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Yesterday’s Today Show

The Shows of London: A Panoramic History of Exhibitions 1600-1862

by Richard D. Altick
Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 553, 181 illus pp., $35.00

Around the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, the Church, the Law, Medicine—those dignified (and suitably capitalized) achievements by which civilizations are judged and by which man seeks to dominate the chaos threatening to engulf him—there has always spilled out a series of gaudy, yet ill-defined subcultures which have been little studied and which—in part—form the subject of Professor Altick’s very long, enthralling, and admirably illustrated book. The Shows of London can be read with keen interest for its accounts of freaks and automata, learned pigs and panoramas, dwarfs, Temples of Health and bush men—dozens and dozens of attempts, made over two and a half centuries, to attract a paying public through the ingenious exploitation of human credulity. It is a story which exhilarates and sickens by turns, and Professor Altick tells it very well. He has absorbed a prodigious amount of detail from innumerable sources, yet his tone is dry without being sententious, evocative without being sentimental.

He himself, however, makes it clear that his book is to be thought of as more than a mere chronicle, however colorful, and that at every stage it raises important issues about the very nature of those “high arts” which make only brief, but telling, appearances in his pages. For this is a volume in which painting and sculpture exist, not in their own rights so to speak, but as adjuncts to the museum or auction room, substitutes for the diorama and countless other mechanical means devised to convey an illusion of battle, landscape, or exotic architecture.

The role of the sciences is equally pervasive and equally subordinate. Among the raucous crowds thronging Bartholomew Fair we catch glimpses of Robert Hooke and other members of the Royal Society who have come to look, for their own arcane reasons, at the “fire-eater” and “boneless child” hired to thrill a more unsophisticated public through their skills and deformities. This is in the 1670s. A hundred and fifty years later the pattern remains much the same with doctors making careful reports on the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, who are exhibited to the public at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.

Great writers went too to marvel and mock as Indians and Chinese and Africans were lifted from their distant homes, like the lions, monkeys, and other wild animals which sometimes accompanied them, to be set down in some improvised show room before dying of drink or cold, and Professor Altick makes some striking observations on the impact that these unfortunate beings may have made in preparing the way for an acceptance of Darwinism. Only rarely does true humanity (as opposed to conventional pity or disgust) make an appearance. Perhaps the one moment of real emotion in the whole book occurs with the visit in 1810 of two actors, Charles Mathews and John Kemble, to the “Hottentot Venus” from South Africa whose gigantic buttocks delighted the crowds when she was exhibited in Piccadilly and proved a timely boon to the political cartoonists who were out to deride the proposed formation of a “broad bottom” coalition ministry.

As Kemble entered the room, Mrs. Mathews reports,

He paused at the door, with his eyes fixed upon the object of his visit, and advancing slowly to obtain a closer view, without speaking to my husband, he gazed at the woman, with his under-lip dropped for a minute. His beautiful countenance then underwent a sudden change, and at length softened almost into tears of compassion. “Poor, poor creature!” at length he uttered in his peculiar tone,—“very very extraordinary, indeed!” He then shook hands silently with Mr. Mathews, keeping his eyes still upon the object before him. He minutely questioned the man about the state of mind, disposition, comfort, etc., of the Hottentot, and again exclaimed, with an expression of the deepest pity, “Poor creature!”

Something of what Kemble, himself a performer, was feeling clearly communicated itself to the so-called “missing link” and she is reported to have expressed great appreciation of his sympathy. Poor, poor creature, she needed all the little sympathy she could get. It was not long before “in the interests of the scientific record” she was being painted in the nude in the Jardin du Roi in Paris—and soon after that she was dissected by the great scientist Cuvier.

The “Hottentot Venus” whose sadly comic deformity attracted such varying kinds of attention from so many different branches of society—sightseers, humanitarians, ballad mongers, cartoonists, scientists, and artists—can stand as the incarnation of one of the points that Professor Altick sets out to demonstrate. By the second half of the nineteenth century, he argues,

the two great streams of appeal—amusement and instruction—[which] had hitherto been mingled in a single channel dominated by commercial entrepreneurs…diverged, the entertainment of the people remaining in the hands of the profit makers while responsibility for their intellectual and aesthetic culture came increasingly to be accepted by government.

This seems true enough as far as England is concerned, but clearly a much wider and more fundamental pattern can be discerned working its way through this book, though to investigate it fully would require even more research than is to be found here. After all, although Professor Altick confines himself to the “shows of London” it seems unlikely that the basic nature of the entertainments he describes was all that different from what might have been seen in various other European towns between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries. Yet in Paris responsibility for the provision of intellectual and aesthetic culture had been assumed by the government long before it was in London, and there is surely every reason to believe that elsewhere the supply of “bread and circuses” had not been left in the hands only of the profit makers.

What does in fact emerge from Professor Altick’s book—and he himself stresses the point discreetly but frequently—is an increasingly powerful attempt being made, from the beginning of the nineteenth century onward, by the advocates of “high culture” to escape from the “popular” shadow cast around it, and from which it in turn derived so much of its power. The issue might have been seen more clearly had he looked at what were perhaps the most widely frequented of all the “shows of London” during the period that concerns him—public executions; and even after these were abolished, attendance at murder trials remained as a more socially restricted but nonetheless much sought-after entertainment.

A visit to a hanging might well, one presumes, have followed the gentle prodding with a stick of some madman at Bedlam (the lunatic asylum whose attractions are also discussed here). And it could be argued—and often was—that the full impact of the law’s most powerful weapon was only adequately established when publicly demonstrated, even if it was admitted that the circumstances under which executions took place were often degrading. Nonetheless, from the middle of the nineteenth century onward—significantly the very years during which Professor Altick detects a change in attitudes toward public entertainments in general—even the most strenuous supporters of capital punishment began to feel that it should be carried out in private. A certain kind of pleasure detracted from the value of the example. Indeed, even “show trials” have nowadays largely vanished from the international scene and the state makes use of concealed and largely unreported tribunals to sentence its opponents to concealed and wholly unreported tortures. “Justice” is purer when uncontaminated by public participation.

A somewhat similar kind of reasoning can be seen at work in very different kinds of activity. Professor Altick describes at great length the many optical instruments used from the late eighteenth century onward to convey illusions of reality (his chapters on the subject could well in themselves constitute a whole book), and there are moments during the course of his discussion of them when one feels that all art aspires to the condition of films. Yet at the same time he shows the increasing distaste with which serious artists came to view such experiments, just as they began to achieve very great technical virtuosity. “It is,” wrote Constable of the diorama, “very pleasing and has great illusion—it is without [i.e., outside] the pale of Art because its object is deception—Claude’s never was—or any other great landscape painter’s.”

Constable’s disclaimer is doubtless justified, but in accepting it we are apt to forget that not all art was, like his, to be found “in every field and under every hedgerow.” We may well feel that the sensationalism required of painters by a public whose expectations had been aroused by increasingly elaborate mechanical inventions was scarcely beneficial to art in general and that John Martin—the painter whose work is most closely associated with the taste for panoramas—was hardly a great master. Yet we need to remember that some great masters were remarkably successful in absorbing most of the ingredients that had always gone to make up popular entertainments (lust, violence, and cruelty) without thereby damaging their true talents.

Perhaps Géricault’s Raft of the “Medusa,” which was exhibited in the Egyptian Hall in 1820, was the last real masterpiece which could be treated unself-consciously both as a sensational success of the kind promoted by popular showmen and also as a genuine work of art to be scrutinized with serious respect by the critics. A generation or so later Courbet might have got away with similar tactics—his Bathers would certainly have appealed to surviving admirers of the “Hottentot Venus”—but he falls outside Professor Altick’s province, and there seems little doubt that most serious artists in England were unwilling to incorporate into their pictures such elements from the shows of London as are described in this book (with the possible exception of waxworks), even if they were all too ready to welcome the attentions of a new type of showman capable of bringing in the crowds.

It has become conventional to deplore the cultural impoverishment that has followed the severance of “high” from “low” art, of science and painting from ostentatious mechanical ingenuity and entertainment. Indeed, even while these fissures were first becoming apparent, artificial—and usually disastrous—attempts were being made to cover them up through the device of improving and “rational” amusements, just as—in reverse—we can today see equally artificial (and disastrous) attempts to make “high” culture more amusing—Macbeth on ice, and so on. But another alternative was open and seized. A group of sensitive and intelligent men decided to challenge every known prejudice in order to make accessible to a wide public the “high” culture (which had hitherto been the preserve of a small minority) without in any way tampering with its essence. Professor Altick ends with their struggles, and his account of these will constitute the most satisfying part of his book for those concerned about the issues raised elsewhere in his pages.

The task was not easy, for there were two opposing antagonists to contend with. On one side were the populist philistines, exemplified here by William Cobbett:

He would ask of what use, in the wide world, was this British Museum, and to whom, to what class of persons, was it useful? For his own part he did not know where this British Museum was, nor did he know much of the contents of it, but from the little he had heard of it, even if he knew where it was, he would not take the trouble of going to see it.

Echoing Cobbett from the other side were the “realistic” and arrogant pessimists such as Anthony Trollope:

That the poorer classes, that is, those who are comparatively uneducated and who are doomed to lives of manual toil, should really care for pictures, we believe to be impossible.

Both sets of enemies were defeated, and free public museums of the very highest quality were established. Of the vast majority of “shows of London” they alone have survived (just)—and they alone have deserved to survive. But the philistines and the “realists” remain on the prowl.

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