Surveillance – a family drama

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Hampshire Field. Photo: Peter Jordan

Surveillance was one of the Romantic age’s master themes. Some of the period’s most best-loved works meditate on the pernicious social effects of overintrusive prying. Keats’s ode “To Autumn” – usually read as a portrayal of bucolic rural idyll – catches a group of underpaid labourers in the act of evading their foreman’s eye by lying between the deep furrows (“Who hath not seen thee”, indeed?). Similarly Coleridge’s much anthologized “Frost at Midnight”, ostensibly a touching cradle song to the poet’s infant son, captures the uneasy spirit of the watchful 1790s with its chilling description of the frost as a “secret ministry”, conjuring Prime Minister Pitt’s network of spies, in whose crosshairs Coleridge had recently found himself along with confrere, William Wordsworth.

Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

James Gillray, “Smelling out a Rat” (1790)

Again, in Gillray’s 1790 caricature “Smelling out a Rat” (right), which turns the Tory Edmund Burke into a giagantic snooping nose.

Even Fuseli’s 1781 painting “The Nightmare” (below) – which seemingly depicts the contents of the female sleeper’s febrile imagination …read more