Here you can find details of all previous forum events, from our inauguration in January 2012 up until our last term’s programme. Events are listed chronologically, with the newest events first. Please click through the page links below for older listings. Recordings and event reports, where available, are published here along with abstracts: simply click on the event titles to display information.

Abstract: This paper focuses on the chromatic anachronism of William Burges’s Great Bookcase (1859-62, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) which was first exhibited in the Medieval Court of the 1862 International Exhibition. Modelled on a surviving piece of polychrome French Gothic furniture, and painted by no fewer than 14 promising artists (including Edward Burne-Jones and Simeon Solomon), it represents the Pagan and Christian origins of art and yet some of the colours used were modern pigments devised by an expanding chemical industry. A fellow exhibitor of painted furniture at the Medieval Court, William Morris shared a similar passion for medieval France, which his early poetry construed as a golden age, contrasting with the bleakness of the industrial present. However some of his poems also introduce effects of chromatic disjunction and anachronism, notably in ‘Golden Wings’, which H.H. Statham analysed in 1897 as ‘characteristic of a decorator poet’, quoting the expression ‘red brick lip’ as ‘a sign of the times’ rather than of the architecture of the age of Chrétien de Troyes. Drawing on the complex description and inscription of these shifting chromatic materialities, I wish to show how the convergence of Victorian debates on ancient forms of polychromy and the colours of industrial modernity shaped Morris’s and Burges’s early poetic and artistic practice.

Respondent: Matthew Winterbottom (Ashmolean Museum)

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To listen to an audio recording of this event, click here.

Speaker: Steve Edwards is Professor of History and Theory of Photography in the Department of Art History at Birkbeck. His publications include: The Making of English Photography, Allegories (2006) and Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (2012). His work has been translated into 11 languages and he is an editor of Oxford Art Journal and the Historical Materialism book series.

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To listen to an audio recording of this event, click here.

Abstract: This talk explores some of the many links between sculpture, writing and dance in fin-de-siècle Paris through a study of Arthur Symons’s involvement with the works of Auguste Rodin and avant-garde dance as represented by Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan. As spatial arts, engaging in and exploring three-dimensional space, sculpture and dance impinge on the physical space of the spectator. Although one art is solid and static, the other evanescent and ephemeral, the approximations between the two arts were many at the turn of the century. The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 became the epicentre for the display of the moving body, whether as modern machine with sophisticated stage effects or as erotic bodies captured in drawing, photography, and sculpture.

Respondent: Alexandra Gerstein (Courtauld Gallery)

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To listen to an audio recording of this event, click here.

Abstract: Professor Joseph Bristow (UCLA) is currently working on a reconstruction of the two criminal trials that resulted in Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment. This talk is part of this work and explores three interrelated scandals involving homosexual blackmail, male prostitution, and music-hall and drag culture from 1894 to 1897.

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Abstract: Writer and academic Vybarr Cregan-Reid (University of Kent) discusses his new book, Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human (Ebury Press, 2016), a literary and philosophical study of running and modern life. He will read from a chapter about why so many people dislike running in a gym, and how the treadmill began its life as the harshest form of punishment short of the death penalty, endured by many, including Oscar Wilde.

To listen to an audio recording of this event, click here.

Abstract: This panel discussed the joys and challenges of collecting, curating, preserving and researching the Victorians. Panelists include Jan Marsh, Elizabeth Heath, Katty Pearce, Caroline Smith, and Ruth Macdonald.


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Abstract: Arctic archives, broken lands, and Victorian relics are some of the topics our panelists discussed in this exciting event, which marked the publication of Adriana Craciun’s Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration (Cambridge University Press, 2016)


To listen to an audio recording of this event, click here.

Abstract: The Dalziel Brothers were the dominant London wood engraving firm of the Victorian period. They had enormous cultural power at a key moment in history, and their output of around 54,000 prints published from 1839 to 1893 included everything from Dickens and Trollope illustrations to fitness manuals and Cadbury’s adverts. They produced many of the landmark images of the century, engraving all of John Tenniel’s designs for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books of 1865 and 1871, as well as numerous Pre-Raphaelite illustrations to Edward Moxon’s landmark edition of Tennyson’s Poems (1857).

In this paper I investigate the role of the Victorian wood engraver and their business of artistically producing someone else’s lines. Is this mechanics, or creation? From drawing to autograph, the line is a powerful element of the way we understand artistic identity. The line is essential to aesthetics; without it there can be no boundary, no form, no artwork. Curling into letters and forms, the line connects writing and the image. An expressive gesture, the line is what links the body of the artist – their hands and eyes in particular – with the artwork as object. Mainstream Victorian wood engravers such as Dalziel had the job of creating another person’s line, and according to common beliefs about artistic identity and work, this is a paradox, which undermines many of our assumptions about what lines mean in art. My aim here is to explore Dalziel’s activity of making the other’s line, and to find a new method for understanding the wood engraver’s supposedly mechanical labour in relation to the imaginative and figurative artwork it produced. I think through the unique kind of authorship this involved, examining the wood engraver as line-maker, self-portraitist, signatory, stylist, and as (disembodied) hand and eye for hire.

To listen to an audio recording of this event, click here.

Abstract: This seminar, presented in collaboration with the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre at Birkbeck, explored the new material Martha Weiss discovered while researching the current must-see exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, marking the bicentenary of the birth of Julia Margaret Cameron, 150 years after she first exhibited her work there. Colin Ford has worked extensively on this important photographer, most notably in the comprehensive catalogue Julia Margaret Cameron: Complete Photos (Getty, 2002).

To listen to an audio recording of this event, click here.

Abstract: The third and final workshop of the Defining Digital Dickens series brought together the bloggers and critics who formed the huge online reading group blogging on Dickens’s last completed novel, ‘Our Mutual Friend’. This workshop united as many as possible of those who took part in a wide-ranging discussion about the experience of reading Dickens, reading digitally, and the advantages and disadvantages of tweeting in character. The event was part of the Defining Digital Dickens strand of the Being Human festival, a country-wide festival of the humanities that took place from 12th-22nd November 2015.

To listen to an audio recording of this event, click here.

Abstract: John Ruskin’s account of the gothic spirit, from the central chapter of The Stones of Venice, ‘The Nature of Gothic’ (published in 1853), is highly influential and much fêted. Such influence has long been recognized over figures such as William Morris, over the architectural practices of Victorian Britain, and over political economic thought, especially after Ruskin’s 1862 publication of ‘Unto This Last’, which develops the earlier work’s critique of laissez-faire economics. But Ruskin’s innovative theorization of the concept of the gothic in ‘The Nature of Gothic’ has never been connected with gothic literature itself. This is a significant oversight, as this paper demonstrates, one that has left a fundamental shift in Victorian gothic literature unrecognized, and that has allowed the eighteenth-century, consistently negative associations of the gothic to stand unchallenged in the very different world of post-Ruskinian gothic literature. Ruskin’s considerable influence over gothic fiction is reconstructed, in this paper, by analysis of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1886).

Richard Adelman (Sussex)

To listen to an audio recording of this talk, click here.

Abstract: ‘If I have put into my book anything which can fill the young mind with better thoughts of death’, Dickens said after the publication of The Old Curiosity Shop, ‘I shall consider it as something achieved’. This paper explores the significance of Dickens’s claim, which not only indicates his awareness of the novel’s ability to shape individual subjectivity but also reveals his engagement with the psychology of death and grief—an interest that he cultivated following the death of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. I argue that Dickens was not alone in self-consciously aiming to change the ways in which ‘the young mind’ thought about death and the dead; his representation of Little Nell’s final months alive drew upon four decades of educational speculation in which psychological theories of association were brought to bear upon the question of precisely what, and how, children should learn about mortality. Did death always have to be terrifying? Might we learn to live with it in comfort? One of the starting points for this exploration of death’s psychological presence was Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’; one of its enduring legacies was the garden cemetery: this paper touch on both in an attempt to understand the ‘better thoughts of death’ that Dickens had in mind.

David McAllister (Birkbeck)

To listen to an audio recording of this talk, click here.

Abstract: We were very excited to welcome speakers Sandy Welch, Mike Walker, and Jeremy Mortimer to Birkbeck talk about the process of adapting Dickens’s final novel for screen and radio. Sandy is a screenwriter who has worked on a number of period adaptations in addition to ‘Our Mutual Friend’, including ‘North and South’ (2004), ‘Jane Eyre’ (2006) and ‘Emma’ (2009). Mike and Jeremy have produced several Dickens adaptations for BBC Radio 4, including ‘David Copperfield’ (2005), ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (2011), and ‘Barnaby Rudge’ (2014).

Sandy Welch (Screenwriter, 1998 BBC TV adaptation)

Mike Walker (Writer, 2009 BBC R4 adaptation)

Jeremy Mortimer (Producer, 2009 BBC R4 adaptation)

To read a report of this event, click here.

Abstract: Beginning with the proposition that Our Mutual Friend takes commodity culture and capitalist exchange as two of its central concerns, this paper argues that Dickens’s novel explores the processes by which Victorian capitalism both commodified the subject and made that commodification appear to belong to a kind of quasi-Darwinian natural order. Key to this process, the novel suggests, is the transformation of the Victorian subjects into texts–wills, letters, biographies, newspaper articles, records of debt—that oblige subjectivity to circulate within a much broader textual economy of paper money, paper shares, paper mills, and paper waste. In other words, I want to discuss the ways in which Our Mutual Friend shows the widespread collapse of the Victorian subject into the realm of property, and in which the novel rebels against the idea that this is a “natural” state of affairs.

Sean Grass (Iowa)

To listen to an audio recording of this talk, click here.

Abstract: The first event of the summer term for the Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies featured Professor Michael Hatt (Warwick) and Professor Jason Edwards (York) discussing the ‘Sculpture Victorious’ exhibition, currently at the Tate. Michael and Jason introduced, talked about, and reflected on the broader significance of the Sculpture Victorious exhibition at Tate Britain, the first synoptic exhibition on the subject that had ever been attempted, and a show that sought to return Victorian sculpture to its rightful place at the heart of our understanding of Victorian political, artistic and cultural life.

More information on the exhibition can be found here.

Michael Hatt (Warwick)

Jason Edwards (York)

To listen to an audio recording of this talk, click here.

Abstract: Darwin’s 1881 Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms is a testament to the extraordinary work of ordinary earthworms—millions of them—that process and smooth the English countryside. Darwin meticulously observes how earthworms use the primordial sense of touch to explore their worlds. This scientific work resonates with several literary challenges to human-centered ideas about perception and space in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The question of what animal senses might be like was newly urgent as it appeared that human minds had evolved from those of animals. Descent of Man (1871) proposed an actual inherited connection between animal and human forms of perception and cognition. Touch appears in the earliest forms of life and is widely distributed across species. Darwin suggests that most of the worm’s conception of space involves its direct contact with external objects and surfaces that it moves across or through. How far up, down, over, and into space does the worm’s perception extend?  And what can the way that worms sense space tell us about how human conceptions of the world are limited by our own perceptual organs? Similar questions arise in Edwin Abbott’s 1884 Flatland, in which imaginary beings lack sensory and bodily access to a second or third dimension. Darwin’s Worms invites us to imagine our way into sensitive bodies that encounter the world not by seeing or hearing but by sweeping those bodies across the surface of the earth.

Anna Henchman (Boston)

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Abstract (Catharine Edwards): Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, or the romance of Monte Beni (1860), instantiates and reinforces a particular protestant, perhaps American protestant, view of Rome; this is a city profoundly corrupted by a myriad of slaughters, weltering in its old crimes, a city with no future, vile – yet also disarmingly beautiful. ‘Error’, taken in various connected senses, is a recurrent term in this book.  The characters go astray in their ramblings through the city.  Also prominent is ‘error’ in the sense of a specific sin or crime.  Rome as a place, imbued with the errors of the past, predisposes people to err, it seems.  Yet other dangers were perhaps more truly threatening to the Anglo-Saxon visitor, seduced by the experience of wandering through a city filled with objects whose aesthetic power is rooted in sinfulness and corruption.  Even the ‘errors’ of Catholicism might be strangely appealing.

Abstract (Victoria Mills): Described by Henry James as an essential piece of ‘intellectual equipment’ for the tourist, The Marble Faun has been used as a guide to Rome ever since the date of its first publication in 1860. This paper will explore how the novel was repackaged for a late-Victorian tourist audience by the Leipzig publisher Bernhard Tauchnitz and Co. Tauchnitz seized an opportunity to profit from the burgeoning British and American tourist market in Italy by producing unbound editions of novels and travel guides set in Italy including The Marble Faun, which was the most popular edition. These books contained blank spaces onto which tourists could paste photographs or postcards relating to scenes in the text. Next to Hawthorne’s description of the Faun of Praxiteles, for example, visitors would paste or, in some cases, tip into the binding, a photograph of the sculpture. In the first half of the paper, I consider this form of extra-illustration as a touristic practice, exploring the relationship between the Tauchnitz volumes as embodied texts and the embodied aspects of Victorian tourism. Secondly, I will consider the links between extra-illustration as a practice involving both hand and eye and the discourse of tactility evident in Hawthorne’s ekphrastic writing, arguing that both are part of a broader nineteenth-century narrative of corporeal aesthetic response. Lastly I will speculate on a particular mode of sepulchral touch that dominates the novel, asking how it might link to the idea of these books as repositories for the dead hand.

Catharine Edwards (Birkbeck), Victoria Mills (Cambridge)

To listen to an audio recording of this talk, click here.

Abstract: In this seminar I will be presenting my recent research project that explored the visual culture of the ‘spectacle of the closet’ outlined in relation to literature – and specifically with reference to Proust’s character, the Baron de Charlus – by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her pioneering work Epistemology of the Closet (1990). This project looked at the ways in which ‘homosexuals’ were depicted and visually presented themselves before and after the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895. It also explored the visual aspects of the emergence of gay liberation which involved attempting to imagine, depict and interrogate the space of the closet itself. The work also explored the wider potential for the application of Sedgwick’s insights in the field of literature to the histories of British art and culture. The key output of this project is being published this year by Oxford University Press as ‘Picturing the Closet: Male Secrecy and Homosexual Visibility in Britain’.

Dominic Janes (Birkbeck)

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The first event of the spring term for the Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies will feature Professor Michael Slater (Birkbeck) and Holly Furneaux (Leicester) discussing the latest instalment of Our Mutual Friend, as part of Birkbeck’s serial reading project. The January instalment of the novel can be read here, and more information on the reading project can be found here. This event will also feature a reading from Michael Slater.

To listen to an audio recording of this event, click here.

A panel discussion on the Our Mutual Friend reading project and other digital Dickens projects. Panellists included Pete Orford (University of Buckingham) on The Drood Inquiry and digital Dickens, Ben Winyard (Birkbeck) on recent digital Dickens reading projects, and Emma Curry (Birkbeck) on the Our Mutual Friend Tweets project.

To listen to audio recordings of these talks, click here.

Abstract: The house-museum of the architect and collector Sir John Soane in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is one of the only London museums still in existence that dates back in its present form to the early nineteenth century. During Soane’s lifetime, it housed his eclectic and ever-growing collections, and functioned as a ‘quasi’ public museum: it served a variety of purposes, from a professional and educational resource to an antiquarian’s dramatic, fantasized mise-en-scène. The close interrelation of house, museum, and archive – all spaces of gathering and holding – inevitably changed after Soane’s death in 1837, as did the nature of the house with its striking elements of monument and mausoleum. The agency of Soane and his objects, broadly understood, was subject to re-encoding as it shifted from collector to collection, captured by the more static and potentially deadening spaces of the museum. This paper focuses by contrast on what the Soane museum can tell us about archives and agential life, and about the more paradoxical aspects of self preservation, by examining Soane’s often manic efforts to remain a living presence in his own archive, which the performative qualities of his museum so effectively facilitated.

Sophie Thomas (Ryerson)

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Abstract: The blush is an elusive expression, and one of the most intriguing. It is manifest in a wide range of emotions, even those that seem antithetical: a sign of shame or innocence, a vehicle of amorous attraction, a symptom of fear and danger. It is interrogated by a succession of disciplines, physiology, biology, sexology, and psychiatry, surviving as a reflex mechanism of self-attention, a pre-condition for the ritual of courtship, a product of sexual anxiety and objectification, and finally, a form of fear itself: erythrophobia. The narratological character of the blush is manifest in different forms (fiction, natural history, psychoanalysis). But this tendency to unfold as narrative coexists with another equally prevalent feature, namely its reduction to a purely physiological response, even one in which affect is entirely absent.

Paul White (Cambridge)

To listen to an audio recording of this talk, click here.

Abstract: The first event of the autumn term for the Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies featured Hilary Fraser (Birkbeck) in discussion on her new book ‘Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century: Looking Like a Woman’. The book sets out to correct received accounts of the emergence of art history as a masculine field. It investigates the importance of female writers from Anna Jameson, Elizabeth Eastlake and George Eliot to Alice Meynell, Vernon Lee and Michael Field in developing a discourse of art notable for its complexity and cultural power, its increasing professionalism and reach, and its integration with other discourses of modernity. Proposing a more flexible and inclusive model of what constitutes art historical writing, including fiction, poetry and travel literature, the book offers a radically revisionist account of the genealogy of a discipline and a profession. It shows how women experienced forms of professional exclusion that, whilst detrimental to their careers, could be aesthetically formative; how working from the margins of established institutional structures gave women the freedom to be audaciously experimental in their writing about art in ways that resonate with modern readers.

Hilary Fraser (Birkbeck)

To listen to an audio recording of this talk, click here.

Abstract: Sensation novels, with their lurid plotlines and assorted cast of bigamists, madwomen, and murderesses, have attracted much attention from literary scholars. Yet the term ‘sensation’ was applied in the 1860s to any scandalous or crowd-pleasing object, from tightrope walkers to mouthwash. In this paper, I offer a multimedia account of sensation that looks to an aspect of its visual culture — specifically, the vogue for cartes-de-visite that exploded onto the cultural scene at exactly the same moment as sensation did. Known as ‘cartomania,’ the cartes-de-visite craze inspired the creation and collection of millions of small photographic portraits. The carte introduced a new kind of celebrity, one based on image, notoriety, and a fleeting kind of fame familiar to us from today’s tabloid culture. In the sensation economy of the carte, image was everything, especially the erotic image of questionable women — actresses, courtesans, and female criminals. Both sensation novels and cartes-de-visite, I will argue, upended traditional divides of class and gender by foregrounding powerful women of dubious backgrounds. Rachel Teukolsky (Vanderbilt)

Listen to an audio recording of Rachel Teukolsky’s talk below:

Abstract: This paper argues that nineteenth-century design debates about colour’s ‘mood-setting’ ability, its power to affect a room’s inhabitants in powerful yet nonconscious ways, were part of a broader set of inquiries into the ‘colour-sense’ and how to train it. More than a synonym for colour perception, the colour-sense denoted a cultivated talent for seeing and feeling colours; it was thought to be trainable, to vary across human populations, and to index both cognitive and cultural sophistication. After demonstrating the extent to which the discourses of interior design and home decoration appealed to the colour-sense, I will turn to the literary and sociological writing of Charlotte Perkins Gilman to show how she shaped her aesthetic program in relation to questions that drove debates about colour experience during her time at the Rhode Island School of Design and throughout her career as an author and reformer. These questions include: are all people equally sensitive to colour? How do colourful environments affect mental states? How can the effects of various hues be managed? And what kinds of language must be invented to manage them? In addition to addressing Gilman’s most famous story, ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper,’ I will discuss ‘Through This,’ The Home, and ‘The Master of the Sunset.’ The last of these, a dramatization of a ‘colour concert,’ connects the discourse of decoration to early experiments in abstract coloured light projection, and in so doing, I will argue, it reveals the broader cultural history and social meanings of abstract art at the turn of the twentieth century. Nicholas Gaskill (Rutgers)

Listen to Nicholas Gaskill’s talk below:

Abstract: Over the past hundred years, Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of two prostitutes awaiting a gynecological inspection in a Parisian brothel has been understood as exemplary of the artist’s assumed sympathy and innate understanding of the lives of the sick and downtrodden or as representative of the perverse fantasies of a crippled, heterosexual aristocrat at the fin de siècle. In both approaches, Lautrec’s biography as the deformed bohemian of Montmartre predominates. In order to move away from biographically driven readings, this paper will examine the work through a discussion of the phenomenology of waiting and historical accounts of gynecological procedures in late nineteenth-century France. Through a focused visual analysis of the compressed space of the brothel interior and the close proximity of semi-clothed female prostitutes in Rue des Moulins, this paper will explore the troubled ties between bodily thresholds, medical penetration and artistic encounters.

Mary Hunter (McGill)

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Abstract: Can works of art confront the troubling legacies of Britain’s imperial past? In this talk Dr Sarah Thomas discusses some of the challenges encountered during preparations for a major exhibition planned at Tate Britain for 2015.

You can read more about this event in this blog post by Sarah Thomas

Listen to Sarah Thomas’s talk below:

Part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2014

sitemanagerBirkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies: series archive