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‘Beastly Sights’: the treatment of animals as a moral theme in representations of London c. 1820–1850

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The huge growth of London in the first half of the nineteenth century projected the city’s financial and cultural dominance; but celebrations of ‘improvement’ coexisted with unease over the social effects of laissez-faire capitalism. Thus, the ubiquitous exploitation of animals in London, a direct effect of commercial competition and intensive building, acquired great symbolic force in the imagery of illustration. While efforts to end cruelty to animals apparently testified to the humane and civilizing impulses of the time, their relative failure suggested a fundamental barbarity in capitalism itself, in its heartless commodification of both men and animals.

Conflicting impressions of human–animal relationships in nineteenth-century London are exemplified through a range of publications, from the Illustrated London News to George Cruikshank’s books and the journals of the anti-cruelty groups themselves. Animals and their treatment could evoke, at one extreme, the vital energy and aggressively competitive spirit of the capital, at the other its endemic cruelty and alienation from nature and God. The varying conventions of pictorial representation are shown to have had a crucial role in these constructs, particularly in the underlying imagined antithesis between ‘city’ and ‘country’.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Manchester Metropolitan University

Publication date: 01 November 1999

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