Supplemental Images for Looking and Being Looked At: Visualizing the Nineteenth-Century Spectator

By Jim Davis.  Full essay available in print edition and online at Project MUSE

The graphic representation of English theatre spectators in the long nineteenth century raises interesting questions around what they looked at and how they were looked at themselves. Drawing on Maaike Bleeker’s notion of “visuality” and Ronald Paulson’s notion of spectators as “intermediate states of being,” as well as on the subjectivity and tendency towards caricature of artists such as Thomas Rowlandson, this essay situates visual depictions of spectators within a context of both visceral and performed responses, while also recognising the fragmented and temporally limited nature of such depictions. These depictions intersect with an analysis of how Sarah Siddons, the most famous actress of her day, was also represented. Visual representation of theatrical spectators often encompass both a critique and an awareness of the complex nature of social and cultural interactions between spectators, whether engaging with the performance on stage or with each other. While attention has been paid regularly to written accounts of spectators in this period, there has been considerably less focus on the analysis of visual evidence and the moments in time that such evidence encapsulates. This essay makes the case for the significance of such evidence in exploring a doubled relationship, those of both the reactive and interactive nature of nineteenth-century theatrical spectatorship. 

Anon,Theatrical Reflection, or A Peep at the Looking Glass Curtain at the Royal Coburg Theatre, etching, hand coloured, 1822, Library of Congress, no.2005676992.
Thomas Rowlandson, Comedy Spectators, Tragedy Spectators, etching, hand-coloured, 1789, Theatre Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, no.S1804-2009
Thomas Rowlandson, An Audience Watching a Play at Drury Lane Theatre, watercolour with pen and black ink, c. 1785, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, no. B1977.14.149.Thomas Rowlandson, Rehearsing in the Green Room, engraving, 1789, Theatre Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, no. S2434-2013.
Thomas Rowlandson, Rehearsing in the Green Room, engraving, 1789, Theatre Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, no. S2434-2013.
after William Hogarth, The Laughing Audience (1733), etching, undated, Author’s Collection.
Theodore Lane, Theatrical Pleasures Snug in the Gallery, hand-coloured etching, 1821, Author’s Collection.
George Cruikshank, Pit, Boxes and Gallery, etching, 1836, Author’s Collection.
Melodrama in the Suburbs, from Mr Punch at the Play, n. d., Author’s Collection.
James Gillray, Very Slippy Weather, hand-coloured etching, 1808, Author’s Collection.