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A Visual Recreation for Hands: Homemade Paper Peepshows and the Role of the Haptic in Nineteenth-Century British Print Culture

Lecture, Research Lunch – Shijia Yu

  • 10 December 2021
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • This event is part of the Paul Mellon Centre's Autumn Research Lunch series.
  • Online

While much has been written on the unprecedented development of print culture in Britain in the first decades of the nineteenth century, as well as the increasingly interactive and haptic relationship people had with various print products, most of the literature only focuses on a handful of media. This paper seeks to remedy this issue by looking at one neglected medium within the print ecology of this time, the paper peepshow, and uses it as a tool to broaden our current understanding of early nineteenth-century British print culture and to discuss the use of embodied knowledge in art history scholarship.

Part visual recreation, part print ephemera, a paper peepshow consists of cut-out panels representing three-dimensional views, visible through a peephole at the front. Focusing on a series of homemade paper peepshows made of print clippings, my talk first examines how these works represent a mode of interaction with prints that differs from other better-known examples, such as scrap albums. By literally turning two-dimensional images into three-dimensional views, makers of these paper peepshows created depth known not only to the eyes but also through touch, therefore putting much emphasis on the haptic. I then move on to the production of these works and hypothesise the existence of paper peepshow construction kits. In the making of homemade paper peepshows, the optical effects appeared to be outweighed by the handicraft and manual skills involved, a phenomenon which was then exploited by the print market. Basing the foundation of its key arguments partly on the handling experience of the researcher in archives, this paper also discusses the importance of incorporating embodied knowledge in investigating the characteristically interactive nineteenth-century print culture, as well as the most suitable approach to incorporate this methodology.

Image Caption: Anonymous, [A Ball] c.1830, 13.5 x 16 x 41 cm (expanded), peep-view, Victoria and Albert Museum, Gestetner 219. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

About the speaker

  • Shijia Yu has recently graduated from the History of Art Department at Birkbeck, University of London and is an Early Career Fellow at the Royal Historical Society. Drawing on media archaeology and material culture studies, Shijia’s research looks at how the paper peepshow can be used as a tool to expand our understanding of nineteenth-century visual entertainments and print novelties, as well as the use of embodied knowledge in visual culture studies.