by Aga Serdyńska. Aga is a Modern Literature and Culture MA student with an avid interest in all things Victorian.
The Shows of London Nineteenth-Century Group brings together academics and postgraduates at King’s and the Courtauld Institute to discuss the literary, visual and audio cultures of nineteenth-century London. In the final research seminar of this term, ‘Docks, Ships and Shows: Maritime Cityscapes and Spectacle’, Joanna Hofer-Robinson (UCC) and Oskar Cox Jensen (QMUL) sparked a thought-provoking discussion about the textual and visual depictions of London docks, which also raised broader questions about methodology in the study of arts and humanities.
Jo’s new research project, the sneak peek of which she offered during the seminar, is a literary history of docks and surrounding urban areas, which would trace the evolution of the cultural idea of ‘docks’ through their textual representations. During her seminar presentation, Jo focused specifically on theatricality – the way in which spaces in and around docks are presented as visual and sensory entertainment. She argued that the language of the awesome deployed in the portrayal of docks is frequently coupled with confusion, suggesting that the spectacle exceed the viewer’s comprehension. She also pointed out that, perhaps counterintuitively, the spectacular can be conducive to boredom. If this is the case, she asked, what are the dangers of this ennui?
Where do docks start? How do we even begin to define them? Are they idiosyncratic and therefore to be considered individually depending on their location, or is there something universal about all docks, be they in London, Marseille or Hong Kong? How do the issues of race play into our discussion of docks? To what extent do nautical metaphors permeate our everyday language?
On the subject of docks and theatricality, Oskar discussed an image titled The Accurate Dimensions of the Nelson, a ‘superb and stupendous Ship’ which was to be launched from Woolwich on 20 June 1814. He pointed out the visual resemblance between this image and a theatrical playbill (see a comparison below) arguing that it is explicitly framed as spectacle and, as such, it would surpass anything one could possibly see on stage. He also interrogated the role the Thames plays in our conceptualisations of the cityscape of London, particularly with regards to the East/West divide, and drew attention to the glaring absence of people – sailors and dock workers – from our discussions of docks, highlighting the reification of industry which occludes its intrinsic human element.
The discussion that followed revealed many more fascinating points of convergence between the nautical and the theatrical, ranging from conspicuous to almost incidental. Nautical melodramas constituted a theatrical sub-genre popular in the first half of the century, especially the 1820s and 1830s; Arthur Beale, London’s yacht chandler established over four centuries ago in Seven Dials, also supplies rope to theatres; panoramas – arguably the epitome of nineteenth-century spectacle – commonly featured ships. We also posed some notoriously tricky questions related to the subject at hand. Where do docks start? How do we even begin to define them? Are they idiosyncratic and therefore to be considered individually depending on their location, or is there something universal about all docks, be they in London, Marseille or Hong Kong? How do the issues of race play into our discussion of docks? To what extent do nautical metaphors permeate our everyday language? (You may not be aware of it, but common expressions such as ‘by and large’, ‘under way’ or ‘high and dry’ all have a maritime heritage).
The most hotly debated issue during the seminar was an extract from Jennifer L. Roberts’ Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America, which provoked a controversy about critical methodologies in the study of the humanities. In the opening chapter of her study, ‘Dilemmas of Delivery in Copley’s Atlantic’, Roberts analyses John Singleton Copley’s Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham) ‘as a marine painting, or, to use a contemporary British term, a “sea piece”’ – not because it meets the usual criteria, but rather ‘inasmuch as it addresses the multivalent challenges of the transmarine displacement it was created to endure’ (p.16).
The most hotly debated issue during the seminar was an extract from Jennifer L. Roberts’ Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America, which provoked a controversy about critical methodologies in the study of the humanities.
The work, painted by Copley in Boston, was subsequently shipped to London to be exhibited at the Society of Artists, thus making a perilous journey across the Atlantic which, for Roberts, presented a number of obstacles that she considers to have been unjustifiably excluded from its interpretation. The goal of her analysis, then, is to unite the work of art and its context by reading the painting in the light of what she terms ‘the challenge of transatlantic distance’ (p.15). The eponymous squirrel, therefore, carries connotations of ‘travel and movement’, recalling ships of the same name which passed through Boston in the 1750s and 1760s; the fact that the boy is portrayed not en face, but in profile – an artistic decision mimicking ‘the most mobile and circulatory of all eighteenth-century objects: the coin’ – makes the painting ‘enter an abstract space of transmission and exchange’ (pp. 20, 27); the list goes on.
Roberts’ reading of the painting is finely attuned to minute details and offers insight both into the work of art itself and its contexts; however, whether her central premise – that the former can only be read through the latter – holds up to scrutiny turned out to be highly contentious. The potential shortcomings of her argument led to a debate on the usefulness of close-reading in the humanities. Is it more justified in some disciplines than it is in others? Is it possible – or advisable – to interpret a painting in the same way one would interpret a musical score? Can close-reading lead us down an academic rabbit hole? What counts as ‘evidence’ in the humanities? These are questions too big to be resolved in two hours – or, as a matter of fact, in a single blog post – so I’ll just let them resonate. If anyone has an answer, don’t hesitate to let us know.
All quotations taken from Jennifer L. Roberts, Transporting Visions. The Movement of Images in Early America (California: University of California Press, 2014).
Featured Image: James McNeill Whistler, ‘Limehouse’ (1859)
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Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.