Libraries & Culture 38.4 (2003) 415-416
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Visual Words: Art and the Material Book in Victorian England. By Gerard Curtis. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002. xii, 305 pp. $94.95. ISBN 1-84014-657-5.
Material culture, including the study of art, literature, iconography, and the interrelation between these elements, is an increasingly growing field. In Visual Words, Gerard Curtis, through a series of well-crafted essays, examines the importance of and the relationship between art and the book in Victorian England. The author, an art historian, looks at literary history from the art historian's perspective while meticulously tracing the transformation of material culture from the nineteenth century through the first part of the twentieth. He explores a myriad of resources, including the line drawing, biscuit tins, and the image of Charles Dickens, in order to paint a vivid and complete picture of the importance of book culture to Victorian society.
The author maintains that many people in Victorian England, including the artists and writers themselves, believed that visual and textual graphics had common origins and were in some way united. Taken together, this visual-textual relationship produced an image of text that grew in importance as literacy grew within the English realm. As much as image and word were linked, they were also in competition for dominance as the primary form of communication.
Individually, the essays that make up this work easily stand on their own merit. In "Shared Lines: Pen and Pencil as Trace" Curtis examines the importance of the line in Victorian society and how the pen (writing) and pencil (drawing) shared commonalities in the eyes of most Victorians. "The Art of Seeing: Dickens in the Visual Market" and "Portraits of the Author" focus on the importance of Charles Dickens, Victorian England's literary hero. No author at the time had a greater impact on the literary market than Dickens, and his stature grew to the status of cultural icon. Curtis points to the astounding number of reproductions of Dickens's likeness that appeared during the period and how these portraits helped spread cultural hegemony. "The Hieroglyphic Image" looks at paintings and the tension that developed between the image and the word, while the final chapter, "The Empty Biscuit Tin," explores a variety of items that reflected the importance of literary culture to Victorians. Among these are a biscuit tin shaped like a stack of books, faux bookcases in the [End Page 415] Reading Room of the British Museum Library, and various artworks depicting reading in contemporary life.
Overall, this is a well-written and cogent study that should appeal to art historians and literary historians alike. This work is not intended for the amateur or the general reader. It is hard to find fault with Curtis's work; however, a tight conclusion that ties the five essays together in a neat package would have been a plus. Despite this small criticism, this book is highly recommended, and the numerous black-and-white plates serve to help the reader visualize the author's arguments. As interest in material culture continues to grow, this work sets the bar high where interdisciplinary research is concerned.
Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro