This article explores some of the historical forces through which the Thames became a key site where gas manufacture and ballooning came together to provide new forms of experience and spectacle; and economic opportunity as well as deadly physical risk and toxic effluent. Gas in London applied a material force, exerting a presence both through the positioning of human observer in the aerial landscape, and as a pictorial subject of art and visual documentation, rendered through fine art, watercolors, maps, and other visual records. Consideration of what I call here “the visual gas field” suggests that the docklands of the nineteenth-century Thames were not only connected by its waters, but also by a form of energy that bridged earth, air, and water with far-ranging impacts on the river’s ecology, the people who lived and worked on it, and the ways in which the river was seen and imagined.
Jennifer Tucker is a historian who studies the interrelations of art and science, photography, and mass visual culture, with a specialization in 19th to mid-20th century British, U.S., and trans-Pacific history. The common threads in her diverse research fields are the dynamics of visual media in modern history, the nature of evidence, public perceptions and practices of history, and the interrelationships of science, technology, and the law.