- Landscape Imagery and Urban Culture in Early Nineteenth-Century BritainIllustration
To combine Andrew Hemingway’s and J. Hillis Miller’s books would be to produce the perfect example of cultural studies in action. Hemingway’s volume is a superbly erudite, fascinating analysis of the reciprocal relationship between landscape painting and urbanization in early-nineteenth-century Britain. Miller’s book is a wide-ranging, theoretically sophisticated overview of cultural studies philosophy, and an intriguing meditation on the relationship between language and visual imagery, using illustrations by “Phiz” (Hablot K. Browne) for Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and the paintings of J. M. W. Turner as examples. Both books have admirable strengths, and illuminate each other’s weaknesses in interesting ways.
J. Hillis Miller professes allegiance to cultural studies while taking a hard-nosed look at what he terms its “aporias.” His criticisms of cultural studies, especially where its deployment of the terms “cultural” and “minority” is concerned, are perceptive and worthy of consideration by anyone who considers herself or himself a “cultural studies” practitioner. He then turns to different examples of the relationship between the verbal and the visual to comment obliquely on the difficulties with cultural criticism that he raises in part 1 of Illustration. Part 2 of Illustration is not, however, what one might expect to encounter under the rubric of “cultural studies,” but more an application of a particular theoretical method called “deconstruction.” Miller makes dazzling statements about the “doubling of the sun,” for instance, in Turner’s paintings, following the twists and turns of Turner’s sun imagery as it embodied God, truth, and Turner’s own imaginative act of creation. The discussion is reminiscent of Miller’s similarly insightful analysis in Fiction and Repetition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982) of the role of the sun in Thackeray’s Henry Esmond. Miller’s discussion is not, however, located within a specific “culture” or a particular historical period. There is no suggestion as to why Turner should have been interested in the sun in particular at this historical juncture, or whether he was reacting to a specific local political climate. Instead, we are given insights into what might be termed the internal workings of Turner’s paintings and mind in a study governed by the organizing principle of an individual author or creator. These insights are delivered with Miller’s customary panache.
To see the possibilities available to a more local analysis that accounts for cultural [End Page 121] and historical contexts we must turn to Hemingway’s book. Hemingway, when he deals with Turner, pays attention almost exclusively to Turner’s milieu and the other texts and representations produced contemporaneously with Turner’s paintings. Where Miller is interested in analyzing the interrelationships within Turner’s paintings, Hemingway is interested in the paintings’ affiliations with social and cultural changes in early-nineteenth-century Britain. For instance, Hemingway compares both Turner’s and Constable’s images of British seaside towns with commercially produced prints, and he locates these paintings within the growth of an ideology of “leisure” enabled by both the industrialization and the urbanization of British society.
The details of Hemingway’s analysis are compelling, and the book as a whole is a tour de force of historical scholarship and art criticism. As a whole, however, the study does not fulfill the promise of its opening chapters, which deal with ideology, naturalism, and the role of politics and class consciousness in the early-nineteenth-century British art scene. The concerns of these early chapters seem to fall away once Hemingway embarks on his local analysis of the imagery of seaside towns and of rivers in British landscape painting. While the details are fascinating, their significance is not developed. Part of the problem may be that Hemingway’s use of “ideology” is inert compared to that of, say, Ann Bermingham in Landscape and Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). Hemingway would benefit from some...