My research is centred on nineteenth-century visual culture, with a focus on the interactions between everyday spaces, printed documents and architectural forms. London – the first world metropolis – fascinates me, and my research has drawn on such diverse topics as cab travel, guidebooks, census forms, sewers, and other underground spaces. I am interested in the ways in which Victorian culture continues to resonate with us today, with its legacy seen particularly in cinema and literature. Finally, ruins fascinate me and one visit in particular – to the ruins of Chernobyl – has resulted in an article on that subject.

Summarised below are my major research projects undertaken or ongoing…

Function and fantasy: Victorian cast iron

(A 2-yr project, from January 2011, supported by the Leverhulme Trust and based in the department of Art History & Visual Culture, University of Manchester)

Victorian architects and theorists made a clear distinction between ‘building’ and ‘architecture’: for them, a building became architecture only when historical references were invoked. The development of new constructive materials, in particular cast iron, directly challenged this perceived distinction. A new material possessed no history: how, therefore, could it be architectural?

The development of decorative cast iron in architecture – the subject of this research – was seen as a solution to this problem, and it flourished in the three decades after the building of the Crystal Palace in 1851. It was a time when some architects, engineers and theorists believed that the fusion of iron and historical and natural motifs would both enact a reconciliation of art and technology and also create a new, modern architectural language. Despite much new research on the structural use of iron in this period, exemplified by Andrew Saint’s 2007 book Architect and engineer: a study in sibling rivalry, its decorative use in Britain has received no significant attention from historians since the early-1960s, mainly as a consequence of its condemnation by influential champions of architectural modernism, such as Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968). In the light of the waning of modernism’s dominance and a questioning of its nineteenth-century origins, it is high time for a reassessment of this rich but neglected subject.

This research will be divided into three domains:

1) Design and production

Who designed decorative cast iron: architects, engineers or manufacturers? How did these parties cooperate in its production? These questions will be addressed through significant case studies of professional collaboration across the period: Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-77), Isambard Brunel (1806-59), Fox & Henderson, and Paddington station (1852-54); Francis Fowke (1823-65), the Thames Iron Works and Ship Building Company and the International Exhibition building (1862); Charles Driver (1832-1900), Walter Macfarlane and Llandudno pier (1877); and John and Joseph Leeming, Macfarlane, the Phoenix iron company, and Halifax market hall (1892-96).

2) Presentation and reception

How was decorative cast iron advertised? What can we say about its reception in situ? Different contexts will illuminate these questions: the display of cast iron in leading manufacturers’ catalogues (James Banks, Samuel Hemming, Macfarlane, George Smith & Co.); and the response to decorative cast iron in three public contexts: leisure (piers, exhibitions, glasshouses, public baths); transport (urban and rural railway stations); commerce (markets, shops and offices); and industry (pumping stations).

3) Theorisation

Amongst Victorian architects and theorists there was endless debate about the use of cast iron in architecture. The research will: first, collate and assess contemporaneous theorisation in the Victorian building and architectural press (Builder, Architect, Civil Engineer and Architects’ Journal, Building News); second, asses the debate between significant writers and architects, such as James Fergusson (1808-86), Owen Jones (1809-74), Ruskin, George Gilbert Scott (1811-78), and Wyatt in Britain; Carl Gottlieb Wilhelm Boetticher (1806-89), Richard Lucae (1829-77) and Gottfried Semper (1803-79) in Germany; and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79) in France; and third, contextualise retrospective interpretations of Victorian use of cast iron in the writings of significant twentieth-century theorists, in particular Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Giedion and Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966).

This research will offer new ways of understanding the notion of modernity in Victorian architecture that complements recent groundbreaking studies of related subjects, particularly Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian glassworlds: glass culture and the imagination 1830-1880 (2008). The research will question and re-evaluate conventional biographical approaches to Victorian architecture, which emphasize the status of the architect as both a professional set apart from others and also as an independent ‘author’ of buildings, and modernist understandings – in particular Giedion’s – of the ideological split between Victorian architecture and engineering, that is, between historicism and functionalism. The result will be to situate decorative cast iron in its wider cultural context, stressing for the first time, the relationship between its theorisation, design and reception, or, between its makers and users.


Designing information for everyday life, 1815–1914

(with Mike Esbester and Paul Stiff, a 4-yr research project at the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading, begun in October 2006 and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council)

Our project’s aim

Some of the most inventive designing of the nineteenth century was thrown away. Many interactions of everyday life were conducted through, and recorded by, ephemeral printed documents. Their rich and varied configurations and texts made new demands on newly literate audiences. Victorian ‘information design’ – the graphic equivalent of engineering, and done before the emergence of professional designers – is the most intelligent, but little known, ancestor of today’s graphic design. Our research reveals and explains what can be learned from it.


The primary materials are written, designed, and printed artefacts: material texts, everyday documents of consultation and transaction. They record the mental work of a community and social interactions within it – informing, guiding, calculating, measuring, answering, figuring.

Do they provide evidence for communities of reading and for ‘cognition on the streets’? How did new readers learn to negotiate non-linear configurations of information: tables, hierarchical lists, bar charts, route maps? Can these artefacts offer a window onto the mental universe of communities? This is largely the work of artisans, before professional designers emerged: what does it tell us about ‘information design before designers’?

To test these questions we have surveyed a range of objects: route charts, schedules, primers, rulebooks, trade manuals, tables, forms, handbills, charts, &c.


Our materials are from three domains: representations of space and time (diagrams, timetables); product documentation (catalogues, sales bills, specifications); and forms – media for the conduct of dialogues between regulators and ruled. We will analyse these artefacts for language, typographic organization, production and dissemination, and evidence of reception. We have identified periods of innovation and the emergence of new graphic genres.

Work ahead

We have located, surveyed, analysed, and compared a variety of documents, recording how information was designed for the needs of a new, enlarged, and uncertain readership, confronted with the need to make choices between alternatives, to select and calculate, to follow a route or establish the time of a journey, and so on. The final work will be based on the factual and documentary evidence thus established: a descriptive catalogue, with contextualizing essays, of the materials described here, representing the evolution of selected graphic genres.


Into the Belly of the Beast: Spatial Representation and London’s Main Drainage System, c. 1848-68

(a 3-yr doctoral research project, completed in March 2006 in the Department of History of Art & Architecture, University of Reading, and supported by the University of Reading and the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain)

The planning and construction of London’s main drainage system has hitherto been understood in a conventional manner: that is, as an administrative and technical achievement. By examining the ways in which spatial interventions, such as the main drainage system, represent the assertion of particular ways of viewing the world, this research challenges existing accounts of the subject and introduces new ways of thinking about the spaces both planned and generated. The research questions conventional understandings of the project and demonstrates how it embodied a myriad of often-contradictory perceptions: from the engineer, who understood these spaces as the embodiment of rational and scientific principles, to the wider public, who saw them as fertile places for the imagination.

The outcome of the research was a series of articles and conferences papers and subsequently a monograph, Into the belly of the beast: exploring London’s Victorian sewers, published by Spire Books in October 2009. The book is organized around an introductory chapter, outlining the themes addressed in the research and its departure from existing accounts of the subject, and six subsequent chapters, focusing on: maps produced in the early stages of planning (chapter 1); proposals drawn up by engineers (chapter 2); contract drawings, specifications and documents associated with the construction process (chapter 3), including newspaper articles and illustrations (chapter 4); the architectural elements of the pumping stations associated with the system (chapter 5); and contemporaneous texts and illustrations that articulate responses to the system (chapter 6).

By challenging many of the conventional views of the development of London’s main drainage system, re-examining primary sources and using the conception and perception of space as organizing principles, this research develops new ways of understanding the impact of this civil engineering project and expands the scope of urban and architectural scholarship.

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