Illuminating Illusions, or the Victorian Art of Seeing Things

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11 Citations (SciVal)


John Henry Pepper, better known as Professor Pepper of ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ fame, clearly relished the intellectual and cultural trajectory that linked his spectacular performances at the Royal Polytechnic Institution to Sir David Brewster’s researches and revelations in his Letters on Natural Magic. This paper locates both Pepper’s performances and Brewster’s text within a tradition of illusory practice and points to the importance of Scottish common sense philosophy in providing an intellectual context for that tradition. I argue that tracing this tradition provides historians with a way of reassessing the role of spectacle and sensation in Victorian science, moving away from a historical narrative that emphasizes the move to mechanical objectivity. I suggest that Brewster and the common sense tradition provided later performers with a language and a set of practices that could be used to discipline sensation and to teach audiences how to witness and appropriately frame scientific spectacle.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-50
Number of pages14
JournalEarly Popular Visual Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 01 Feb 2012


  • visual culture
  • exhibitions
  • optical illusions
  • magic lanterns
  • Sensation
  • John Henry Pepper
  • David Brewster


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