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Brenda Weeden, The Education of the Eye: History of the Royal Polytechnic Institution 1838 – 1881 (Cambridge: Granta Editions, 2008) 110pps., ill., ISBN: 9781857570977, £25.00

Martyn J. Colebrook

I must admit to being always a little suspicious of the books, pamphlets and other pieces of historical and critical writing that appear mysteriously in my pigeon-hole and wait patiently and quietly for their turn to come under the scrutinising eye which informs and determines just how combative, demanding or complimentary the review is going to be. I am never sure if it is because histories and the occasional biography are habitually difficult to offer a lengthy incursion into, without just regurgitating summaries of what has already been written by the authors themselves. Fortunately, in this case, the subject has proved not only to be entirely readable, very well written and presented, but was also full of more than enough information to support both an entertained reader and (hopefully) an interested review audience.

With its catchy title and colour layout, Brenda Weeden’s The History of the Eye is a concise, engaging and lively first part of the history of the University of Westminster which opened (to the public) as the Royal Polytechnic in August 1838, located in London’s then recently illustrious Regent’s Street. All of this and more can be gleaned from the detailed and highly informative blurb on the back cover of the book which provides a good précis of the initial function of the Polytechnic as an institution committed to the study of the sciences and its story as a house of learning from the outset.

The extremely decorative image on the front cover — a teeming, fascinated and absorbed crowd observing the automaton Leotard operating on a trapeze (painted by W.R. Hill) — draws the intrigued reader into the wealth of information to be gleaned from this volume, a book which would be of great interest not just to historians, but also readers of a scientific bent or simply those wishing to enjoy charting of the rise of such an institution. This multi-focus, in my view, makes the book more successful and enjoyable as a historical account given its accessibility, clear writing and informative, reader-friendly layout.

The inner flyleaf contains a useful timeline which provides a summary of the Polytechnic’s development involving such illustrious figures as Professor John Henry Pepper, Quintin Hogg and Richard Beard. The chronological structure of the text ensures that the seemingly innumerable sources of primary and secondary material which usually go into such texts as these are all put to good use. Not a word or a fact is wasted in this engaging piece of history. Although only peripheral to the text itself, the two forewords from Lord Paul of Marylebone and Professor Geoff Petts emphasise the contribution made by the institution not only towards the ‘popularisation of applications of the sciences’, as it is termed, but also as a ‘pioneer’ in widening the participation in educational activities amongst much of the London population, and these achievements are encapsulated by the account itself.

Beginning with a satirical article from Punch, this chronicle proceeds to cover a significant amount of ground in charting the origination and development of the institution. A rapid but informative survey of the London cultural map foregrounds the position that the Royal Polytechnic was to occupy within this locale, including the ways in which rapid industrialisation was embraced to generate publicity for the events held there. Here the author acknowledges a slight limitation in having to rely upon one source for the publicity material, given the disappearance of the business records and correspondence, and reflects just how vital the information from the press was for creating a viable account. The prologue concludes with the important point that, although the Royal Polytechnic Institution differs significantly from the University of Westminster, there are a number of ‘intriguing continuities’ between the two. This is just one of a proposed sequence of volumes to encompass the major periods of the University’s history, and the overlaps make it apparent that later publications will be of equal interest to readers from a range of backgrounds.

Following the prologue, the account moves extensively from the vision of the Polytechnic and the methods employed for securing both its foundation and the necessary ongoing financial support to the process of naming the institution. As Weeden notes, the name not only functions as one of the Polytechnic’s assets, but was also determined late in the process of its founding. Originally this was to have been the ‘Institution for the Advancement of the Arts and Practical Science, especially in connexion with Agriculture, Manufactures and other Branches of Industry’, before someone scratched out the somewhat laborious title and replaced it with the word ‘Polytechnic’.

The second half of the book—full of exquisite images that complement the book’s elegant, articulate and clear style — notably addresses the problems and recovery endured by the institution after John Henry Pepper made his emphatic impact. Detailing an accident at the Polytechnic, when a spiral staircase collapsed as an audience was leaving a Christmas event — resulting in the death of a young child, Emma Pike — the book recounts the coroner’s commentary about the subsequent uneasiness which this implanted in the public imagination and the directors’ appeal on behalf of all who were affected by this incident, as well as the following recovery of the institution’s reputation.

Overall, this formidable work is a testament to the research and endeavour undertaken by its author and those who are connected with this project. It is thoroughly stimulating and a pleasure to read.

To Cite This Article:

Martyn J. Colebrook, ‘Review of Brenda Weeden, The Education of the Eye: History of the Royal Polytechnic Institution 1838 – 1881 (Cambridge: Granta Editions, 2008)’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]