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Reviews217 Lindsay Smith. Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry: The Enigma of Visibility in Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites: Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. xiv + 204. In this seven-chapter study, Lindsay Smith proposes to interrogate the "intricacies of the sense of sight during the Victorian period" (3) by undertaking close readings of selected texts by John Ruskin and William Morris. Along with these two central case studies, J.M.W. Turner, William Holman Hunt, and D.G. Rossetti figure prominently as exemplars of a "more hesitant and provisional account of vision" (3) than that offered by many earlier Romantic poets and visual artists, whose existence in a pre-photographic era largely determined their reliance upon monocular, geometrical perspective as a means of representing three-dimensional space. The text aims to account for apparent "indeterminacies" in the development of (and responses to) the new medium of photography between 1839 (the year in which the process of daguerreotypy was announced in Paris) and 1870. Ultimately, Smith wants to redress what she sees as the tendency of literary and art-historical theory to neglect the subtle permutations that defined Victorian discourses about vision; Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry functions as a prolonged argument from a position of "vital specificity," attempting to enrich our understanding of the "historical and material modes" that gave rise to a peculiar tension between empirical and transcendental ways of seeing. It is from this insistence upon tracing "cultural and historical specificity in nineteenth-century optical debates" (46) that the book derives both its strengths and weaknesses. Emphasizing that the "fundamentally visual imperative" (12) governing Ruskin's, Morris's, and Hunt's writings and paintings can be grasped only dirough a comprehension of photographic tools and techniques distinctive to the early Victorian era, Smith brings to bear upon such familiar texts as The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice, Modern Painters, The Scapegoat, The Light of the World, and The Defence of Guenevere a capacity for interpretive scrutiny of such intensity and duration that the originality of her readings (as well as her obvious intimacy with the material) frequently go unappreciated. The many "specific intervention^] of optical discourse" (57) that Smith locates in the oeuvres of her authors and artists tend to lose significance in her argument's subsidence into the sort of microscopic obscurantism that, as she herself points out, the Pre-Raphaelites themselves were often wrongly accused of giving way to in their enthusiasm for physical detail. 218Victorian Review There is something disingenuous, also, in Smith's assertion, mid-way through her third chapter on Hunt's enigmatic 1855 painting of The Scapegoat, that "we need not be primarily concerned with empirical evidence as to which particular Pre-Raphaelite paintings had specific photographic characteristics" (102). This comment echoes Smith's suggestion in the preceding chapter that Morris's early essay, "Shadows of Amiens," leaves traces of "the frequently forgotten additional term" of photography, exhibiting "the extent to which [Morris] himself had 'internalized' photographic discourse" (86). Although I am intrigued by Smith's thesis that Pre-Raphaelite writings and visual art were imbued with an "awareness of the logic growing out of the underlying conceptual premises that photography had begun to bring to bear on the artistic practice of the time" (97), the impetus remains with her to demonstrate — as she promises to do at the outset — that this influence is more than simply inferred. Even in her penultimate chapter, however, Smith contends that Morris operated under an "implicit" debt to Ruskin's conceptualization of the noble grotesque in the former's writing of The Defense of Guenevere — a poem which also, and perhaps more interestingly, "appropriates a medieval figure to the newly liberating discourse of visual theory ... as an optically liberated woman" (191-192). In short, Smith's identification of "internalized" discourses and "forgotten" terms is counterproductive: in a text stipulating the importance of the "material conditions of vision and its contextual correspondences" (13), it is offputting to find the burden of proof fall so often upon vague contentions about artistic influence and discursive osmosis. Nevertheless, Victorian Photography is valuable for its detailing of Ruskin's relationship to Morris within the broader problematic of new interrelationships...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 217-219
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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