Captive Bodies: British Prisons, 1750–1900

Tuesday, August 28, 2018
Sunday, November 25, 2018

Drawing on objects from across the Center’s collections, this exhibition focused on the experience of prisoners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the structures that confined them. Featuring iconic representations of life under lock and key by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Wright of Derby, George Romney, and Francis Wheatley, these images were conceived at a time when prisons were coming under intense scrutiny.

In 1773 the penal reformer John Howard began four years surveying the prisons of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and northern Europe before publishing his State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777), an unprecedented study of the woeful conditions in which convicts were confined. The impact of his demand for sweeping reform is reflected not only in the popularity of the theme of incarceration and emancipation in the work of contemporary artists but also in the architectural drawings and designs included in this exhibition. George Dance the Younger’s iconic Newgate Prison (1769), a rusticated fortress of punishment, is contrasted with a pioneering design for a new jail on a progressive, radial plan by Sir Jeffry Wyatville, itself based on the “scientific” Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham. This in turn is juxtaposed to Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s critique of the extension of the radial prison plan to the architecture of the workhouse for the indigent poor and his own proposals for a more humane and less utilitarian structural alternative in his 1841 publication, Contrasts.

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Prisoner (detail), 1787 to 1790, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

This exhibition also included prison ephemera, cell keys, and a collection of mugshots from the Nottingham House of Correction, as well as a photographic record of the West Riding Prison and its officers from the 1880s. Taken together, the representations of both prisons and prisoners in this exhibition helped illustrate the historical thinking about justice, imprisonment, and punishment.

Captive Bodies: British Prisons, 1750–1900 was organized and curated at the Center by Courtney Skipton Long, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Art Collections.