THE SHOWS OF LONDON by Richard D. Altick


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Once in a great while a vast work of apparently arcane/1978 scholarship turns out to be devilishly well-written, capable of infecting non-specialists with enthusiasm, and filled with reverberations that jump across centuries. Altick's chronicle (1600-1860) of London's shows""--not live performances, but visual treats, freak shows, zoos, gardens, monuments, and other public exhibitions--is one of those rare pleasures. ""What Londoners paid to gaze at"" is what Altick recreates in vivid, witty detail, beginning with the Renaissance's shift of interest from religious relics to scientific and historical bric-a-brac (the Restoration's much-ridiculed ""virtuosi"" and their private ""cabinets"" of curiosities foreshadowed the public museum) and leading up, show by show, craze by craze, to the inexhaustible Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. Peepshows, waxworks, magic-lantern shows, ""The Wonderful Pig,"" mechanical toys (like the gilded-copper duck or the harpsichord-playing automaton), water tricks, moving panoramas and illumined dioramas (the common man's ""fine art""), dissolving views, the Scotch giant, the ""What Is It,"" Napoleon's carriage, the Egyptian Hall, noble savages, the Tower of London. . . . These and hundreds of other escapes from the growing, crowded city's ""constriction of horizons"" are textured with the smooth interweaving of literary and social references to reflect the ""age of exhibitions"" (preceding the age of public museums), when mass education and mass amusement were usually one and the same. (By 1850, however, ""unadulterated, sedate instruction was not good box office."") And, along the handsomely illustrated way, timeless matters--like commercialism, public taste vs. elitism, entertainment vs. instruction, and the fickleness of novelty-mad audiences--bob gently to the surface. Altick's own moving panorama may be of primary interest to Victorian-watchers, and it may be too long and rangy to be called a good read; but it is nonetheless a thoroughly engaging triumph of personality over academicism.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1978
ISBN: 0674807316
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press