- Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain by Janice Carlisle
Picturing Reform in Victorian Britain is an erudite and stimulating book, integrating theoretical and material approaches as well as literary and visual forms to examine the representation and practice of social transformation. By considering both fine art painting and wood engravings of the illustrated press, Janice Carlisle offers a twofold investigation of public art and down-market print that addresses the complex mediation of social and political change from the 1830s to the 1860s.
The work is underpinned by the theoretical writings of Walter Bagehot and John Ruskin. References to literary works are few; they are primarily to Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, the Irish Member (1867—68) and are less often to works by Thomas Carlyle. Paintings selected for analysis include Sir George Hayter’s The House of Commons, 1833 (1843). The engravings considered include those by John Leech and by John Tenniel in Punch and others in the Illustrated London News (iln). This “conjunction of high and popular art” (22) is indicative of the comparative approach employed, which emphasizes “analytic encounters” (21) between words and images, as well as between people and events. Carlisle’s primary argument is that “the iln and Punch practiced a politics of vision by inviting their readers to think with their eyes, to see the state of the suffrage in the present and the possibilities for its changed shape in the future” (2). She demonstrates this by close—“often very close” (22)—readings of paintings and engravings “as major texts to be analyzed” (13), which in turn make clear that the wood engravings of the illustrated press were central to Victorian culture. Such close analysis is situated in relation to political context, with particular attention paid to the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, thus enabling a well-supported interpretation of the relationship between art (paintings and prints) and politics (social reform).
In chapter 1, “Art as Politics: Lines in Theory and Practice,” Carlisle sets the theoretical ground for her work, examining “the extent to which Victorian theory and practice defined both visual images and electoral laws as phenomena constituted by lines of demarcation” (28). At times, the use of “theories on the politics of visuality” (25) seems stretched, and when it is combined with detailed descriptions of reform legislation and close analyses of images, the resulting dense prose makes for demanding reading. However, discussion of the shifting representations of social reform and the working class is both thorough and of interest, and it remains so throughout the book.
Chapter 2, “Pictures on Display,” examines public art and graphic journalism in relation to Victorian politics, setting Hayter in relation to other painters, such as Benjamin Robert Haydon and Ford Madox Brown, and considering how engravings define the political stances of Punch and the iln [End Page 201] during their early years. Carlisle’s description of paintings by Hayter and others is valuable, especially as subsequent chapters go on to describe the growing relevance of the illustrated press, as opposed to large paintings hung at Westminster, to social and political changes leading up to and following the Second Reform Act. In chapter 3, “Redrawing the Franchise in the 1860s: Lines around the Constitution,” Carlisle examines prints published in Punch and the iln in response to the Hyde Park riots of 1866 and contextualizes their publication by considering other images of the period, serial newspaper publication, and various social and political issues. Chapter 4, “Within the Pale,” examines prints from the iln and Punch published just before and after the Second Reform Act. In this last chapter, the shifting positions of Punch and the iln prove highly significant: “the comic newspaper becomes the genteel better; and the staid weekly, which prided itself on its refined devotion to art, emerges as the more democratically inclined social inferior” (209). Carlisle describes this shift with respect to the process and impacts of the Second Reform Act in great detail, effectively demonstrating the conjunction of art and politics for the period.
This work highlights the importance of the...