150 years ago the world got a lot smaller. The completion of the first reliable transatlantic cable in 1866 allowed messages to pass between Europe and America in seconds. They had previously taken weeks.
This notable anniversary is marked at Guildhall Art Gallery with a new — and free — exhibition: Victorians Decoded.
It's not what you might expect. Hardly any of the paintings on show have anything obvious to do with telegraphy, or even technology. Instead, the art is grouped into themes inspired by electronic communication, such as 'resistance', 'transmission' and 'distance'.
A pair of lovers pass coded messages in their glances; a Lord Mayor's procession is presented as a cipher for information flow; a trio of nymphs hold hands, supposedly reminding us of a cable. It's all very playful, but like a faulty telegraph, the connections can be tenuous. You know how weather presenters often try and introduce their forecast with some desperate wordplay link to the preceding news story? Well, that.
Still, the art is rather fetching. It's generally, though not exclusively, of a nautical nature, which provides some kind of drifting anchor to the undersea cable theme. Quite a few of the gallery's permanent exhibits have been shuffled into the pack, but we also get to see pictures that haven't been displayed since Victorian times.
Besides the art, this exhibition also contains four or five display cases containing ancient cables, batteries, log books and blueprints. We particularly enjoyed the guidebook to railway code. It goes way beyond the familiar 'Inspector Sands'. If someone wires you the codeword 'Jupiter', for example, you should stop sending out coal wagons. For more on this kind of thing, we'd recommend a visit to the Science Museum's Information Age gallery, which has an exceptional section on the history of telegraphy.
All in all, this is a diverting, enjoyable show, and certainly worth a look. It may well have hidden depths, but don't expect to learn too much about the actual hidden depths.
Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy is at Guildhall Art Gallery until 22 January 2017. Entrance is free.