things owned by or otherwise associated with Dickens, memorabilia items, and much more. Malcolmson talked about the ways in which Dickens collecting differs from other types of collecting, particularly in the emotional enthusiasm that motivates collectors who value objects not for their intrinsic worth but for their connection to Dickens; Dickens, to these collectors, is a saintly figure and these objects carry an inherent value by association. There was an undercurrent of circulation and mobility here, but what was interesting was the implication (as I interpreted it) that objects here become completely detached from their place of origin or production, and from the networks that circulate those objects: the end-point of the object’s movement, the collection, is its “true” place. Similarly, in light of my recent reading of Leah Price’s How to do things with Books in Victorian Britain, I was especially interested in the point that books are not (necessarily) given any special status by collectors, but rather are part of the same value-system as other objects, and even of little interest to some collectors. The emotional connection to the past through a physical, material thing is also something I’ll be thinking more about as I prepare my paper on literary tourism for Dickens and Popular Culture in October.

These speakers provided some truly stimulating thoughts that will be strong in my mind as I work on these themes in coming weeks, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s BAVS (if not Venice, then Royal Holloway at least…). Also worth noting is the fabulous efforts of JVC Online to preserve our tweets for all eternity, so if you want to find out more about papers not mentioned here then it’s worth taking a look through the thread where some very diligent tweeters did a very good job of tracking the event!

‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place, c.1851″; paper at MIVSS, 29th June

On Friday 29th June, I presented a paper at the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar which focused on the theme of “Victorian Things Revisited” (full conference write-up here). My paper “‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place, c. 1851” represents a new direction in my work, developing an emerging interest in material culture and the ways in which objects can be reconsidered in the context of space and mobility.

The paper originated in some research on Bleak House last summer, when I began to think more about the significance of the Great Exhibition for the national-global relations in the novel. I was particularly interested in some images by George Cruikshank (below), and the many questions they open up around the relationship between people, things, and place. As I blogged at the time, in looking at these images one can’t help but recall the central question of Bleak House: “what connexion can there be […] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!”

Cruikshank’s images illustrate the text of Henry Mayhew’s comic novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to ‘enjoy themselves’ and to see the Great Exhibition, and it was this that formed the focus of my paper. Most attention to this text has focused on the glimpses Mayhew gives us of the Exhibition, where we find an interest in the objects on display, the new people present in an internationalised London, and the potential social good of the Exhibition (against the backdrop of Mayhew’s other work of the same year, London Labour and the London Poor). But what interested me most was the way in which the narrative surrounding this also demonstrates a continual interest in things, people, and place, and their changing relations to one another. As the Sandboys family make their way to and around London, they encounter a continual stream of comic accidents and misfortunes in which people and things repeatedly surface and come into contact in unexpected ways. In particular, it’s the connections forged through the mobility of people and things, and the implications for the space of the nation, which emerges as a key question of the text.

The wider framework for this reading, which I’m still teasing out somewhat, is the move towards thinking about objects in the context of global networks of mobility. This has emerged particularly in the context of imperial networks of commodities, and John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move is a fascinating study of objects “on the move”, suggesting that pieces of “portable property” become resonant repositories of national identity in an increasingly global, mobile world. Plotz’s main concern is with objects moving out from Britain, and his reading of “reverse portability” is concerned primarily with identifying an “imperial panic” raised by objects coming into Britain. I think, though, there’s a lot more to be said about the circulation of objects (both British and foreign) within Britain not just as producing an adverse imperial reaction but also for the narratives of national identity, and physical traces of national space, that mobile objects create. There is, too, further scope for thinking about the ways in which objects function within a world being physically reshaped through mobile networks; objects make visible the abstract concept of a compressing world space, leave tangible traces of the connectedness of the nation to wider networks of mobility.

These are ideas that I’ll be exploring as I develop the paper further, and the discussion that followed was extremely helpful in shaping some of the directions this will take. I’ll be thinking more about 1851 alongside Bleak House, another novel written in the wake of the Great Exhibition and similarly preoccupied with the connections between people and things on the move; I was reminded, though, that there’s the potential for connections to work as a more positive, benevolent force in Dickens, whereas my reading of Mayhew focused more on the anxiety surrounding these interactions. There’s also more to be said around ideas about bodies and/as places/things: my discussion of body-thing interactions started to stray into ideas around embodiment and of the body-as-place, with feminist geography theory lurking in the background; in my next reading of the text I’ll be thinking more about the mobility of the gendered body and the more nuanced readings of place/space relations that this might open up.

I’m entering into discussions of objects from the perspective of someone more familiar with ideas around space and mobility rather than material culture and I’ve still got a way to go with fully drawing out the nuances of these arguments – and I’m aware that a lot more reading (and re-reading) on material culture awaits – but I’m excited by the wealth of ideas this has opened up; it feels like this work will be productive both in terms of the perspectives on objects and material culture that it provides, and for refreshing my thinking on mobility and space.

Victorian Things Revisited @ Keele University, 29th June 2012

This meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar focused on the theme of “Victorian Things Revisited”, seeking to explore where the “material turn” has taken us in Victorian Studies and what new possibilities for research still remain. Throughout the day, each of the 6 presenters approached the theme of material culture from a different angle, demonstrating the rich diversity of approaches to material culture and opening up many new possibilities for new directions in this research.

The day started with a panel comprising of myself and Mary Addyman, a first-year PhD student also based in the Department of English here at Warwick. I gave a paper titled “‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place c. 1851“, which I’ll write about in a separate post as the panel generated a lot of ideas that I want to follow up in more detail (update: blogged about here). Mary’s paper explored new research into the collection of Richard and Henry Cuming, a father and son who collected a vast array of objects from the 1780s to 1900, including geological and archaelogical artefacts, art, textiles, ceramics, Egyptian objects, and objects representative of British social history – including everyday packaging. The disorganisation and variety of the Cuming collection goes against our usual understanding of the Victorians as systematic collectors imposing order in a disordered world, but Mary sought to find a more nuanced reading of the way in which this disorganised mode of collecting might be read, thinking about the collector recording his place in the world and the sense of responsibility to future generations involved in this accumulation and preservation of the present. Mary ended by considering the temporality of collecting, drawing out some fascinating links between collecting and geology.

Bear

Image from Southwark Collections

In the second panel, two papers centred around objects that sit at the intersection between bodies and things and trouble the binaries between living and dead, natural and artificial. Julia Courtney (Open University) raised the question of “Living Things?” in her paper on Victorian taxidermy. This focused first on taxidemied animals and birds that are posed in scenes that recreate their “natural” environments, and then on animals that are anthropomorphised in artificial scenes, such as a scene of mice sat at a table playing cards. This raised interesting questions about the relationship between bodies and things, the point at which a body becomes a “thing”, and by what means the status of “thing” is ascribed. Courtney also thought about the differences in cultural appreciation for taxidermied animals, comparing the Victorian fashion for and fascination with taxidermy as something that evokes a pleasurable response, versus the rather more reluctant way in which taxidermy is viewed – with humour? disgust?- today.

Card players

Walter Potter’s Red Squirrels Playing Cards, c.1871

Courtney was followed by Michael Lee (Leeds Met) whose body-object discussions took a literary turn in a paper on “Eating Things in Lewis Carroll”. Lee began with a theoretical exploration of the different conceptualisations of things and objects, raising the question “what kind of a thing is food?” His subsequent discussion of Alice in Wonderland suggested that through Carroll’s use of food the borders between different types of things are blurred: food is a social thing which moves within a network of circulation that supercedes the human. Food also troubles the boundaries of body/thing and life/death: the body itself has the potential to be a thing that can be consumed, moving from subject to object status. In networks of consumption, Lee suggested, everything is edible and everything is social.

In the final panel of the day we moved towards science and industry. Stella Pratt-Smith‘s paper “Material, Manufactured, Modern: the Science of Victorian ‘Thing’ Culture” posited a more thorough understanding of the relationship between science and material culture: science was not just one aspect of Victorian material culture but central to allowing that material culture to come about. Her paper demonstrated how putting Victorian things into the contexts of their production, exploring and understanding how things were made, is not only illuminating for our understanding of particular Victorian objects but also for interpreting the significance of the Victorians’ fascination with things. Pratt-Smith’s discussion of the science of various objects, such as the development of purple dyes that held a particular allure and new glass technologies, provided a fascinating insight into the scientific developments fuelling material culture. This was particularly interesting in light of the recent Transforming Objects conference: Stella referred to Jim Mussell’s discussion of chlorodyne (and I must thank Stella for her generous mention of this blog in her talk and handout!), and I was also reminded of Eugenia Gonzalez’s talk on narratives of doll production.

Stephen Etheridge (Huddersfield) finished the day with a paper on “Brass Instruments, Bandsmen and Working-Class Identity: Brass Bands in the Southern Pennines and the creation of working-class identity, 1840-1900”. Etheridge began by noting the overly romanticised notion of brass bands as symbolic of northern working-class culture, but moved in to offer a more nuanced understanding of the role of brass bands in the Southern Pennine region and the various ways in which bands featured as a centre-point of masculine working-class identity. Etheridge noted the strong community element of this identity: bandsmen forged a strong group identity within their band and were well known within the local community, and this was strengthened by the competitiveness between bands from different towns. But there was also a particularly strong individual identity forged through relation to one’s own instrument: after the death of a player the instrument would feature as a strong reminder of the individual, often proudly displayed in his memory – we were also shown the image of a gravestone decorated with a trombone engraving. Here again the intersections between people and object, life and death, and the permanence of objects in comparison with the mortality of people – taking us full circle to the ideas raised about collections in Mary’s paper.

There were many interconnections arising throughout these papers, more than I could hope to cover here, and I was struck by how such a diverse range of perspectives on material culture could simultaneously raise so many points of interaction. This was interdisciplinarity at its best – balancing breadth and depth, generating new ideas without losing particularity or focus, and enabling stimulating and lively discussion in each of the question sessions. The day revealed material culture to be a thriving area of study with many possibilities for new directions and approaches, suggesting that this is an area which we can keep visiting and revisiting for some time to come.

Transforming Objects @ Northumbria University, 28–29th May

Transforming ObjectsThis two-day conference at the University of Northumbria brought new perspectives to the study of material culture by focusing on ideas around objects and transformation, both in terms of the movements of objects, and the processes of change that objects themselves might effect. Papers from a wide range of disciplines, covering the 18th-20th centuries, looked at a fascinating array of objects: shawls, tea, glass, medicines, art, feathers, paper, dolls, rags, post and clocks, were just a few of the things discussed.

The first panel on “Transforming Objects in Gaskell” opened up a rich discussion of material culture in Elizabeth Gaskell’s works, initiating wider contexts of domesticity, industrialisation and imperialism that recurred throughout the following two days. Alison Lundie’s paper on clothing and needlework in Gaskell looked at how character and identity can be interpreted through objects of domestic arts in Gaskell’s works, and focused in particular on shawls which are especially desired garments; Lundie illustrated this with beautiful images of Gaskell’s own shawls. Her discussion included Miss Matty’s Indian shawl in Cranford, and the factory workers’ shawls in Mary Barton; this intersected nicely with the next presenter Tara Puri, whose paper on “unstable objects” in North and South included Indian shawls as part of a wider discussion about symbols of middle-class domesticity which also included tea and calico. The relationship of these objects to the representation of Margaret Hale brought out ideas around bodily presence and sexuality, and the role of imperial objects in the constructiong of middle-class English femininity. Both papers hinted towards physical borders of the self, touch, and embodiment that, to me, resonated with Kate Smith’s paper at the Spaces of Work conference I attended recently. With this paper in mind, I was particularly interested in two points Lundie had made in her discussion of shawls and Mary Barton – about how factory workers are referred to as “hands”, and the references to literal hands in the text. I wondered afterwards (in a not entirely coherent comment!) about how ideas around hands might interplay, literally and metaphorically, with the use of shawls and other textiles.

An afternoon panel on “altering states” looked at the power of objects to transform from one state to another. James Mussell’s paper on chlorodyne raised wider questions about framing of discussions of material culture and the secret lives of things: we come to know and understand the material world through the narratives we create about it, and uncovering material history is thus a process of “telling tales about the tales that were told” about objects. His narrative of chlorodyne was a fascinating exploration of the ways in which legal and medical discourses intersect with the physical experience of the body, highlighting that medicine’s powerful transformative effects on the body is situated within a wider context of authoritative discourses that speak for the body. Mark Blacklock followed with a paper on “Hinton’s cubes” and late-19th century theories of 4-dimensional space, which discussed the role of objects in altering conceptual thought and opened up ideas about the relationship between things and thought.

The next morning, I chaired a panel on “Transforming objects and the creation of nation” in which themes of travel and networks of circulation were central throughout. Ruth Scobie began with a paper on Elizabeth Montagu’s feathered objects, featured in William Cowper’s poem “On Mrs Montagu’s Feather Hangings.” As in the first panel, the intersection of femininity, domesticity and imperialism came to the surface here, but Scobie looked at how the feathers – as items obtained specifically through acts of violence – made particularly visible the tensions between exotic desirability and destructive violence inherent in colonial encounters. Emalee Beddoes’ paper also looked at an imperial commodity within English national space, discussing tea advertisements as an emblem of Britishness in the 19th century. Advertising played a crucial role in normalising tea from exotic artefact to everyday domestic object. Middle-class femininity featured strongly in this, with adverts typically using women; if men featured in adverts, it was typically only in the context of the international, public sphere.

The next two papers turned from objects to travellers: Maria Grazia Messore discussed Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, a piece of travel writing which seeks to construct an idea of English national identity through the process of travelling the nation, and particularly emphasises the importance of trade and the figure of the merchant in this identity. I was interested in the importance of the circuit in this delineation of national space: each route begins in and returns to London, thus insisting on the importance of London as the centre-point of the nation – but also, with London being the centre-point of an international network of trade, thus emphasising the signficance of the global in the idea of the nation. The final paper of this panel, by Fariha Shaikh, drew on emigrants’ narratives to consider travellers’ objects and the ways in which travelling objects construct ideas of space for the traveller. Shaikh noted that in emigrants’ accounts, much attention is given to the physical positioning of objects and everything being in its right place, and she considered how this suggests a reconceptualisation of the journey space as not so much an invisible backdrop to the journey, but as a space to be worked through, experienced and reshaped by the traveller.

The final panel I attended gave a fascinating account of paper in its many and various forms. Claire Friend discussed the process of making paper in 18th century Edinburgh, from collecting the rags and scraps that were used as the basic material, to the finished product – of which there were over 300 types being made in Edinburgh alone. Eugenia Gonzalez then looked at objects made from paper: dolls, which often had faces made from papier-mâché. Gonzalez’s paper explored narratives of doll production, i.e. books which informed their young readers of how dolls were made, again raising interesting questions about the intersection between objects and narrative processes, as well as the desire to know the secret histories of things and how they came to be. Katie McGettigan brought together several strands of discussion in a paper that considered the material form and circulation of the book, demonstrating Melville’s engagement with the literary marketplace and the idea of book as object through a series of metaphoric connections between books and whales in the text.

Two keynote papers also provided stimulating ideas and perspectives on the conference theme. John Holmes spoke about the pre-Raphaelites and science, which proved to be a fascinating exploration (and demonstration) of interdisciplinarity in arguing that the pre-Raphaelites transformed what art could achieve through an engagement with science, which in turn transformed how science represented itself. Sarah Haggarty’s paper returned to ideas of national circulation, space and time; I particularly enjoyed her comments on the postal service and its role in transforming the experience of time, in which individual sense of temporality depends upon a regulated, national system of circulation.

As well as the academic discussions that ensued from these excellent papers, a particular highlight for me was participating in the Roundtable discussion on blogging. The theme of our discussion was single- or multi-author blogging, but in the hour and a half we ranged over issues of academic identity, narrative voice, the importance of “impact”, web presence, and the different forms that academic blogging might take. Lucinda Matthews-Jones, who chaired the roundtable, has done an excellent job of capturing the discussion in a blog post for JVC Online– which is itself a great example of a multi-author blog and well worth a read for Victorianists!

My thanks again to the conference organisers for inviting me to join the discussion, and for an extremely interesting two days of thinking about things! It’s proved very timely as the next event of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies seminar is on the theme of “Victorian Things”, and I’ll be giving a paper titled “What connection can there be?: People, Objects and Places, c. 1851”. The paper draws out some ideas around material culture, national/global networks, and the Great Exhibition, so the Transforming Objects conference has provided a useful stimulus for developing these thoughts.