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British visual culture between Chartism and the Great Exhibition

First performed on 21 May 1850, the satirical play Novelty Fair; or Hints for 1851 opened at almost exactly the middle of the 19th century. Its plot juxtaposes 1848, Chartism and republicanism, with 1851 and the coming Great Exhibition. Using Novelty Fair as inspiration, this book brings together Victorian people, things and places typically understood to be unrelated. By juxtaposing urban fairs and the Great Exhibition, daguerreotypes and ballads, satirical shilling books and government backed design reform, blackface performers and middle-class paterfamilias, a strikingly different picture of mid 19th-century culture emerges. Rather than a clean break between revolution and exhibition, class-consciousness and consumerism, popular and didactic, risqué and respectable, an examination of a wide range of sources reveals these themes to be interdependent and mutually defined. As a result, the years of Chartism and the Great Exhibition are shown to be far more contested than previously recognized, with bourgeois forms and strategies under stress in a period that has often been seen as a triumphant one for that class.

Romance and the cash nexus at the Great Exhibition

This chapter focuses on John Leech’s famous image of class harmony at the Crystal Palace, ‘The Pound and the Shilling,’ first published in Punch on 14 June 1851. The cartoon is placed in the context of the journal’s own coverage of the Great Exhibition, as well as contemporary press reports, and specifically commentary on visitors to the Crystal Palace anticipating and immediately following the introduction of the one shilling entry fee. I show how touches of romance were introduced to disguise the cash nexus underlined in the cartoon’s caption and the exhibitions monetized grounds for class mixing. However, these touches of feeling threatened to recall the sexual encounters that broadside ballads alleged were a fair-like attraction in Hyde Park. Leech’s cartoon is therefore shown to tread a much finer line between respectable and risqué meaning than has previously been recognized.

in Novelty fair
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Time’s question

This section introduces the themes of the book using the satirical play, Novelty Fair, as a starting point. It explores methodologies for studying the interaction between high and low culture – a particularly pertinent problem in relation to the mid 19th century due to the divided approaches to these years in the existing scholarship. Typically Marxism, class and the history of working-class movements has been the framework employed in relation to 1848, while post-modernism, consumerism and bourgeois consolidation dominate in relation to 1851. This introduction begins to reconsider these divides, suggesting that the examination of previously neglected sources can offer a new perspective on this pivotal period in British history. The introduction ends with an overview of the chapters that follow.

in Novelty fair
The politics of consumption in 1848

This chapter considers the once famous, but now forgotten figure: the gent. This lower-class male type epitomized vulgar and potentially unruly popular consumerism at mid century, gaining special resonance in 1848, against the backdrop of class unrest and revolutions in Europe. Promising to separate the respectable middle-class reader from this figure through a definition of his habits and haunts, the journalist and author Albert Smith located the gent of the 1840s within specific spaces of urban leisure and consumption in London. Drawing on Smith’s writings and the illustrations that accompanied them, this chapter provides a detailed re-construction of the gent’s cultural context and his social meaning. However, such close study also reveals how attempts to fix the gent failed, with the lines between respectable and vulgar consumerism and leisure often proving fluid. Indeed, the purchase of the cheap, and not wholly respectable, publications in which Smith’s categorisations of the gent appeared risked bringing the reader down to the gent’s level. The chapter concludes with a consideration of Smith’s writing in the broader context of the work of Thomas Carlyle and his attacks on cheap clothes and the dandy.

in Novelty fair
Representing the Chartist crowd in 1848

Chapter two considers how, in depicting the Chartist crowd, forms typically linked with the fashioning of a stable middle-class identity proved slippery. In early April 1848 threatening working-class bodies were conjured into existence in order to justify the recruitment of special constables and the banning of the Chartists’ proposed march with their ‘monster petition’ to Westminster. However, just as quickly these bodies proved spectral as the protest was pronounced a failure. The Chartists’ failure, as covered in the press, was twofold: the crowd gathered on Kennington Common rapidly dispersed, and a Parliamentary committee exposed large numbers of the signatures on the petition as fake. However, these failures also resulted in the questioning of two means of representation closely associated with bourgeois identity, the daguerreotype photograph and the signature. The chapter ends with a consideration of the relationship between visual culture and crowds as a corrective to John Plotz’s claim of a special relationship between literature and crowds in the 19th century.

in Novelty fair
Between respectable and risqué satire in 1848

The third and final chapter on 1848 investigates satires on the special constable: mainly middle-class volunteers who were sworn in to assist the police in keeping order on 10 April, the day of the Chartists’ meeting on Kennington Common. The specials were the butt of humorous barbs after it quickly became clear that there had been an overreaction to the revolutionary threat. Satirical representations of the special revealed the middle-class body as overly domesticated, ill-equipped for physical conflict and profoundly un-heroic. I demonstrate how at this stressful moment Punch’s supposedly respectable cartoons came to traffic with the vulgar humour of ballads, lithographed satires and theatrical depictions of the shamed specials and their phallic, but pathetic, gutta percha truncheons. Questions of the performance of race and gender through black face and cross-dressing are touched upon to consider how the special, and also the Chartists’, were belittled in popular culture at this time. In sum, this chapter offers a different reading of 1848, which is typically seen as a moment of triumph for order and property as the middle-classes sided with the police and government to prevent revolt.

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Balloons, fairs, ballads and the Great Exhibition

The final three chapters of this book consider 1851. Firstly I consider the relationship between the Great Exhibition and fairs as highlighted in the texts of broadside ballads, and draw attention to the entertainments on offer beyond Hyde Park at Batty’s Hippodrome and the Great National Fair at Nottinghill. These sources show how, from its very conception, the Great Exhibition contained fair-like elements, and that the fair was therefore a central point of reference in defining that event. Revealing how the fair, and, by extension, the market place was of central concern highlights how cash and commerce haunted the Great Exhibition, which was supposedly an expression of bonds of unity and common interest between bourgeois and worker, Britain and foreign powers. This chapter also considers the way in which working people were actively excluded from both the exhibition and Hyde Park in 1851, resulting in class tensions that official rhetoric around the event successfully submerged, but which is clear in many broadside ballads that take the exhibition as their subject matter.

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Class and consumption at mid century

The final chapter turns back to the themes raised in the first: questions of consumption and revolution, class and taste. In the aftermath of the Great Exhibition Henry Cole set up his ‘Chamber of Horrors’ at the Museum of Ornamental Art, but like Smith’s volumes on the gent, at the same time the display sought to ensure that the middle-class shopper would not make vulgar aesthetic choices, they highlighted the potentially disruptive, and even revolutionary, aspects of consumerism, linked to sweated labour, class mobility, and the impossibility of neutral aesthetic judgements based on objective standards. The writing of Charles Kingsley, Thomas Carlyle and Henry Morley are used to expand upon these themes. Morley’s humorous short story ‘A house full of horrors’ exposes the class prejudices underlying the selection of objects for Cole’s ‘Chamber of Horrors.’ The chapter ends with a consideration of the word ‘novelty,’ showing how it could have both positive and negative associations at this moment, capturing the contradictions at the heart of rapidly growing and inclusive consumerism.

in Novelty fair
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Novelty Fair, burlesquing history

In conclusion I reflect on the points of overlap between the visual culture of 1848 and 1851. Despite the very different scholarly treatment that each year has so far received, when the selection of sources under consideration is widened, the same tensions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural forms, and the same complex negotiations between respectable and unruly visual culture characterize both 1848 and 1851.

in Novelty fair