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  • Surround, Background, Context:Response
  • Amy Woodson-Boulton (bio)

These essays struck me because of their overlapping concerns with foreground/background, center/surround, and boundaries of several kinds: between disciplines, modes of interpretation, genres, classes, and spaces. Discussing various aspects of late nineteenth-century visual culture, these studies reveal the ways in which, through changing technologies of production and reproduction, photography, painting, and architecture became venues for different historical actors to explore new kinds of identities and to participate in the construction and deconstruction of traditional boundaries of class, gender, and race. In doing so, however, these new forms also created profound anxieties, often expressed in the periodical press in terms of taste or vulgarity (note the etymology of the latter word: from the Latin for the common people). By studying such debates through specific examples, practices, and works, these papers give us a very useful way of understanding the connection between visual form on the one hand and, on the other, the commercial and class contexts of Victorian Britain. New forms of representation, new technologies, and an expanding market allowed for the participation of those previously excluded from visual culture, and this democratization (or vulgarization) provoked cultural elites to react: to attempt to redraw the boundaries of taste, propriety, morality, and decorum, the bywords of class demarcation (Dowling 1–24). Such cultural conflicts were closely connected to debates over political participation in the period of the 1867 and 1885 Reform Acts, which extended the vote to working-class men (and, one might add, to debates over the status of the Empire and [End Page 490] the question of Irish Home Rule, 1886–1914, and over the rights of female citizens, 1867–1919).

kate Flint, Rachel Teukolsky, and Samantha Burton, in different ways and through different media, approach visual culture with a profound concern for context as a mode of interpretation, analysis, and understanding. Flint directs our attention to the artificiality and artifice of studio portrait-photography backdrops and the new spaces revealed by flash photography, illuminating for us the constructedness of photographic practice, production, and consumption through distinctions between the surround and the background. Teukolsky considers cartes-de-visite and sensation novels as related forms of a new, highly gendered mass culture that both participated in and helped to create a liberalized and destabilizing marketplace, itself epitomized by the shop windows that displayed the cartes-de-visite of actresses and courtesans next to those of Queen Victoria. Burton examines the relationship between James Tissot’s polished, popular paintings of society subjects and his London conservatory, which was attached to his studio and often formed the background for his suggestive and entertainingly enigmatic productions. Paintings and photographs, these essays argue, produce meaning through the interplay of foreground and background. The act of interpretation continues this interplay, as it illuminates new aspects or areas of images, changes our focus, and extends the “background” to events, meanings, texts, and images outside of the original frame. A further context—acting perhaps as a lens or filter—is that of our own time: visually saturated, fragmented, anxious, and very aware of the extent to which our images and self-presentations are staged and our identities constructed.

All three writers delineate context through retracing the implications of certain choices—the exotic plants of Tissot’s conservatory, the ordering of a shop window, the props and backdrops of studio photography—not only for viewers at the time but also for what these works can tell us about the use of representation itself in a culture increasingly defined through mass production, reproduction, and consumption. The essays take us inside images and then pull us outside again to think about how, and by whom, they were made, seen, bought, and sold. What emerges are, for me, fascinating meditations on the consumption of visual culture in nineteenth-century Britain and on the relationship between the nature of such consumption—its class differentials and market pressures—and the forms that such visual [End Page 491] culture assumed. For all three scholars, their chosen images are fraught with anxieties and discontinuities, slippages and erasures, gaps and shadows, even as they purport to reveal all, to be what they seem, and to operate...


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pp. 490-498
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