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…

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