Exhibition | Captive Bodies: British Prisons, 1750–1900

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on July 30, 2018

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Prisoner, 1787–90, oil on canvas, 41 × 47 cm (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.715).

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From the YCBA:

Captive Bodies: British Prisons, 1750–1900
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 27 August — 25 November 2018

Curated by Courtney Skipton Long

Drawing on objects from across the Center’s collections, this exhibition focuses on the experience of prisoners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the structures that confined them. Featuring iconic representations of life under lock and key by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Wright of Derby, George Romney, and Francis Wheatley, these images were conceived at a time when prisons were coming under intense scrutiny.

In 1773 the penal reformer John Howard began four years surveying the prisons of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and northern Europe before publishing in 1777 his State of the Prisons in England and Wales, an unprecedented study of the woeful conditions in which convicts were confined. The impact of his demand for sweeping reform is reflected not only in the popularity of the theme of incarceration and emancipation in the work of contemporary artists but also in the architectural drawings and designs included in this exhibition. George Dance the Younger’s iconic Newgate Prison (1769), a rusticated fortress of punishment, is contrasted with a pioneering design for a new jail on a progressive, radial plan by Sir Jeffry Wyatville, itself based on the ‘scientific’ Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham. This in turn is juxtaposed to Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s critique of the extension of the radial prison plan to the architecture of the workhouse for the indigent poor and his own proposals for a more humane and less utilitarian structural alternative in his 1841 publication, Contrasts.

This exhibition will also include prison ephemera, cell keys, and a collection of mugshots from the Nottingham House of Correction, as well as a photographic record of the West Riding Prison and its officers from the 1880s. Taken together, the representations of both prisons and prisoners in this exhibition will aid to illustrate the historical thinking about justice, imprisonment, and punishment.

Captive Bodies: British Prisons, 1750–1900 has been organized and curated at the Center by Courtney Skipton Long, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Art Collections.

Note (added 12 September 2018) . . .

Study Day | Captive Bodies: Visualizing Liberty and Justice after 1750 in Great Britain
Yale Center for British Art, Friday, 21 September 2018, 1:30–5:00pm

This program will contextualize present-day debates about prison reform in the US within the historical roots of the British penal system as developments in prison architecture, surveillance, and jurisprudence in the US were adapted from UK precedents. An interdisciplinary group of scholars will investigate the manifestations of justice and injustice from legal, historical, artistic, architectural, and activist perspectives. Registration is preferred but not required; sign up online.

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