Theatre, Art, and Visual Culture in the 19th Century Session
Convened on behalf of the three-year AHRC-funded project, ‘Theatre
and Visual Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century’, this session seeks to
create cross-disciplinary dialogue between scholars of art history, visual
culture and theatre history. The 19th century is known as a period of blurred
boundaries between previously distinct media, as evidenced by the growing
importance of spectacle in stage productions, the circulation of images and
motifs between media, and also by the frequent application of the term
‘theatrical’ to a certain type of narrative painting. This trans-medial visual
culture operated through a range of new technologies, from printing methods
such as lithography, to optical toys and spectacular entertainments like the
panorama and the diorama, the visual effects of which were also attempted on
stage. In looking laterally across media (and disciplinary) boundaries, we hope
to offer new insights into contemporary debates about spectatorship, cultural legitimacy,
popular taste, and the relationship between high art and entertainment.
We invite proposals from researchers working on any aspect of the
relationship between theatre and the visual arts in this period. We
particularly welcome considerations of the Northumberland-born artist John
Martin. The theatricality of Martin’s work was foregrounded by the 2011–12 Tate
Britain exhibition, which used special effects to convey its status as the
19th-century equivalent of the blockbuster movie. This example raises questions
about how inventive curatorial practices might convey the experience of
19th-century spectators to 21st-century viewers in the midst of our own
This session will consist of six 25-minute papers
presented over the course of one day as part of the 46th Annual
Conference of the Association of Art History, co-hosted by Newcastle University
and Northumbria University, 1-3 April 2020. The conference will be held across
both campuses in the city centre and will include many opportunities to explore
the vibrant cultural landscape of the North East of England. In addition to
academic sessions and research papers, we anticipate that the 2020 Annual
Conference will include a mix of events including artists’ film screenings,
performances, roundtable discussions, and site visits.
Submit a paper
Please email your paper proposals direct to Patricia Smyth (P.M.Smyth@Warwick.ac.uk), using the Proposal Form below.
You need to provide a title and abstract (250 words maximum) for a 25-minute paper, your name and institutional affiliation (if any). Please make sure the title is concise and reflects the contents of the paper because the title is what appears online, in social media and in the printed programme. You should receive an acknowledgement receipt of your submission within two weeks from the session convenors.
As the conference team regroups after our first conference, Joanna Hofer-Robinson reflects on the three sunny days spent inside talking about theatre and visual culture. Joanna is a lecturer in nineteenth-century literature at University College Cork. Her recent publications include the monograph Dickens and Demolition (Edinburgh UP, 2018) and Sensation Drama, 1860—1880: An Anthology (co-edited with Beth Palmer; Edinburgh UP, 2019).
‘Network’ was the watchword of the Visuality and the Theatre in the Long Nineteenth Century conference held at Warwick University from 27th – 29th June 2019. It cropped up so often, in fact, that by day two Kate Newey, one of the members of the Theatre and Visual Culture project team, tweeted:
Mary Shannon introduced the term on day one. Taking the famous Regency street performer, Billy Waters, as a case study, her paper explored the mobility of theatricality as an urban trope between picture, stage, and street. Shannon’s analysis of this transmedial network not only drew attention to the importance of street-life to an intertheatrical perspective, but – by mapping the spaces occupied by Billy and his impersonators – also gave peculiarly corporeal form to Martin Meisel’s argument in Realizations, which likewise tracks dialogues between the stage and other popular genres. Caroline Radcliffe’s paper explored this line of enquiry still further, and traced exchanges between art, literature and theatre through the body of the actress Louisa Ruth Herbert. Taken together, then, these papers raised questions about how these, and other, transmedial dialogues and cultural networks are effected by the class, race, gender, or dis/ability of the body of exchange.
These two examples are but a small indication of the startling congruences between the papers delivered at this conference, which often spoke to and enriched each other. This should not indicate a limited range of enquiry, however. Reaching across a variety of spaces and countries, the conference included discussions of sensation drama, melodrama, pantomime, Kean’s stagings of Shakespeare, Wild West shows, panorama and myriorama, to name but several. In addition, there were papers on the afterlives of theatrical phenomena (such as Sweeney Todd and Paul Pry), as well as analyses of theatre’s material culture (advertising posters, peep shows, toy theatres), and technical wizardry (stage curtains and machinery). The programme thus drew attention to the heterogeneity of – more and less spectacular – theatrical and visual spectacles in the nineteenth century, and the sometimes life-threatening risks its creation posed to theatrical personnel.
This conference was the first of three events organized by theTheatre and Visual Culture project team. As we look forward to another meeting in Exeter in 2020, and in Venice in 2021, the delegates will hope to meet a growing network of participants in forthcoming years. For, if this conference proved anything, it was a keen interest in nineteenth-century theatrical and visual culture, and the high quality of work being undertaken in the field.
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Patricia Smyth interviews Michael Diamond about his collection of theatrical ephemera
Michael Diamond’s collection of nineteenth-century theatre ephemera is a treasure trove for scholars and an invaluable source of information about the entertainment culture of this period. His fascination began when, as a boy in Somerset, he was given a small collection of Victorian theatre programmes. Moving to London in 1966, he was able to begin collecting in earnest, hunting for new additions that would reveal a lost world of music hall and melodrama. Michael estimates that the collection comprises tens of thousands of items, including programmes, music hall songs, postcards, and posters. The material covers most of the century, but Michael’s main interest now is in the colour lithographic posters that were used to advertise melodrama productions between c.1890 – 1910, when the technology to produce large-scale colour images first became available.
These strike a contrast with the theatre posters we are most familiar with today, designs by celebrated artists such as John Hassall or Dudley Hardy, which exemplify the modernist concern with flatness and decorative qualities, and refer to the play they advertise only obliquely. These were known in the nineteenth century as ‘artistic posters’ and were collected by connoisseurs from the start; they have thus taken their place in many museum collections and over the years have featured in exhibitions of poster art. For Michael, however, they are less interesting than what were sometimes known as ‘commercial posters’, often showing the ‘sensation’ scene of a melodrama, or sometimes combining several key scenes in one design. While the ‘artistic poster’ may have appealed to the tastes of West End theatregoers, it is this type which dominated the market, and which, it was thought, appealed most strongly to the imaginations of East End, transpontine, or provincial audiences. While they are generally regarded as aesthetically inferior to ‘artistic posters’, for Michael, these are of far greater interest because they tell us more about the play, the manner in which it was staged, and also about the desires and expectations of spectators.
In this interview Michael talks about what drew him to collecting, why he chose to focus on melodrama posters, and what he thinks this material can tell us about the popular culture of this period. He also gives us an insight into collecting as an activity, telling us about what drives his passion to collect, and sharing some thoughts about the ones that got away.
I asked Michael how the collection began.
I started with programmes – Victorian theatre programmes were very easy to find in the 1960s – and soon collected music hall songs, which for a long time were the main interest, particularly songs with words offering social and political content. Then came postcards, above all those which offer poster images reduced to postcard size. Lastly posters, because for many years I did not think that I could afford them. When I came to London in 1966, I was very attracted by some melodrama posters on sale down the Portobello Road. But they were £6 each, which, I decided, was too much, as I was earning about £1500 p.a.. I suppose I was right, but have often wondered what happened to them. My first melodrama poster was a framed one of The Wandering Jew, which I bought for £5 on the Portobello Road, but that was before I started collecting such posters seriously.
Where does the material come from?
In the 1960s specialist dealers had shops. There was John Hall in Harrington Road, Kensington; his collection of Victorian music sheets would be impossible to assemble, now, although, I suppose, so would mine. For programmes, the main man was Andrew Block of Barter Street; he used to charge £1 for anything before 1914 and 10 shillings for anything after. I also bought a lot of very rare pantomime texts from him, and still add to this collection from time to time. The best-known dealer in theatrical ephemera was David Drummond of Cecil Court; I have bought all kinds from him. He retired a few years ago, and, although the shop still exists, run by his sons, it now specialises in sixtiesephemera. Now the main sources are the ephemera and book fairs; people who have met me through them also offer me stuff from time to time.
What qualities draw you to a piece of theatrical ephemera?
What I look for above all is an item which I can learn from. I also bear in mind that the collection is willed to the V&A (except the music hall songs, which are going to the Museum of London). So if John Hassall’s famous poster of The Only Way were available, I would not be interested, because (1) I know the V&A has it, and (2) the image is so familiar that it could teach me nothing.
How did your wife, Bell, feel about your collection?
My late wife, Bell, enjoyed the collection very much, although she would not come with me to buy, as she disliked the necessary haggling. She had been an actress, as had her mother in South Africa. In fact her mother had had small parts when English stars toured South Africa, supported by local casts. Some of the shows she appeared in date back to the nineteenth century and feature in a small way in the collection.
Was there another collection that you modelled yours on, or do you feel that you’ve taken a unique path?
I have not looked to any other collection. If you have limited means, the only way of building up something of the highest quality is to find a field which has not attracted rich people. This is why the melodrama poster collection is the most important part of thecollection as a whole, although there cannot be many collections of music hall songs to rival mine.
Is there a community of collectors that you feel part of, or is it more of a ‘lone wolf’ activity?
I have got to know some of the dealers quite well; one is even named as an executor in my will, because she is the youngest person I know who understands the material. The only collector who is a good friend has a first class collection relating to dramatisations of novels by Dickens, which he is leaving to the University of Kent. He too, has chosen a field which has been otherwise neglected.
You’ve written two books on the nineteenth century, Victorian Sensation, or, The Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain and “Lesser Breeds”: Racial Attitudes in Popular British Culture, 1890-1940. What is it about this period (and, in particular, its performance culture) that fascinates you?
I have always been interested in the Victorian period, partly because I love the literature, and partly because the history of Victorian Britain is also world history. I learnt about many of the subjects in my book Victorian Sensation through wanting to understand the topical references in Victorian songs. As now, many subjects created a huge furore for a short time, and were then forgotten. To revive them is to get some of our social history back. Similarly, the melodramas whose posters I collect are an important part of our social history because they were seen by so many people. One learns so much about the past from its popular culture. Perhaps more of today’s popular culture should enthuse me more; alas, it does not, but I know that historians of the future will find it as fascinating as I find that of the Victorian period.
Some Further Reading:
Laurence Senelick, ‘Signs of the Times: Outdoor Theatrical Advertising in the Nineteenth Century’, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 45.2, Winter 2018 (forthcoming, but available through OnlineFirst: https://doi.org/10.1177/1748372718818192).
Confirmed Speakers: Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, Louisiana State University
Brian Maidment, Liverpool John Moores University
Mary Shannon, University of Roehampton
Caroline Radcliffe, University of Birmingham
David Vincent, Open University
Nineteenth-Century theatre is known for the visual emphasis of its staging practices. Responding to audience demand, theatres used sophisticated, innovative technologies to create a range of spectacular effects, from convincing evocations of real places to visions of the fantastical and the supernatural. Theatre spectacle was part of a wider explosion of imagery in this period, which included not only ‘high’ art such as painting, but also new forms such as the illustrated press and optical entertainments like panoramas, dioramas, and magic lantern shows.
The range and popularity of these new forms attests to the centrality of visuality in this period. Indeed, scholars have argued that the nineteenth century witnessed a widespread transformation of conceptions of vision and subjectivity. Theatrical spectacle was at the centre of this new, commercial, trans-medial, popular visual culture; yet there has been no major work to address this area since Martin Meisel’s seminal study, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England, of 1983.
We invite proposals for papers that consider new ways of thinking about stage spectacle, its meanings, its relationship to a wider visual culture, and its spectators. We aim to foster cross-disciplinary discussion of this topic and welcome submissions from scholars of disciplines including (but not limited to) theatre history, art history, visual culture, cultural geography, and history.
Papers may address (but are not confined to) the following questions/topics:
What was new and experimental about the popular stage spectacle of this period?
How far were increased connections between theatre and visual art in this period rooted in popular (as opposed to elite) culture?
How did the transformation of urban space and other aspects of modernity impact on theatrical spectacle and its reception?
How can theories of perception and visuality enable us to rethink the nature of theatrical spectacle in this period?
How did stage spectacle create or contribute to the embodied experience of being an audience member?
How did audiences understand and respond to stage spectacle? Might stage spectacle work independently of (or even against) the meanings of text?
Popular spectacle continues to be associated with the notion of ‘passive viewing’ and political What evidence is there for the agency of spectators in the active construction of meaning?
How did the visual culture of theatre travel transnationally?
Please send proposals of 200 words and biographies of 100 words to P.M.Smyth@Warwick.ac.uk by Thursday 28 February2019. Speakers will be asked to present papers of 20 minutes with questions and discussion at the end.
The registration fee for this event is £90.00 (full fee) and £45.00 (postgraduates/unwaged), and includes lunches, refreshments and a wine reception.
This conference is organized by Jim Davis, Kate Holmes, Kate Newey, and Patricia Smyth as part of a three-year AHRC-funded project, ‘Theatre and Visual Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century’, examining theatre spectacle and spectatorship in this period. The main focus is on Britain, but France provides a comparative study.
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