Although the subtitle of Rachel Teukolsky’s Picture World: Image, Aesthetics, and Victorian New Media hints at the possibility of her examining a Victorian version of the hypertext, in fact, her book concentrates on visual and material culture as it connects the private interior space of the parlor to the public sphere of the exterior world during the period. In the introduction, Teukolsky notes the power of Victorian ephemera—photographs, stereoscopic images, mass-printed illustrations, cartoons, and engravings—to transport the modern viewer into the “picture-world of the nineteenth century” (1). More than “new media,” this book examines “mass media” to show the democratizing influence of what Teukolsky calls “mass culture,” a term which she argues is less class-based than the phrase “popular culture” (9). I am not sure that there is a clear distinction between these terms, and the critical methodologies which she borrows for her examination of some examples of literary and visual works—Benjamin, Heidegger, Adorno, Foucault—do not necessarily result in a new understanding of the relationship between visual ephemera and canonical literary texts. However, the approach of linking the history of her subjects with Victorian examples and then post-modern iterations of the same subjects gives the book an engaging framework for many readers interested in the afterlife of Victorian visual culture in the twenty-first century.

Teukolsky arranges the sections of her book via keywords, a practice which links Victorian media to today’s metadata. These keywords include “character,” “realism,” “illustration,” “sensation,” “the picturesque,” and “decadence” (2). Her idea is to blend high, middle, and low culture through close examination of material objects. Here, she invokes Martin Heidegger and W.J.T. Mitchell on the centrality of visual culture and remarks on Baudelaire’s refutation of the solemn and “stultifying” museums of the age (3-4). As she suggests, the idea of reproducibility and access to art and literature for all classes came into being—or at least became more achievable—in the nineteenth century, propelled by social theory and enabled by technological advances in printing and communication. She then moves to the development of visual culture studies in the 1990s: “Picture World positions itself at the forefront of a new art history, one that encompasses design history, the history of photography, and the history of visual ephemera” (6). Rather than art history, she explains, the chapters use “literary and cultural history” to examine the materials (7).

Chapter 1, “Character,” looks at caricature, a subject which has garnered increasing critical interest in the past few years. I think Teukolsky is reinventing the wheel a bit here in arguing that caricature of the 1820s and 1830s was politicized—other studies have shown this in detail, even such early works as William Feaver’s Masters of Caricature (1981). She makes the interesting point that caricature reproduces stereotypes but also emphasizes individual differences, and she briefly mentions racist stereotypes in caricatures (23-24). This chapter looks specifically at Kenny Meadows’ Heads of the People (1840) and at the work of George Cruikshank but does not examine John Tenniel’s or Linley Sambourne’s cartoons for Punch in the mid to late nineteenth century. Teukolsky convincingly ties together the development of the masculine culture represented in Dickens’s novels with the growth of sporting comic illustrations. But it would have been illuminating to include at least one female caricaturist in this area, such as Georgina Bowers, whose cartoons appeared in Punch in the 1860s.

Left: The “Lion” of a Party. Kenny Meadows, Heads of the People, or, Portraits of the English. London: Robert Tyas, 1840. Facing p. 33. Source: Internet Archive. Middle: Flowers of “Culture”; or a Swinburne-Jones Cutting. Edward Linley Sambourne. Punch (15 April 1876): 22. Right: New Crowns for Old Ones. John Tenniel. Punch (15 January 1881): 22. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Chapter 2, entitled “Realism: Reality Effects in the Illustrated Newspaper,” shifts to an examination of what might be regarded as proto-photojournalism. This chapter looks at Illustrated London News pictures of the Crimean War, focusing on journalism and dividing the “realist modes” into “the descriptive, the authentic, the everyday, and the plausible” (85). Here, Teukolsky examines the connection between journalistic realism and George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), noting that the use of the word “realism” in literary criticism first appeared in this decade (85). While I am not convinced that Adam Bede , as she asserts, is a “realist war novel” (129) and I question whether, as she suggests, the narrator really evinces much sympathy for Hetty Sorrel, I do take her point that the novel proposes “a new, working-class masculine heroism in the face of aristocratic ineptitude and callousness” (129). She cites John Ruskin in Modern Painters (1843-60) and G.H. Lewes in “Realism in Art” (1858), arguing that Ruskin, Lewes, and Eliot were not rebels fighting against traditional values but instead conservatives who cared about moral good and middle-class Victorian values (88). This may be true, but as George P. Landow has pointed out, Ruskin, although certainly a moralist, was not precisely a proponent of realism (53).

The third chapter moves onto illustration, specifically, bible illustration. Teukolsky argues that the “copious illustrations of Cassell’s Bible marshalled all the latest scientific and geographic research into the Holy Land to produce a phantasmagoric, fantastical spiritual realm, blending together clashing systems of knowledge in the manner of a Foucauldian heterotopia” (148). As well as Michel Foucault’s theory, she also uses Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura to look at Doré’s illustrations of the Bible and John Everett MillaisThe Parables of Our Lord (1863) (148). She interestingly suggests that Victorian neo-medievalism and the Gothic revival, dismissed as Victorian fakery by Benjamin, could in fact be read as expressions of desire for a more authentic and more lovely world while at the same time celebrating technology and mass culture in a playful way (153). This kind of insight gives the book a lively, conversational tone, as Teukolsky shares her ideas about the origins of and motives behind various forms of visual culture in the period.

Whereas the first three chapters deal with various types of visual culture, ranging from parodic, through realist, to fantastical, Chapters 4 and 5 switch the focus to the more tangible realm of ephemera. Chapter 4 looks at cartes de visite and Chapter 5 at stereoscopes. In Chapter 4, Teukolsky discusses the “haptic moment” of cartes de visite and the commercialising of the body exemplified by this form (217). She connects the high visibility of the cartes to sensation novels such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret . Still in the 1860s, her analysis of Eliza Lynn Linton’s “The Girl of the Period” (1868) as a reaction to the increased visuality and celebrity of women in the demi monde is interesting (219).

Left: Queen Victoria. Photograph. 58 cms by 47 cms. Signed and dated June 23rd 1893. Collection of Felix Henry Santos, Spain. Right: Sarah Forbes Bonetta. 1862 photograph by Camille Silvy (1834–1910). National Portrait Gallery, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.


She also looks at representations of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the Yoruba princess who was Queen Victoria’s goddaughter. I would argue that there is a question of empowerment versus exploitation of the female body that needs to be considered here, along with the question of increasing visibility. However, Teukolsky, who presents interesting points about the racialization of the body, persuasively argues that the cartes of Queen Victoria in particular show Britain’s wish to appear a benevolent imperial power (268-69). The end of this chapter usefully connects the Victorian examples of cartes to the current day—the “afterlives” of the cartes de visite (279).

Turner’s Tintern Abbey.

Chapter 5 looks at the stereoscope as an instrument of what Teukolsky calls “the embodied picturesque” (289). She notes similarities between Romantic landscapes and mid-century stereoscopic views as this chapter shifts from “Sensation” to the “Picturesque.” Yet, surely Romantic landscapes embodied not so much the picturesque as the sublime. In this chapter, we see photographs of Tintern Abbey alongside J. M. W. Turner’s pictures of the ruin, as well as the same contrast for Conway Castle and Holyrood Chapel (321-22). There is some discussion of the Gothic and of Ruskin’s architectural drawings and daguerreotypes (324-25), as well as of “the power dynamics of imperialism” (332) and “the global picturesque” (332). This section includes images from Canada, the USA, and Egypt. Perhaps the question of tourism could have been examined in more detail here, although admittedly the topic is so large that it might overfill the space of the chapter.

“In Wonderland” Watkins Glenn, New York, c 1899. Source: Heritage Place Museum, Lyn, Ontario.

Left: Millais’s Bubbles. Right: Walker’s Poster for “The Woman in White”. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Chapter 6, “Decadence: Consuming Decadence: Advertising and the Art Poster,” examines late Victorian advertising. Teukolsky mentions Millais’s oft-cited painting Bubbles (1886) and the Pears soap advertisement based on this picture (348); looks at Aubrey Beardsley, “a graphic designer, [and] an unabashedly commercial artist” (350); and frames her discourse with reference to Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. She uses Raymond Williams’ term “magic system” to describe the position of advertising in an economy of “desire, wish, and self-making” (354). Among the examples of art posters that she discusses is Frederick Walker’s well-known poster advertising the play The Woman in White at the Olympic Theatre. Her focus is on the imbrication of avant garde decadent art and commercialism (387), and she connects art posters of the theatre, especially pantomime, to mid-twentieth-century pop art and beyond that to the art of the 2000s.

The conclusion of Teukolsky’s book looks at cinema in 1896, thereby moving from the static to the moving picture world of the nineteenth century. In all, the book traces the evolution of the image from the early to the late decades of the century. The trajectory of caricature, realism, illustration, commercial art, and cinema makes the evolution of Victorian visual culture seem clear and logical. And the connections to early twenty-first-century visual culture are suggestive and insightful. Although the book covers a great deal of material, nevertheless, it might have been helpful to see some discussion of typography as it relates to images, and I can’t help wishing for more female representation as well. However, Picture World is rigorous, thoughtful, and wide-ranging. It’s also a very enjoyable read and an excellent resource for both researcher and casual reader into Victorian print and visual culture.


Feaver, William. Masters of Caricature. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Landow, George P. Aesthetic and Critical Theory of John Ruskin (1971). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015.

[Book under review] Teukolsky, Rachel. Picture World: Image, Aesthetics, and Victorian New Media . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Last modified 4 August 2021