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Light Research @ MMU

Light Touches: an innovative history of 19th century illumination

Alice Barnaby’s recently published book, Light Touches: Cultural Practices of Illumination, (https://www.routledge.com/Light-Touches-Cultural-Practices-of-Illumination-1800-1900/Barnaby/p/book/9780415663373) offers a fascinating, theoretically sophisticated and critical exploration of the development of 19th century light. By drawing on a remarkable range of examples, Alice demonstrates how the everyday world was dramatically transformed by the use of illumination and daylight, with the emergence of new materials, innovative designs and novel aesthetics. Yet rather than considering this as a top down process through which capitalists, scientists and bureaucrats dispensed illumination, people themselves were intimately involved in the evolution of new ways of presenting public space, their homes and their own bodies. In middle class homes, ladies of leisure experimented with new forms of painting that relied on light to produce transparent images. They also investigated the properties with muslin as a material with which to drape across windows, furniture and their own bodies, playing with its diaphanous qualities. Gin palaces and sites of amusement lured in visitors to enjoy the multiple reflections produced by new technologies that deployed mirrors, creating spaces of fascination, sociability and display, with their refracting shimmers and multiple reflections. People participated in illuminated patriotic, royalist and military celebrations, yet such occasions could be unruly, offering opportunities for violence and political protest before their later evolution into more peaceful events. And in developing a range of contesting aesthetics, artists and gallery owners initiated the use of daylighting to enchant the works they displayed. In drawing on a diverse array of theories and examples, Light Touches reveals that the radical transformation in sensory experience heralded by new techniques of illumination was not merely part of governmental systems of control and rationalisation nor generated by passively consumed spectacles. Instead, in working with the possibilities offered by these developments in illumination, ordinary people fully participated in the dramatic changes in how the world was perceived, produced and judged through experimentation, imaginative play and adaptation.

January 23rd, 2017 - 00:53am

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