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Tennyson Transformed – Alfred Lord Tennyson and Visual Culture

A pioneering study by a cultural history expert from the University of Lincoln has uncovered the real extent of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s centrality to Victorian visual culture.

Alfred Lord Tennyson held the esteemed post of Poet Laureate for more than 40 years and for much of Queen Victoria’s reign. He inspired a deep commitment from Pre-Raphaelite artists and his career was intricately linked to the development of photography throughout the Victorian era.

Tennyson’s poetry habitually emerged as the popular subject of visual arts throughout the 19th Century, and innovative research by Dr Jim Cheshire now reveals the magnitude of his work’s non-literary influence.

Dr Cheshire, a Reader in Cultural History at the Lincoln School of Art & Design, has been researching Victorian culture for more than 20 years. While recent strands of Tennyson scholarship highlight the influence of visual and material culture in understanding the words of the poet, Dr Cheshire’s novel and far-reaching exploration visits unchartered academic territory.

He exposes the ways in which visual artists used Tennyson’s work as a vehicle to express contemporary anxieties and beliefs. In 2009, his comprehensive discoveries were showcased in an exhibition, Tennyson Transformed.

Demonstrating just how varied the relationship between a poem and its visual manifestation can be, Tennyson Transformed revolutionised the way in which the poet’s work is interpreted in relation to visual art.

For the first time, Tennyson is exposed as not just a poet, but as a figure through which we can glimpse a complex series of relationships between literature, art, commerce and popular culture. Dr Cheshire and his team pioneered a new school of thought, confirming that the deliberate juxtaposition of the visual arts alongside Tennyson’s work did not merely evoke the past, but also stimulated creative practitioners to develop and exploit new technologies. 

"Our aim was to put on an exhibition of national importance. We borrowed famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings from Tate Britain and works from the Royal Collection, and we put the [Tennyson research] material in the archive alongside these things to give them a sense of the bigger picture."

Tennyson is now recognised as a timely and fundamental influence on the development of the visual arts.

The pioneering exhibition coincided with the international Tennyson Society Conference, The Young Tennyson, where Dr Cheshire presented his findings to an audience of delegates from across the globe.

Supported by a comprehensive catalogue, critical essays, peer-reviewed articles and a number of other publications, Tennyson Transformed formed the basis of a successful Heritage Lottery Fund grant application. The award of £50,000 effectively increased awareness of Lincolnshire’s Tennyson Research Centre, while funding the essential conservation of historically significant photography and literary illustrations.

Developing public understanding and ensuring the accessibility of Tennyson’s poetry were also primary concerns for Dr Cheshire. To this end, the grant supported the formation of valuable education programmes and enabled the exhibition’s curators to present their remarkable findings within a national context. To date, almost 30,000 members of the public have experienced the pioneering display, which was named ‘Best Exhibition’ at the Renaissance East Midlands Heritage Awards.

Dr Cheshire is now working on Tennyson and Mid-Victorian Publishing, a monograph to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.