Charlotte Mathieson, ‘Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy’

Dr Charlotte Mathieson is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century English Literature at the University of Surrey. She works on travel and mobility in Victorian literature and culture, with publications including Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and Sea Narratives: Cultural Responses to the Sea, 1600-present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).


“Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy” at Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London until 22nd January 2017

Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866, “Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy” brings to light the many ways in which the telegraph resonated through the Victorian cultural imagination. Moving beyond the more obvious impacts of the cable’s construction, “Victorians Decoded” invites its audience to contemplate the wider reverberations of the telegraph across the cultural sphere, pressing at deeper conceptual questions of space, time, and what it meant to be human in a technologically advancing world. Channelled through themes of signals, transmission, coding, resistance and distance, the exhibition presents a diverse collection of sea- and landscapes alongside an intriguing selection of scientific objects and archival documents. Many of the artworks are displayed for the first time, while even the more familiar images are perceived anew through the imaginative arrangements of each room; throughout the exhibition we move from the urban river scene of Walter Greaves’ The Pool of London (c. 1863-69), to the domestic intimacy of Frederic Leighton’s The Music Lesson (1877) and on to the biblical history of Edward John Poynter’s Israel in Egypt (1867). The informative signage throughout – developed further in the excellent catalogue available to download online – richly elucidates the connections between these works, interpreting the presence of telegraphic imaginings in thoughtful and original ways.

COL; (c) City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The exhibition is a product of the four-year AHRC-funded project Scrambled Messages: The Telegraphic Imaginary 1857-1900, a group of literary scholars, physicists, art historians, engineers, and archaeologists, whose discussions explore the telegraph in Victorian science and culture (an insight into which is provided on the project blog). The interdisciplinarity of the team is a fitting reflection of the construction of the telegraph cable, an endeavour requiring expertise spanning oceanographers, meteorologists, electricians, navigators, and engineers. The mechanics of the telegraph are displayed through objects such as the Daniell cell battery, a nickel silver micrometer, samples of Siemens’ Atlantic Telegraph cables, as well as sketches and diagrams, handwritten notes and pamphlets, from the Sir Charles Wheatstone collection. These objects give an indicative insight into the scientific advances behind the cable’s construction and establish issues of scale and space that the telegraph engendered, illustrating the inherent contrasts between the vast distances that the cable covered (2,300 miles), while depending upon minute degrees of accuracy (a micrometer could measure up to one ten thousandth of an inch).

This establishes the context for the first room focusing on Distance, where changing concepts of space, time and scale in the Victorian period come to light. Space was re-shaped in multiple contexts, but it is images of seascapes and coasts that emerge as the most powerful and prominent presence of a new spatial imaginary. In works by J.C. Hook, William Lionel Wyllie, John Brett and others, the sea features as a vast presence suggestive of immense distance, depth, and sometimes danger: Brett’s Echoes of a Far-Off Storm (1890) carries a sense of foreboding at the sea beyond, a threat realised in Henry Moore’s The Wreck (1875). At the same time, these artists centre upon the human need for connection across space, depicting figures whose actions are intent upon communication: in Hook’s Words from the Missing (1877) a young boy finds a message in a bottle washed up on the shore, while in Caught by the Tide (1869) a child signals out to sea with an improvised flag. Issues of generational change are suggested too: Hook’s children make use of older technologies of communication, but they are poised on the shore of a new technological world in which new media will allow them to surpass distance in previously unimaginable ways.


If the sea represented a seemingly insurmountable distance then the cable marked the overcoming of space by human technological force, and telegraph charts depict the sea as a blank, inert and benign force, confidently criss-crossed by the firm black lines of cable connections. The story of the telegraph’s overcoming of nature by human force was not, however, a simple one: the successful laying of the cable in July 1866 was the result of years of failed efforts (four attempts were made between 1857 and 1865, including a complete trans-Atlantic line in 1858 which lasted only a few weeks). Once the crossing was achieved the cable remained susceptible to the corrosive effects of sea water and the damaging impact of storms. The possibilities of connection were therefore accompanied by the frustrations and failures of interruption and disconnection, and these themes are brought to light in a room on Resistance. The opposition of the natural world to smooth transmission is evoked in landscapes of resistance and thwarted passage by artists such as Peter Graham and John Linnell, while the confrontation with nature is violently illustrated in a striking display of Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864).


The positive possibilities of connectivity are returned to in the theme of Transmission, which draws the telegraph into the context of wider notions of communication and contact. Here it is the human presence, and particularly the materiality of the body, that takes precedence in images that reassert the power and place of the human in a connected landscape. Works such as Frank William Warwick Topham’s Rescued from the Plague, London, 1665 (1898) put the body centre-stage to evoke questions about the value and purpose of human connectivity, while positing implicit contrasts between the material physicality of the human body and the imaginary space of telegraph transmission. Meanwhile the very form of these bodies can be seen to be shot through with technological impulses, as suggested in Clare Pettitt’s essay in the exhibition catalogue (pp. 87-92) which reads currents of electricity permeating through the coppery hair and silver sky of Evelyn De Morgan’s Moonbeams Dipping into the Sea (1900).

While the telegraph promised direct, intimate connection between individuals across vast distances it also brought about fears of interrupted intimacy due to the public nature of the medium, and this comes to light in the final section on Coding. Code manuals and cryptographs enabled people to communicate with the reassurance of secrecy, and these show another manifestation of cultural change effected by the telegraph as a new language of technology came into being. Issues of privacy and public space run through the surrounding artworks too, most evocatively in James Tissot’s The Last Evening (1873) which is neatly decoded in Anne Chapman’s essay (pp. 145-50) on the multi-layered patterns and structures of repetition in Tissot’s work.

Across this diverse collection a strong but always nuanced narrative unfolds which keeps in view the overarching theme while remaining sensitive to the individual contexts of different works. Far from “Scrambled Messages”, the exhibition succeeds in clearly communicating intricate arguments about the resonances of cable technology throughout Victorian art, and posits new ways of thinking about the relationship between technology and culture: not as one of direct, telegraphic transmissions, but rather encouraging us to read for subtler currents of influence permeating through the Victorian imagination in richly inventive ways.


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