Essays

“The Substantiality of Spirit”: Georgiana Houghton’s Pictures from the Other Side

“The Substantiality of Spirit”: Georgiana Houghton’s Pictures from the Other Side

When Georgiana Houghton first exhibited her paintings at a London gallery in 1871, their wild eddies of colour and line were unlike anything the public had seen before — nor would see again until the rise of abstract art decades later. But there was little intentionally abstract about these images: Houghton painted entities she met in the spirit regions. Viewing her works through the prism of friendship, loss, and faith, Jennifer Higgie turns overdue attention on an artist neglected by historians, a visionary who believed that death was not the end, merely a new distance to overcome. more

Every two weeks we publish a new long-form essay offering insight and reflection upon the oft overlooked histories which surround public domain works. Our contributors range from award-winning authors such as Philip Pullman and Marina Warner to PhD students sharing unusual finds.

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Eugène-François Vidocq and the Birth of the Detective

Eugène-François Vidocq and the Birth of the Detective

According to his memoirs, Eugène-François Vidocq escaped from more than twenty prisons (sometimes dressed as a nun). Working on the other side of the law, he apprehended some 4000 criminals with a team of plainclothes agents. He founded the first criminal investigation bureau — staffed mainly with convicts — and, when he was later fired, the first private detective agency. He was one the fathers of modern criminology and had a rap sheet longer than his very tall tales. Who was Vidocq? Daisy Sainsbury investigates. more

Through the Cheval Glass: Reproduction in the Photographs of Clementina Hawarden

Through the Cheval Glass: Reproduction in the Photographs of Clementina Hawarden

Soon after Clementina Hawarden began taking photographs in the mid-19th century, her eye caught on doubles, reflections, her daughters glimpsed in the mirror. Stassa Edwards examines the role that reproduction — photographic, biological — plays in this oeuvre, and searches for the only person not captured clearly: Hawarden herself. more

Liberal Visions and Boring Machines: The Early History of the Channel Tunnel

Liberal Visions and Boring Machines: The Early History of the Channel Tunnel

More than a century before the Eurostar and LeShuttle, a group of engineers and statesmen dreamed (and fretted) about connecting Britain to France with an underwater tunnel. Peter Keeling drills into the history of this submarine link, and finds a still-relevant story about the cosmopolitan hopes and isolationist panic surrounding liberal internationalism. more

Rhapsodies in Blue: Anna Atkins’ Cyanotypes

Rhapsodies in Blue: Anna Atkins’ Cyanotypes

In an era when the Enlightenment’s orderly vision of the natural world began to unravel, Anna Atkins produced the world’s first photography book: a collection of cyanotypes, created across a decade beginning in 1843, that captured algal forms in startling blue-and-white silhouettes. Paige Hirschey situates Atkins’ efforts among her naturalist peers, discovering a form of illustration that, rather than exhibit an artist’s mastery over nature, allowed specimens to “illustrate” themselves. more

Cliché-Verre and Friendship in 19th-Century France

Cliché-Verre and Friendship in 19th-Century France

In the 1850s, as photography took its first steps toward commercial reproducibility, a more intimate use for light-sensitive plates briefly bloomed. It had a few names: heliographic drawing, photographic autography, or, as it is best known today, cliché-verre. Miya Tokumitsu takes us to the towns and forests of France where a group of friends began making marks on photographic plates, and finds their camaraderie cohere in lyrical arrangements of topography and light. more

The Reluctant Levitator: Teresa of Avila’s Humble Raptures

The Reluctant Levitator: Teresa of Avila’s Humble Raptures

Levitation was the last thing Teresa of Avila wanted. It drew the wrong kind of attention and embarrassed her in public. She tried to remain grounded, clinging to furniture when the weightlessness set in, and then suddenly, it stopped for good. Carlos Eire reads Teresa's autobiographic Vida and finds the 16th-century saint complaining to God about the aethrobatic miracles that he forced her to endure. more

The Silent Treatment: Solitary Confinement’s Unlikely Origins

The Silent Treatment: Solitary Confinement’s Unlikely Origins

Characterised today by the noise of banging, buzzers, and the cries of inmates, solitary confinement was originally developed from Quaker ideas about the redemptive power of silence, envisioned as a humane alternative to the punitive violence of late-18th century jails. Revisiting Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, Jane Brox discovers the spiritual origins and reformist ambitions of solitary’s early advocates, and sees their supposedly progressive desires come to ruin by the 20th century. more

Marked by Stars: Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy

Marked by Stars: Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy

Reading Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s encyclopedic study of magic is like stumbling into a vast cabinet of curiosities, where toad bones boil water, witches transmit misery through optical darts, and numbers, arranged correctly, can harness the planets’ powers. Anthony Grafton explores the Renaissance polymath’s occult insights into the structure of the universe, discovering a path that leads both upward and downward: up toward complete knowledge of God, and down into every order of being on earth. more

Free Speech and Bad Meats: The Domestic Labour of Reading in Milton’s *Areopagitica*

Free Speech and Bad Meats: The Domestic Labour of Reading in Milton’s Areopagitica

Does a healthy intellectual culture resemble a battlefield or a kitchen? Revisiting Milton’s Areopagitica, a tract often championed by today’s free speech absolutists, Katie Kadue finds a debt to the work of early modern housewives. In their labours to preserve food and transform it into wholesome cuisine, Milton saw an analogue for how the reading public might digest books — good and bad alike — into nourishing ideas. more

Liquid Bewitchment: Gin Drinking in England, 1700–1850

Liquid Bewitchment: Gin Drinking in England, 1700–1850

The introduction of gin to England was a delirious and deleterious affair, as tipplers reported a range of effects: loss of reason, frenzy, madness, joy, and death. With the help of prints by George Cruikshank, William Hogarth, and others, James Brown enters the architecture of intoxication — dram shops, gin halls, barbershops — exploring the spaces that catered to pleasure or evil, depending who you asked. more

Travelling Tales: *Kalīlah wa-Dimnah* and the Animal Fable

Travelling Tales: Kalīlah wa-Dimnah and the Animal Fable

Influencing numerous later animal tales told around the world, the 8th-century Arabic fables of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s Kalīlah wa-Dimnah also inspired a rich visual tradition of illustration: jackals on trial, airborne turtles, and unlikely alliances between species. Marina Warner follows these stories as they wander and change across time and place, celebrating their sharp political observation and stimulating mix of humour, earnesty, and melancholy. more

Radioactive Fictions: Marie Corelli and the Omnipotence of Thoughts

Radioactive Fictions: Marie Corelli and the Omnipotence of Thoughts

Outselling books by Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells in their day, Marie Corelli’s occult romance novels brim with fantasies of telepathy, mesmerism, and radioactivity. Steven Connor revisits The Life Everlasting (1911), where the recent discovery of radium shapes the mechanics of phantasmal machines and psychic forces able to pass through all impediments. more