Victorians’ ‘cable mania’ celebrated by telegraphy exhibition

Victorian artists’ responses to advances in communication technology provide the focus for a free exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the laying of the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable.

Victorians Decoded (20 September – 22 January) will feature never-seen-before paintings from the City of London’s art gallery and other important UK collections to illustrate how cable telegraphy transformed people’s understanding of time and speed of communication.

Before the first transatlantic cable, communication between Europe and the Americas took place only by ship, and weather conditions could delay messages for weeks. The cable made it possible for messages to be sent, and replied to, in the same day. It led to a so-called ‘cable mania’ among the public and the media, which reported extensively on the new technology’s successes and failures. For their part, artists sought to represent the rapidly changing world around them.

The show is a collaboration between Guildhall Art Gallery, Kings College London, and The Courtauld Institute of Art. A tie-in competition to design and build ‘an interactive messaging machine that interprets telegraphy’ has been won by Alexandra Bridarolli, whose ‘The Great Grammatizator’ will be on display at the exhibition.

Vicky Carroll, Head of the City of London Corporation’s Guildhall Art Gallery, said:

“Thousands of miles of cable laid beneath the ocean sped up communication in a way that few people – not least, artists - could have ever imagined, forcing them to re-evaluate distance and time. There is no doubt that telegraphy transformed people’s lives, and ‘Victorians Decoded’ will aim to convey their sense of excitement and wonder by using art works drawn from significant collections.”

Clare Pettit, Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture at King’s College London said:

“The trans-Atlantic telegraph changed the world in the nineteenth century and this exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of this momentous occasion. Much of the research on display has resulted from work by King’s researchers on the Scrambled Messages project which goes beyond the obvious in exploring how the telegraph entered the public imagination.

“We have examined how popular understandings of the trans-Atlantic submarine telegraph fed the Victorian imagination and made certain themes, metaphors and paradigms urgent and relevant for artists, writers, scientists and other cultural producers.”

Caroline Arscott, Professor of 19th-Century British Art at The Courtauld Institute of Art said:

“The exhibition shows that art itself was transformed as telegraphic systems were established. It reveals the surprising ways in which Victorian technology shaped culture. This is a vivid instance of the interweaving of art and science, a topic that can be explored in many different periods of art making.”

Victorians Decoded runs at Guildhall Art Gallery, EC2, from 20 September 2016 to 22 January 2017. Visit for more details. The City of London Corporation invests £80m every year in heritage and cultural activities of all kinds. It is the country’s biggest funder of culture after the Government, the BBC and the Heritage Lottery Fund.


Notes to Editors

Andrew Buckingham, Media Officer, City of London Corporation

Tel: 020 7332 1452 / Mobile: 07795 333 060


Caroline Arscott, Professor of 19th-century British Art at The Courtauld Institute of Art; Clare Pettit, Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture at King’s College London; and Dr Cassie Newland, Research Associate at King’s College London are available for media interviews.

About Guildhall Art Gallery:

Guildhall Art Gallery was established in 1886 as 'a Collection of Art Treasures worthy of the capital city'. See works dating from 1670 to the present, including seventeenth century portraits, Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces and a fascinating range of paintings documenting London's dramatic history. General admission to Guildhall Art Gallery is FREE; however, an entrance fee may be charged for some exhibitions, with concessionary rates for senior citizens, registered unemployed and registered disabled.

Monday - Saturday, 10am - 5pmSunday, 12pm - 4pm

Call 020 7332 3700 / textphone 020 7332 3803 for a daily recorded message or for more information. Email and follow @GuildhallArt

About the City of London Corporation:

The City of London Corporation provides local government and policing services for the financial and commercial heart of Britain, the 'Square Mile'. In addition, the City Corporation has three roles: (1) it supports London’s communities by working in partnership with neighbouring boroughs on economic regeneration, education and skills projects. In addition, the City of London Corporation’s charity, the City Bridge Trust, makes grants of more than £15 million annually to charitable projects across London; and it also supports education with three independent schools, three academic schools, a primary school and the world-renowned Guildhall School of Music & Drama; (2) It also helps look after key London heritage and green spaces including Tower Bridge, Museum of London, Barbican Centre, London Metropolitan Archives, City gardens, Hampstead Heath, Epping Forest, Burnham Beeches, and important ‘commons’ in south London; and (3) it also supports and promotes the ‘City’ as the world’s leading international financial and business centre, with outward and inward business delegations, high-profile civic events, research-driven policies all reflecting a long-term approach. See for more details.

About the Courtauld Institute of Art:

The Courtauld Institute of Art is one of the world’s leading centres for the study of art history, conservation and curatorship, and its Gallery houses one of Britain’s finest and best-loved collections. Based at Somerset House, The Courtauld is an independent college of the University of London. Degree programmes include a BA, Graduate Diploma and MA in the History of Art; an MA in the Conservation of Wall Painting; a Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings; an MA in Curating the Art Museum; and MPhil and PhD research degrees. Facilities for students are exceptional, including the outstanding collection of paintings, drawings and prints, sculpture and decorative arts. Courtauld staff supervise research from classical antiquity to the present, and the Research Forum offers access to visiting speakers from around the world. Public lectures, short courses and lunchtime talks allow members of the public to share in the wealth of expertise at The Courtauld. The Guardian ranked The Courtauld first for the study of art history in its 2017 University League Table.

About King’s College London:

King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2015/16 QS World University Rankings) and among the oldest in England. King's has more than 27,600 students (of whom nearly 10,500 are graduate students) from some 150 countries worldwide, and some 6,800 staff. King's has an outstanding reputation for world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) King’s was ranked 6th nationally in the ‘power’ ranking, which takes into account both the quality and quantity of research activity, and 7th for quality according to Times Higher Education rankings. Eighty-four per cent of research at King’s was deemed ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ (3* and 4*). The university is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of more than £684million.

For more information about King’s, please visit the King’s In Brief web pages.