The Big Issue : Edition 503
26 THEBIGISSUE22JAN–4FEB2016 THE VICTORIANS – HOW strange they seem to us, a family resemblance, yes, but it’s the differences that are more striking. They also come across as monstrous, the Victorians – for example, the freak show. Our modern sensibility, which forbids commenting on/pointing out difference, struggles to imagine anything more grotesque than the phenomenon of the freak show, where people came in droves, paying good money to stare at and take photographs of the “freaks of nature”. And being so keen to exploit the new media of photography, the Victorians left an exquisite visual record of their predilections. Which means that as we look back over time to the images they took, the Victorians may be seen in a way they could never see themselves. All of which is on display at the Sideshow Alley exhibition in Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery. We see Chang the Chinese Giant, all eight foot or so of him, resplendent in Oriental robes – and are comforted by the knowledge that at his shows he shook hands with audience members, impressing them with his fine manners and good English. Just like us, the Victorians had their moral panics, which show up in their images. The criminal was a special subject and – having been put-to- death by hanging – one that offered no resistance to the camera. Pictures of the dead thrilled the Victorians, another trait that differentiates them from us – virtually all media outlets today ban images of dead bodies. But the Victorians couldn’t get to the mortuary quick enough. Within hours of plunging to his death, the head of Ned Kelly had been shorn and a plaster cast made, in two parts (front and back) for the death mask. Within days a phrenologist had published his “analysis” in the press: Kelly’s skull exhibited tendencies to a lack of caution and the desire to risk all for power. Phrenology, the divination of character from the shape of the skull, served many purposes. It was a reformist movement, absolving criminals of responsibility. It was imperialist, offering a pseudoscientific justification for a belief in the “inferiority” of the races the British colonised. And it was entertainment, a feast for shysters, who could set up stalls at any country fair and give you a character assessment, for a fee, by running their hands over your head. Despite, to modern tastes, the often-cruel Victorian obsession with the macabre, the criminal and people who were different, the need to circulate endless portraits captured with the latest technology is something us moderns can all relate to. Although, if our forebears had access to the latest smartphone technology, their selfies may have been of a decidedly more disturbing nature. by Michael Epis » Sideshow Alley is at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra until 28 February. A book of the exhibition, Sideshow Alley: Infamy, the Macabre and the Portrait, is also available. Visit portrait.gov.au/exhibitions. RIGHT ARTHUR ORTON (1834–98) WAS A BUTCHER WHO FALSELY CLAIMED A ROYAL INHERITANCE – AND BECAME THE SUBJECT OF THE 1998 FILM, THE TICHBORNE CLAIMANT. LEFT GEORGE COPPING (1819–1906) WAS VARIOUSLY A COMEDIAN, POLITICIAN, HOTELIER, THEATRE-OWNER – AND FREEMASON GRAND MASTER. MIDDLE LUCY ESCOTT (1827–95) WAS AN AMERICAN OPERA SINGER WHO CAME TO AUSTRALIA IN 1861 FOR A SIX-MONTH TOUR – AND STAYED FOR EIGHT YEARS.