The visual rhetoric of poverty

I imagine that most readers will be familiar with Gustave Doré’s engravings of the London slums, such as “Over London—By Rail” (see below) and Geoff Ginn has written about how newspaper accounts by George Sims and others used stereotypes and colourful rhetoric to bridge the gap between their readers and the more complex reality of the places being described. Miles Kimball has also pointed out how the ‘visual culture of poverty’ used darkness for dramatic effect. He mentions how the engravings in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor emphasized the dark and grimy nature of poverty, and Phiz’s illustrations to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House plays with dark tones in several depictions of poverty areas. The same darkness appears in “Over London—By Rail”, see image here, which despite its title, concentrates on the darkness under the rail, allowing the upper-class visitor to see into the dark back-courts of London slum dwellings

Image: Over London, by Rail – one of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Blanchard Jerrold’s London: A Pilgrimage (1872).

I don’t know if it is a coincidence, but I’m wondering if the visual rhetoric of Booth’s maps was influenced by such illustrations. See his address to the Royal Statistical Society, made when he first introduced his maps to the public and note his reference to a ‘bird’s-eye view’ from a railway carriage:

“Those of us who have seen no more, have at least obtained a sort of bird’s-eye view of such places from the window of a railway carriage, passing along some viaduct raised above the chimneys of two-storied London. Seen from a distance, the clothes lines are the most visible thing. Those who have not such outside accommodation must dry the clothes in the room in which they eat, and very likely also sleep ; while those, more common, who have a little scrap of yard or stretch ropes across the court in front, still suffer much discomfort from the close proximity to door and window of their own and their neighbours’ drying garments. From the railway, there may be seen, also, small rough-roofed erections, interspersed with little glass houses. These represent hobbies, pursuits of leisure hours-plants, flowers, fowls, pigeons, and there is room to sit out, when the weather is fine enough, with friend and pipe and glass. All this goes when the workshop invades the back yard ; and as to sanitation and health, I need hardly point out how essential is sufficient space behind each house.”


o Ginn Geoff (2006) Answering the ‘Bitter Cry’: Urban Description and Social Reform in the Late-Victorian East End, The London Journal, 31, 179-200

o Kimball Miles A. (2006) London through Rose-Colored Graphics: Visual Rhetoric and Information Graphic Design in Charles Booth’s Maps of London Poverty, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 36, 353-381.

o Booth C. (1888) Condition and Occupations of the People of East London and Hackney, 1887, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 51, 276-339

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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