Events Review: Drugs in Victorian Britain

The ‘Drugs in Victorian Britain’ symposium was held at the Wellcome Collection, London, on the 11th and 12th of February, 2011 as part of their High Society exhibition. Friday evening was a showing of the Magic Lantern, a Victorian visual entertainment with musical accompaniment and on the Saturday it played host to an eclectic selection of speakers dealing with numerous aspects of Victorian life and drugs.

Picture the situation. It’s Friday evening and I’m sat at the back of the Wellcome Collection auditorium, located on their basement floor. Next to me is sat a very interesting lady, who later told me that she was a friend of Timothy Leary’s and who’s intimate knowledge of psychedelic history could well have been a presentation in itself. However, it was not the psychedelic sixties that we sat there for. Rather it was the Victorian era and their own particular relationship with drugs. A time when opium, morphine, cocaine and cannabis were to be found in each and every high-street pharmacy. No, not the Sixties, we were sat there for some pre-psychedelic visual and aural Victorian entertainment: The Magic Lantern.

In the centre of the seating, facing the stage, was a strange, yet oddly familiar, machine. At the same time as being antiquated in look, it was also very alien, as if it were sat there as part of a Victorian based sci-fi film; it was as if it had jumped out of the imagination of H.G. Wells. The operator of this projector was Mervyn Heard, who has given performances of The Magic Lantern in such distinguished places as the Royal Opera House, the Cinemateca Portuguesa in Lisbon and the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin. He’s also written Phantasmagoria: The secret life of the magic lantern (2006). Down below the stage sat leading silent film accompanist Stephen Horne, who would bring the magic of the projector’s images to life, just as it was done in a time before recorded sound.

As the lights dimmed, the piano struck up into a new tune and a great mandala-esque image was projected onto the stage screen, turning slowly and drawing your eyes into the colour. Of course, the wow factor has been lost over 100 years of entertainment evolution and perhaps never having done the Grand Tour left an empathetic space, but as fireworks exploded as patterned colour and chefs heads switched places with that of the pigs on its platter, I was admirably drawn into the moving motifs. A couple, acting the part of the Victorian audience, clothed in the dress of the day and with the ubiquitous higher class tones in their voices, took the place of that missing empathy. As their gasps and comments punctuated the imagery, the sensation of the spectacle found its context beautifully. Victorian entertainment was, as speaker Dinah Birch alluded the following day, filled with an  intensity.

The Saturday symposium had five speakers and ended with a round table discussion.  Brian Dillon, researcher, author and UK editor of Cabinet, chaired the event and along with Mike Jay, author and curator of High Society, opened proceedings. The first speaker was Dinah Birch, Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, and she delivered a lecture entitled Seeking Sensation in Victorian Britain. Excellently delivered, she explored the Victorian era as being an intensity, when even their austerity was taken to its limits, not to mention their drug taking and entertainment and that their seriousness in play was staged against the backdrop of this era of empire. Following Birch was Stuart Anderson, who discussed Legal Highs: Inside the Victorian Pharmacy.

From the literary perspective of PsypressUK, the two most interesting lectures were delivered by Julian North, the senior lecturer in English at the University of Leicester and  Dr. Michael Neve, who until his recent retirement worked closely with the University College London and the Wellcome Collection. North’s lecture was entitled Dreams and Nightmares: Drugs in Victorian Literature and looked at writers like Thomas De Quincey, Charlotte Bronte, Wilkie Collins, Dickens and others. She concentrated on the role of drugs in the writers’ lives and the role that drugs like opium and cocaine played in their novels. Dr. Neve spoke on Varieties of Experience: Self-Experimentation in the Late 19th century. He explored great writers like William James and his experiments with Nitrous Oxide, a source of Hegelian tempered argument for James, to the early self-experiments of Havelock Ellis and Silas Weir Mitchell with mescaline, Neve managed to bring to life the subjectivity of drugs in an otherwise dryly, yet engaging, academic day. Finally, author Louise Foxcroft spoke on Strange Yearnings: A History of Addiction as a Disease; discussing the move away from morality to the medical in society’s attitude toward drug habit.

The day was food for thought and while some sections of the audience were certainly interested in only particular lectures, the broad range of topics gave Drugs in Victorian Britain a well-rounded and engaging meta-narrative. The High Society exhibition itself  seemed to me to ground and contextualise drugs within their cultural and geographic location, taking away quick-fire and ignorant assumptions; and the symposium did the very same for the Victorian era. Whether in the pharmacy, or in their literature, whether as agents  for self-experimentation or even as a model for social division, drugs are tools, which remain meaningless until we plug them into both our minds and our society and animate them accordingly.

The next exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life

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