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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •


The City

Author's response

Book:

Imagining London, 1770-1900

by Alan Robinson
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004
ISBN-13: 978-1-4039-3289-1; 312pp, 50.00
Reviewer:

Mark Bills

Curator of Prints, Paintings and Drawings, Museum of London

I am pleased to be able to acknowledge my gratitude to Mark Bills for his thoughtful and balanced review of my book. His comments throughout are very fair but in two instances may perhaps create a misleading impression. I would thus like to address these briefly before engaging with more substantive issues.

Lest the comment that my book 'does not contain a bibliography' should suggest a lack of scholarly documentation, let me state that 31 pages of notes provide bibliographical references, which are indexed. My publisher set an extremely strict word limit and the inclusion, however desirable, of a voluminous list of works consulted would have entailed reducing the text or illustrations by an equivalent number of words.

It is suggested that my treatment of visual culture either excludes popular culture and imagery or discusses graphic media only to make a socio-historical point. The last remark is true of my use of Punch illustrations but elsewhere I discuss works by Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank, James Gillray, London panoramas and topographical prints, and a painting by the music-hall performer John Orlando Parry. My discussions of Victorian visual culture do indeed focus on 'high-art' forms but encompass less prestigious works by Arthur Boyd Houghton, John Ritchie, Henry Pether and Phoebus Levin and give attention to Hablot Knight Browne's illustrations of Dickens.

The selection of material was of course indivisible from the methodological approach which I adopted. My first book, Poetry, Painting and Ideas, 1885-1914 (Basingstoke, 1985) [American title, Symbol to Vortex (New York, 1985)] was concerned with formalistic comparisons between literature and painting of the kind which Dr Bills would have wished to see included in this present book. Subsequently, however, my research has moved away from formalistic 'word and image' studies; instead, my current interests lie in the ways in which verbal and visual 'representations' influence the individual and social construction of what we take to be 'reality'. In this respect, my book intervenes in some controversies which have occupied literary studies and historiography since the 'linguistic turn'.

As is well known, the emphasis of Structuralist and Poststructuralist theory falls on the structural framework within which an individual must locate himself or herself, be this the Lacanian Symbolic Order, Althusserian Ideological State Apparatuses, or Foucauldian discourses. The implication of these theories, reinforced by a Barthesian insistence on the 'death of the author' and a Derridean reduction of the self to a 'subject position' with no positive identity within a system of différance or deferral, is that the individual is a mere epiphenomenon. The currently fashionable methodologies which have resulted offer sophisticated tools for analysing discourses and ideologies but their framework of 'dominant-hegemonic', 'negotiated' and 'oppositional' readings, 'appropriation' and 'bricolage' is, it seems to me, insufficiently nuanced to capture the diversity of subjective rather than subcultural experience. I have thus tried to combine a social constructionist approach with attention to the uniqueness of individual experiences of London, as evidenced in works of art or literature, and in so doing to avoid abstract jargon.

The book which emerged is accordingly a tale of two cities: it explores the relationships between the physical spaces of London and their corresponding social practices and an imaginary 'London', an interior world constructed from personal sensory and imaginative experience but also from verbal and visual representations, which both reflected and shaped Londoners' understanding of the 'real' metropolis and influenced their actions in this 'real' environment. Twenty years ago I was most interested in the epistemological aspects of the relationship between self and environment; now I approach this topic more from the viewpoints of psychoanalysis (using 'representation' also in its psychological sense) and interpretive sociology. I see further scope to extend this work in exploration of individual Lebenswelten and in a historical geography of the spaces of London (an approach which has already led to fascinating studies by Miles Ogborn, Lynda Nead, Jane Rendell, Dana Arnold and Erika Diane Rappaport). (1)

Within literary studies and art history London has been neglected by comparison with Paris. The reception of Walter Benjamin's Passagenwerk and studies of Baudelaire has generated an analytical framework which is readily transferred to other metropolises, without sufficient attention to their cultural distinction from Paris. To counter this uncritical assertion of homogeneity, Donald Olsen's pioneering work in The City as a Work of Art: London, Paris, Vienna (New Haven, Conn., 1986) on the architectural and cultural contrasts among these cities indicates, in my view, an approach which should be developed to provide cultural studies of nineteenth-century London which can stand beside those of T. J. Clark and Robert Herbert on French Impressionism in relation to the Haussmannisation of Paris. (2)

My book aims to contribute to this endeavour by offering an account of the distinctive cultural experience and representation of 'modernity' in London and by drawing comparisons between developments in French and English painting. I have insufficient space here to summarise my arguments but would like to respond to Mark Bills's comments on one representative work, John Ritchie's A Summer Day in Hyde Park (Museum of London, 1858). Like Mark Bills, I find this a fascinating painting, which I have tried to 'read' for its narrative details (pp. 146-7). But our value judgements differ regarding its qualities as a pictorial composition; in this respect I have, in Mark Bills's view, 'miss[ed] its central point'. I suspect that I still miss this 'central point' and wonder how it could be established, perhaps within a generic tradition which I have failed to perceive. (3) Leaving aside the thorny issue of intentionality, it seems to me that, using contemporary reviews and other germane sources and analysing the sociological implications of the fact that Ritchie's painting was first exhibited at the British Institution, one could try to reconstruct the painting's original meaning in the light of what Hans Robert Jauss and the Constance School would term the 'horizon of expectations' (Erwartungshorizont) of its original audience.(4) This is the approach I have implicitly adopted in my analyses of Victorian paintings of London in the context of the emergence, development and changing expectations of a newly constituted middle-class audience and of John Ruskin's temporary but powerful influence on the practice and reception of painting. In an alternative approach, Mark Bills implies that revisionist claims for the technical significance of mid-century genre painting could be advanced, as has recently been the case in relation to late 19th-century and early 20th-century English painting.

My intention in the book was not to 'dismiss' the 'unique achievements' of Victorian paintings of London, but rather to indicate how the development of what was understood as 'modern' English painting in London differed from that of 'modern' French painting in Paris and to propose some hypotheses as to why this was the case. In so doing, I aimed to provoke debate; I thus hope that Mark Bills will develop his own position at greater length and that his intervention will stimulate further responses.

Notes
  1. Miles Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity: London's Geographies, 1680-1780 (New York, 1998); Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian England (Oxford, 1988), and Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (New Haven, 2000); Jane Rendell, The Pursuit of Pleasure: Gender, Space and Architecture in Regency London (2002); Dana Arnold, Re-presenting the Metropolis: Architecture, Urban Experience and Social Life in London, 1800-1840 (Aldershot, 2000); Erika Diane Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London's West End (Princeton, NJ, 2000). Back to (1)
  2. T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (New York, 1984; rev. ed., London, 1999); Robert L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society (New Haven, Conn., 1988). Back to (2)
  3. Hitherto, the main interpretative approaches to mid-century genre painting have focused on symbolic realism or typological symbolism, on physiognomic 'reading', on discourses of gender, or on the connections between such paintings and Victorian theatre. See, for example, Chris Brooks, Signs for the Times: Symbolic Realism in the Mid-Victorian World (1984); George P. Landow, William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism (New Haven, Conn., 1979), and Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought (Boston, 1980); Mary Cowling, The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type and Character in Victorian Art (Cambridge, 1989); Lynda Nead (see footnote 1); Susan Casteras, Images of Victorian Womanhood in English Art (Rutherford, NJ, 1987); Deborah Cherry, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists (1993), and Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain 1850-1900 (2000); Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in 19th-Century England (Princeton, NJ, 1983). Back to (3)
  4. See Hans Robert Jauss, 'Literaturgeschichte als Provokation der Literaturwissenschaft', in Hans Robert Jauss, Literaturgeschichte als Provokation (Frankfurt a. M., 1970), 144-207; available in English as 'Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory', in New Directions in Literary History, ed. Ralph Cohen (Baltimore, 1974), pp. 11-41. Back to (4)

July 2005

Original review

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