Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies

The Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies offers a space in which to share the latest interdisciplinary research in the field from a range of internationally-renowned scholars. We host regular lectures and panel discussions throughout the year, as part of a flexible programme of events.

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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Abstract: Thomas Martin Wheeler’s fine picaresque novel Sunshine and Shadow was published in the Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star between March 1849 and January 1850. This paper explores how the novel seeks to occupy a space of radicalism at a transitional moment in the history of Chartism. I suggest that its innovation derives from its profoundly ambivalent relationship to place: if the novel – as a genre – conventionally works to provide its readers with an imagined place to live in, the dilemma for Wheeler is that there is no satisfactory place in which to live in the class-ridden, impoverished, and ‘artificial’ conditions of industrial Britain. In understanding this, I suggest, we understand both the novel’s political and its aesthetic principles. And to do this, we need to consider the novel embedded in the pages of the Northern Star. Reading the novel in this context shows that it entered into a discursive arena preoccupied with two issues. The first is emigration: there is talk of it everywhere, and plenty of evidence of the sheer number of people moving to the colonies at this time. And second, Land Nationalisation, and specifically the Chartist Land Plan. I develop the novel’s response to each of these topics. Locating the novel thus enables us to see how Wheeler’s writing about place provides him with an idiom in which to imagine a democratic future.

Respondent: Ian Haywood (University of Roehampton)

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Unless otherwise noted, all sessions take place in the Keynes Library (Room 114, School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, WC1H 0PD), and sessions are free and all are welcome, but since the venue has limited space it will be first come, first seated.

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