- Persuasion and Propaganda: Monuments and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire
There is no place like home, in death as in life. Joan Coutu's compelling and deeply researched book on eighteenth-century English funeral [End Page 247] monuments looks at how colonial aspirations shaped commemorative practices in England and abroad. When patrons, or their heirs, decided to erect monuments in their memory, they did so to glorify their own achievements and establish their permanent link with their homeland.
Coutu's method of analysis is richly interdisciplinary and draws on the recent literature in post-colonial studies, memory, and consumption and display. The strength of the book is not in its close visual analysis of the monuments. Many of them are not works of great art, but remnants of illuminating stories about how people saw themselves as part of an empire. The range of quality of the works raises an interesting question about the nature of originality. Many patrons abroad commissioned monuments that were, by their time, old-fashioned and long out of date. Standard, stock frames were used, often-copied composition and even generic texts that could have been used in a variety of contexts. This may be the sign of a lack of originality of both patron and craftsman. Yet it also may be a sign that conformity was a virtue. By closely aligning one's self and one's family with well-established traditions, including those of the design of a monument, there would be no question of allegiance to English values.
Life in the colonies, including the West Indies, India, Canada, and America, affected not only the monuments erected there, but also projects back in England. Two of the best chapters are those devoted to the monument to Wolfe in Westminster Abbey and the Grenville Commissions at the gardens at Stowe. In contrast to the small wall plaques in churches abroad, these are major works, by major artists and in important settings, one private and one public. Monuments in England, with decidedly colonial themes, reminded those at home of the importance of colonial life to the greater British interests. As historian, and describer of the social scene, Coutu gives a full understanding of what these monuments might have evoked at the time they were built. One wishes that she would not hesitate in suggesting how this context allows us to understand the visual dimension of these major sculptural groups as objects with a longer history, beyond the eighteenth century. The many illustrations in the book do not always help the case. Several are weakly printed and do nothing to highlight the sophistication of craft and workmanship.
This engaging study deserves a wide readership by scholars across the humanities. It is a major new work in the history of British art, and one only hopes that it stimulates some equally adventurous work in that and allied fields. The book includes a vast and thorough gazetteer of monuments in the British Empire during the eighteenth century. The large number remaining in the West Indies is reason enough for a trip to the islands to see what remains of the British Empire.