PICTURE WORLD: IMAGE, AESTHETICS, AND VICTORIAN NEW MEDIA by Rachel Teukolsky, Reviewed by Frederick D. King

By Rachel Teukolsky
(Oxford 2020, vi-461 pp.)
Reviewed by Frederick D. King on 2022-03-28.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Just over a dozen years ago, Rachel Teukolsky surveyed the art criticism of nineteenth-century Britain in The Literate Eyes: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics (2009). Her new monograph is an aesthetic assessment of everyday visual culture and its political implications for middle-class values. The chronology of this book is hardly strict. While rigorously surveying popular visual culture and technology from the age of reform in the 1830s to the decadence of the 1890s, Teukolsky sometimes veers into eighteenth-century political caricature and twenty-first century Netflix. To introduce her book, she imagines a Victorian parlor filled with stereoscopes, illustrated bibles, copies of the London Illustrated News, civil war photography, cartes de visite, and daguerreotypes. Besides all these, we can see through the window of this parlor outside walls smothered in posters advertising the latest plays, pantos, and even the moving pictures of the late 1890s.

Rather than forcing her narrative into a coherent taxonomy in which everything is neatly organized and managed, Teukolsky treats the reader as a guest invited to a salon. While navigating crowded halls, surveying diverse objects, and conversing with intellectuals, scholars, novelists, and poets, we see illustrations of Florence Nightingale, the idealized heroine of the Crimean war, and posters drawn by Aubrey Beardsley. While meeting actresses and opera singers who dare to show their faces in polite society, we are asked to read literature ranging from Dickens's Pickwick Papers to decadent essays by Huysmans and Talmeyr. Picture World treats many topics just briefly while some get lengthy lectures from our author, a talented essayist and cultural materialist. The effect is both stimulating and overwhelming. Though we cannot consume all she considers, Teukolsky insists that we at least taste everything.

Aligning her work with the theories of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, Teukolsky makes the reader feel like both a cosmopolitan flanêur and a society dinner guest. She also makes nineteenth-century media history converse with high-art aesthetics, popular culture, and the socio-economic realities of middle-class consumers who purchase, collect, and consume Victorian visual media. Each chapter juxtaposes a popular piece of such media with an aesthetic term: illustrated caricature with character, newspaper illustration with realism, illustrated Bibles with illustration, cartes de visite with sensation, the stereoscope with the picturesque, and art posters with decadence. This contrasting structure layers a complex mix of history, socio-economic politics, novels, high art culture, consumer culture, and methods of illustration.

Reading this book is intensely engaging. Though I sometimes questioned Teukolsky's choices, I was ultimately won over by her scholarship and eloquence. Examining character through the lens of caricature, Chapter 1 argues that caricature changes in the 1830s as "character itself was destabilized by economic and industrial disruptions" (24). Tracing this process through a series of short lectures on caricature, Teukolsky shows how Dickens, Punch, and various figures like John Bull and London types such as the idler all collaborated to change the experience of lower-class men: to draw them out of an agrarian past into new rituals of masculinity and homosocial bonding in the city.

Though I had expected this chapter to emphasize reader response, media theory, and the observing flanêur, Teukolsky highlights instead the political motives of caricature. Foregrounding the violence, racism, and misogyny of "bachelorland" (i.e., male public life) in the 1820s and 1830s, she notes that Dickens's Pickwick Papers was illustrated by Robert Seymour, whose illustrative work prior to Pickwick connects him to masculine violence and Pickwick's satirical look at sporting culture. Yet while she lingers over this novel, her own book as a whole highlights the cultural relevance of visual art and its reflection of everyday life. The struggles of the working class, we learn, gain sympathy from bourgeois readers because of the role that caricature plays in their free time.

In chapter 2, we find, the reports of the Crimean War in the London Illustrated News best exemplify the four new types of realism spawned in the nineteenth century: descriptive, authentic, everyday, and conventional. Each type is said to entail visual media such as maps, eyewitness sketches drawn by embedded journalists, photographs and drawings of wounded soldiers, and--as propaganda for Victorian values--Florence Nightingale pictured as the lady with her lamp. Rather than ending with Nightingale, however, Teukolsky turns to George Eliot's Adam Bede. After first treating its seminal account of realist aesthetics, she extensively defines the novel as a metaphor for war, which--though independently valuable--has little relevance to visual culture. Returning to this topic far too briefly, the chapter ends by linking its earlier treatment of Crimean war pictures to the BBC documentary Our War, which extends the book's collapsing of aesthetic taxonomies to narrative linearity.

In textually analyzing the non-realism of Bibles illustrated by Gustave Doré, chapter 3 aligns Teukolsky's work with that of David McKitterick, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, and Elizabeth Carolyn Miller. Examining colonial biases and systemic racism, she argues that in the heterotopia of the Victorian age, the Bible became an epic of classical liberalism and bourgeois capitalist achievement. Yet while exploring the mythic role of Jewishness in both the Bible and Victorian culture, Teukolsky once again examines a novel without any visual content: George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Admittedly, her account of this novel serves as a steppingstone to her analysis of illustrations and photographs of the Holy land: material that exemplifies the role of visual culture in Victorian religious practice. But the method of exposition here is more like free association than academic argument.

In Chapter 4, which treats the 1860s, Teukolsky shows how the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon coincided with the exchange of small photographs and scandalous cartes de visite. Collected in photo albums, placed on display, and viewed by guests as a commercial art form, these "haptic" or touchable items helped define the role of Victorian women in public spaces. Actresses, dancers, opera singers, aristocratic women posing in historical dress, and even Queen Victoria herself became commodified objects for collection and trade.

Queen Victoria, c.1887, John C. Murdoch, National Media Museum Collection

Queen Victoria, c.1887. John C. Murdoch, Science Museum Group collection

This commodification of women, Teukolsky shows, is reflected in Collins's Woman in White as well as in Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Aurora Floyd. Yet while the pre-Raphaelite painting of Lady Audley in Lady Audley's Secret prompts Teukolsky to discuss the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood's portrayal of women, she might have linked Braddon's own history as an actress to both the women in her novels and those collected in cartes de visite.

Teukolsky also misses the chance to explain how the visual commodification of women was complicated by race. Cartes de visite, we learn, featured not only such celebrated figures as Queen Victoria but also her adopted daughter, Sarah Forbes Bonnetta, a black woman rescued from the transatlantic slave trade and brought into British society (see below, and she is further discussed in Sarah Gunning's Moving Home.)

 Sarah Forbes Bonnetta, a black woman rescued from the transatlantic slave trade

Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Brighton, 1862. Photograph by Merrick.

Albumen Carte-de-Visite. Paul Frecker Collection

The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography 

But instead of considering how Bonnetta's racialized identity changed the experience of female display, Teukolsky surveys the representation of women in Madame Tussaud's waxworks, the National Portrait Gallery, and posters and paintings of the 1990s. Exhaustive as its coverage of visual objects seems, then, the chapter leaves us wanting more. But it also suggests new opportunities for the study of Victorian popular culture in its wake.

In chapter 5, which explores the picturesque as a form of fantasy rather than of realism, Teukolsky links the 19th century history of the stereoscope to 18th century usages of the camera obscura and the Claude glass. She thus makes an important contribution to the study of cultural materialism in the nineteenth century. While the many objects of visual culture considered up to this point are varied and diverse, the stereoscope--the 19th century counterpart to the picturesque--artificially contains, orders, and places them in the viewer's hand. Furthermore, Teukolsky argues, this stereoscopic containment of three-dimensional photographs mimics the colonial experience of conquering nature and whatever else surrounds civilization. No matter how foreign and exotic the subject viewed, the stereoscope captures it for the Victorian hand and eye. In this light, Teukolsky juxtaposes stereoscopic photos of Tintern Abbey with the poem commonly known as Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey."

But besides the fact that "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" says nothing about the abbey itself, which stands a few miles downstream from the poet's vantage point, I wonder about Teukolsky's assertion that Victorian media theories are contradicted by postmodern readings of nineteenth century media. While Victorian users of the stereoscope may well have seen the device as an extension of human experience, its artificiality is rightly recognized by the postmodern scholars whom she cites. Even though Victorian perceptions of stereoscopic imagery mistook it for natural, postmodern readings of it do not diminish the value of Victorian experience, but rather keep us from anachronistically re-affirming it. Since Teukolsky uses postmodern theory to bridge the divide between high and low art throughout her book, I don't know why she contraposes postmodernism to what she defines as the Victorian take on the stereoscope.

Probing a topic also explored in a new book by Denis Denisoff, chapter 6 links theories of decadence to the posters made in the 1890s for theatres, music halls, pantomimes, and other public events. Examining Maurice Talmeyr's "L'Age de l'affiche" ("The Age of the Poster") (1896), Teukolsky argues that decadent authors and artists were not averse to popular commodity culture, as scholars sometimes assume, but rather immersed in it. As J.K. Huysmans shows in A rebours (1884), the refined tastes of the aristocratic collector named Des Esseintes are for fine commodities. Likewise, consumer culture is celebrated as well as critiqued in the poster art of Aubrey Beardsley, Dudley Hardy and Jules Chéret.

This book often seems desultory: sometimes glancing at different objects and curiosities, sometimes closely scrutinizing the history of material cultures; sometimes circling the parlor and sometimes walking the streets with the decadent flanêurs and scandalous women of London music halls. For a time, therefore, I found the book unfocussed. But as I read on, I realized its value. Immersing the reader in the chaotic and cluttered energy of Victorian visual culture, Picture World mimics mass consumption. It collects a myriad of topics into a single monograph that evokes the sensory overload of that culture.

The beautiful hardcover edition of this book features high quality paper and full-color reproductions that reveal the tints of both photographs and posters. But while the hardcover book is a beautiful and eclectic artifact, the online edition is not. Since the 12-point Times New Roman font does not lend itself to screen reading, I recommend that libraries purchase a hard copy,

In sum, Picture World plunges the reader into a world of visual art that crosses the boundaries between high and low art, surveying these objects while also explaining the culture that made them and made their collection possible. A delightful achievement.

Dr. Frederick D. King is an Assistant Professor of Business Communication at Dalhousie University and a scholar of late-Victorian aestheticism, decadence, queer lives, and book history.

Leave a comment on Frederick D. King's review.