"Invisible Destroyers": Cholera and COVID in British Visual Culture

Sciampacone, Amanda (2023). "Invisible Destroyers": Cholera and COVID in British Visual Culture. In: Morton, Marsha and Akehurst, Ann-Marie eds. Visual Culture and Pandemic Disease since 1750: Capturing Contagion. Science and the Arts since 1750. New York: Routledge, pp. 137–156.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003294979-9


As with past pandemics, the emergence of a novel coronavirus with seemingly no clear cause in December 2019 led to the proliferation and use of images to make the invisible visible and comprehensible. In attempting to give visual form to this new illness, media portrayals of COVID-19 would reaffirm concerns of the unknown and ostensibly foreign origins of epidemic disease. Through a selective visual comparison, my chapter examines how representations of COVID-19 in the British press would recall an older visual history of pandemics from the plague epidemics of the medieval and early modern periods, and the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century. Cholera generated deep fears in British society because of its mysterious nature and apparent origins in India. As my chapter demonstrates, nineteenth-century images reworked plague iconography of shrouded skeletons, dancing cadavers, and the king’s touch with martial and racial themes to depict cholera as an invisible, foreign destroyer that endangered Britain. Two centuries later, newspaper articles would recall plague and cholera imagery by sensationalising COVID-19 as a virus carried and transmitted by Chinese bodies and as an invisible killer threatening the world.

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