Unless otherwise noted, the photographs here were provided by the City of London Corporation's Guildhall Art Gallery, to illustrate work on display in the exhibition of 20 September 2016 to 22 January 2017. The photograph of the painting in its frame, and those of objects in display cases, were taken by the present author, with kind permission. Click on all the images to enlarge them, and for more information where available. Links will also take you to information elsewhere on our website.

Men-of-War off Portsmouth, Hampshire by Clarkson Stanfield (1855).

The Guildhall Art Gallery is unique. As the City of London's gallery, it has a special eye to the capital's history: for example, in 2014 it celebrated the 120th anniversary of the opening of Tower Bridge. This latest exhibition is an imaginative and exhilarating celebration of a more world-shaping feat, the laying of the first transatlantic cable in 1866. But it is still one with specific relevance to London, where, over twenty years earlier, Sir Charles Wheatstone of King's College London had demonstrated the potential for a submarine cable under the Thames, in the presence of Prince Albert. This exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of the successful completion of the much more ambitious transatlantic cable project. The curators have related a whole range of paintings to it, including many not usually associated with it at all, and a couple never previously displayed — Thomas Hope McLachan’s The Isles of the Sea (1894) and Peter Graham's Ribbed and Paled by Rocks Unscalable and Roaring Waters (1885). Several other major London institutions have supplied exhibits that remind us of how the process was developed and used, further dissolving the boundaries between art and technology in matters of communication.

Left: The Atlantic Telegraph Expedition, the Foul Flake in the Cable Coil (The Illustrated London News, 8 September 1866: cover picture, no. 1388, Vol. XLIX). This issue was on display at the gallery. Right: James Clarke Hook's Deep Sea Fishing (1864).

Laying the cable presented a challenge on a truly heroic scale. Weighing more than one imperial ton per kilometre, it had to cross the Atlantic Ocean floor from Valentia Island in Ireland to Newfoundland in Canada. There were four failed attempts at connection, and the success of 1866 took nine years to achieve. The Illustrated London News recorded its completion with dramatic illustrations like the one shown above left. As the idea took shape and resonated in the public's mind, artists responded to the process, and its aftermath, in a variety of ways, with haunting images of the sea, its depths, its extent, and its dangers — as well as its beauty and the amazing opportunities it offered. In the painting above right, for example, James Clarke Hook reminds us of the traditional way in which lines were dropped into the sea, by three fishermen working apparently unconcernedly at the mercy of the choppy sea off the Cornish coast. Now, human endeavour had reached unimagined heights — or, in this particular case, depths.

Left: James Hook Clarke's Word from the Missing (1877). Right: William Lionel Wyllie's Commerce and Sea Power (1898).

The exhibition is spread over four rooms, taking the themes of Distance, Resistance, Transmission and Coding, linking artwork to the technology which completely revolutionised not simply communications but Victorian society as a whole. In Word from the Missing, Hook shows an early form of communication by sea — the message in a bottle, which seems here to bring news of a victim of the waves. But both in point of time and sophistication, this hit-and-miss method is child's play beside the transmission of messages by undersea cable, at the then incredible rate of eight words per minute. While this obviously facilitated trade, it had wider effects as well, on diplomacy and (where that failed) warfare. William Lionel Wyllie's Commerce and Sea Power shows two of the areas most obviously affected. The first "official" transatlantic telegraph, according to the information given by the art gallery, was from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan.

John Brett's Echoes of a Far-Off Storm (1890).

Just as John Brett's title suggests, the new means of communication brought "echoes" from distant shores with astounding immediacy. The pulse of transmission passes through art as well, in the chains of ethereal beings in paintings like Evelyn de Morgan's Moonbeams Dipping into the Sea (1900), on loan here from the De Morgan Foundation, or even in paintings about music, like Frederic Leighton's The Music Lesson (1877). In some cases, the connection might seem rather forced, but it does bring home the profound psychological impact of this new development, the sense of forces travelling rhythmically through the elements at lightning speed. Among the various works by artists well known for their seascapes or marine scenes, like Stanfield, Hook, Wyllie and Brett, there are others generally associated with different settings, their appearance in this new context inspiring us to to see their work from entirely new perspectives.

Archival exhibits, from left to right: (a) Battery of Daniell cells, c. 1840-60 (from King's College London archives). (b) Resistance box (from King's College London archives). (c) Telegraph code for the use of the police, 1883 (private collection).

The exhibition also includes examples of historic equipment such as specimens of telegraph cables from those early days, and early aids like those shown above. The museum's label for the Daniell cells in Room One, for example, explains that "Telegraph messages were conducted by sending an electric pulse down the cable," while the Resistance box, we are told, was used in the laboratory to recreate the resistance properties of a real telegraph line. Resistance was a major problem, partly because of the elements themselves: Edwin Landseer's Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) presides ominously over Room Two, depicting two huge white polar bears, one tugging ferociously at the sail on a fallen mast, the other apparently relishing a rib from a sailor's rib-cage. The code book shown above is in the last room, which gives us a fascinating glimpse into the early days of encryption: the book is open at a page showing (for example) that "gragi" was the code word for "a warrant has been granted for extradition to" (there must have been codes for the places, as well). There is also a code book for the Great Southern and Western Railway Company, with entries like, "Send supply of loco coals first means — snipe." Perhaps there was not yet an entry for "Wrong kind of leaves on track."

The gallery has been supported not only by the Courtauld Institute of Art, and King's, but by the Institute of Making at University College London, where Alexandra Bridarolli produced the exhibition's popular inter-active messaging machine called "The Great Grammatizator." All in all, a great treat for art lovers, historians and technology enthusiasts alike. Should you happen to be a bit of all three, you will be able to return as often as you like, because the exhibition has the added advantage of being free!

Thomas Hope McLachan’s spectacular The Isles of the Sea (1894).

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Created 24 September 2016