• 15 October 2019
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Seminar Room, Paul Mellon Centre

For almost four decades in the first half of the nineteenth century, Londoners were galvanized by the construction, operation, and spectacular display of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel project (1826–1865). Dubbed an “eighth wonder of the world,” the Thames Tunnel was the first subterranean structure in the world to exist underwater, a feat of engineering made possible by Marc Brunel’s tunneling shield innovation. Its construction site was the most popular site of industrial tourism in nineteenth-century London, with over 24 million people passing through during its lifespan.

For a nineteenth-century public that had never had the experience of inhabiting space below ground, subterranean space seemed strange and inconceivable, its precise contours difficult to picture. Visual imagining thus played a crucial role in making underground space legible to a disbelieving and superstitious public: this was a public works project in which the visual arts – and visual attention – was not merely incidental to, but constitutive of its conception, construction, financial sustainability and eventual completion.

Amongst the visual cultural enterprise spawned by the Thames Tunnel Company were: a Brunel family album of watercolors, a summer pantomime, annual fairs, fresco painting exhibitions, peepshow souvenirs and a banquet hosted by the Brunels in the Tunnel itself. This lecture will examine these key visual products of the Thames Tunnel era, and will suggest that the Tunnel’s visual rhetoric positions it as a troubled early instantiation of technological modernity. The imagistic records of the Tunnel’s life suggest that it straddled key paradoxes of early nineteenth-century modernity, giving visibility to a narrative of precarity, and to the frictions between repressiveness and progress, that were writ large within the post-Napoleonic moment of 1826. 

The Fellows Lunch talks are given by recipients of Paul Mellon Centre fellowships. Lunch is provided and all are welcome but please book a ticket in advance.

About the speaker

  • Shirlynn Sham is a PhD candidate in the History of Art at Yale University. She studies the visual culture and industrial technologies of the nineteenth-century Anglo-American world, and is currently writing a dissertation titled “Visual Modernity and the Industrial Subterranean, 1826–1941.” Shirlynn previously received a BA in Art History from Columbia University.