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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, ( 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

Blackpool Illuminations archive

I have spent a wonderful day at the Blackpool Illuminations archive, located at the depot in the town. A Heritage Lottery Funding was secured to archive the extraordinary range of posters, designs and plans that stretch back to the 1920s, and the work going on to catalogue this resource underlines the shifts in design practice, themes and tastes that have been deployed, but also the continuities that resonate through displays of different eras. See their fabulous and evolving blog :

Celebrity designer Laurence Llewellyn Bowen emphasises in his preface to a recent book on the Illuminations that, ‘restraint, straight-laced good taste aesthetics and minimalism are your sworn design enemies. To work, Blackpool Illuminations have to be high kicking, showbiz, jazz hands and more than a little “nudge nudge, wink wink” Terms no-one ever teaches you at art school’*. Yet tensions between good taste, and popular jollity and brashness, have surfaced in the town  at various times. The many exquisite designs of the art deco influenced 1930s were intended to create a cutting edge tastefulness, an approach that resonated with other architectural innovations during that period (see the ship design). A more inclusive, irreverent approach to designs drawn from popular culture emerged in the 1960s and has continued (as in the image ‘Fright Night’), yet there are periodic attempts to introduce more artful (and ‘tasteful’) installations as part of this annual two month extravaganza of light. This variety is what contributes to the continuing glory  of the display.

* Vanessa Toulmin (2012) Blackpool Illuminations: The Greatest Free Show on Earth

1930s ship   Fright night 1990s

October 30th, 2013 - 18:12pm

Blackpool Illuminations

Blackpool Illuminations celebrated its centenary in 2012 and to mark the occasion, developed a range of new features.

Blackpool remains Britain’s most popular holiday resort, despite a gradual decline in visitor numbers over the past four decades, a continuing popularity indicated by the more than three million visitors to the autumnal event, Blackpool’s Illuminations. Following earlier experiments, in the 1920s the display was established to extend the traditional holiday season and has remained an annual institution ever since, war and rationing permitting. Each year, the Illuminations run throught September and October. Extending for nearly six miles along the sea front, the varied mix of illuminations includes more than 500 scenic designs and features lasers, neon, fibre optics, LEDs, the world’s largest mirrorball, searchlights and floodlighting. image004Illuminated designs attached to roadside lamposts form successive themes, lighting picks out landmarks such as the Tower, illuminated trams glide alongside the promenade, and large, animated tableaux flash and pulsate.

The designs are diverse in their animation, colour and form, and the different icons, motifs, forms and styles that have varied throughout the past century constitute an astonishing range of changing tastes and trends in British popular culture. Though enormously diverse, common themes include celebrity, film and television, myth, the ‘exotic’, modernity, toys, folk tales and nursery rhythms, Blackpool scenes, nature, glamour, national identity, science fiction, historical scenes and the supernatural. What is remarkable about Blackpool is that in an era of contracting out services and competitive tendering, it remains a largely locally produced and funded display – although celebrity designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen has had substantial creative input in recent years.image002 Illuminations are designed at the depot by people who understand the particular tastes of visitors and the traditions that make the lights so distinctive. This means that the Illuminations sidestep ‘cool’ trends and fashions that install a sense of sameness elsewhere. The millions who come to Blackpool tend to follow longstanding family traditions of visiting the resort, their excited behaviour contributes to the unique, convivial atmosphere during the Illuminations. We consider Blackpool Illuminations to be a fabulous example of the power of illumination to produce a strong sense of place and a space of excitement, despite it being overlooked by most taste-makers, perhaps like the lights of the fairground and the Christmas Lights referred to elsewhere.

February 18th, 2013 - 13:31pm

Christmas Lights

There seemed to be fewer Christmas lights adorning the houses of Manchester this year. Perhaps this is due to austerity or perhaps they are becoming less fashionable.


In the UK, the spectacular array of these gaudy illuminations, typically red, gold and green, often seemingly thrown up in an ad hoc fashion, are strongly associated with expressions of class and taste, though this may be different in other parts of the world. Finding these displays jolly and seasonal, we researched what motivated people in Manchester and Sheffield to put them up each year. Before carrying out these interviews though, we were struck by the vicious criticisms to which they were subject on websites, and in articles and letters in national and local newspapers.

Critics point to what they regard as the selfish disregard for neighbours, the lack of environmental awareness, and above all, their bad taste. These supposed failings were often allied to assumptions about other negative characteristics, including laziness, scrounging benefit, and excessive breeding, and often included references to that most recent signifier of working class horror, the ‘chav’. Yet following our interviews with the displayers, it was clear that they are not concerned with the display of ‘good taste’ but the production of a festive atmosphere for the neighbourhood. Generously, they want to promote communal and family conviviality, and seasonal good cheer. At many displays, there are invitations to contribute to charitable causes. For us, the vitriol expressed by the critics cannot recognise how such forms of lighting can create shared enjoyment and a sense of place. Sadly, an obsession with what constitutes ‘good taste’ prevents them seeing the brightness, colour, silliness and fun that such displays bring.

February 11th, 2013 - 13:57pm