Matter Pictured In Its Place: Cholera and the Slums of London

Sciampacone, Amanda (2013). Matter Pictured In Its Place: Cholera and the Slums of London. Dandelion: Postgraduate Arts Journal and Research Network, 4(1)



During the nineteenth century, issues surrounding ‘foreign’ contamination were raised by the emergence of cholera in India, and by its rapid spread and frequent outbreaks in England. Between 1831 and 1866 Britain experienced four epidemics of the disease. While much of the discourse on cholera was textual, images were marshalled to support and visualize the arguments made about the disease and the conditions in which it bred. Cholera appeared to thrive in the fetid environments of the urban poor; therefore, the slums of London were represented as cholera’s home, while their inhabitants were characterized as immoral and unhealthy. Parts of the city were identified as possessing the same conditions as India and the Black Hole of Calcutta. Significantly, while the conflation of cholera with the slums, India, and the threat of degradation was explicitly stated in texts on the disease, the images that accompanied these texts did not directly depict the illness. Although cholera itself was not represented, the pictures moved beyond the texts by powerfully evoking visual tropes of Indian barbarism to confront and unsettle viewers with the dangers the malady posed to the heart of the British Empire.

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