- The Art of Empire
Scholars of British art of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are now increasingly alert to its global dimensions, its roles in the making of empire. In recent years, studies have explored how the imperial ventures of the period were visualized, as well as the ways in which artists seized upon the hubris of empire to pursue their own professional ambitions. Accounts tend to be concerned primarily with how visual imagery, so often produced by artists remote from the contact zone, mediated far-off conflicts or places to metropolitan audiences. But there is also a recognition that British art was sometimes made elsewhere, by artists or draftsmen whose work was shaped by the experience of travel: whether employed on voyages of exploration or in pursuit of the new markets opened up by the country’s expanding network of colonial outposts and trade routes. This “imperial turn” in the study of the visual arts of the long eighteenth century, as they interacted with cultures of exploration, slavery, and warfare, is further apparent in John Crowley’s Imperial Landscapes and Geoff Quilley’s Empire to Nation.
In Imperial Landscapes, Crowley contends that in the wake of British victory in the Seven Years’ War, a set of visual codes or pictograms, first established to depict the national territory, was exported to a variety of colonial contexts, unifying a bewilderingly diverse range of environments into a “global visual culture.” Yet, for all the apparent uniformity of vision that this implies, Crowley argues that claims to eye-witness authority and fidelity were important components of this culture as it developed in response to and came to articulate a new imperial age. Landscape art produced both “differences (topographically) and familiarity (aesthetically),” Crowley maintains, “in ways that naturalized their appropriation as British rather than alien environments” (2). On one level, the author sets out his thesis straightforwardly: beginning with introductory remarks on “Britain’s global visual culture” and its antecedents in the pictorial traditions of mainland Europe; followed by chapters devoted to specific regions—North America, the West Indies, the Pacific Islands, India, and Australia. [End Page 440]
On another level, however, this structure belies the complexity of the material. The book assembles works by military and naval officers, settlers and travelers, as well as by professional artists: employed on voyages of exploration or producing pictures to commission or on speculation; in the studio and out in the field; on the water and on beaches; in London and in cities overseas. This collection comprises drawings and prints as well as oil paintings, including sketches and exhibition pictures of considerable scale and ambition. Compiling aspects of the rich archive of visual imagery relating to the pursuit of empire and overseas trade, exploration, travel, and settlement in this period in a handsomely illustrated book has considerable merit; there are fascinating connections as well as disjunctions to be observed, as “artists” (a problematic term to employ in relation to some of this material) of the northern hemisphere confronted the tropics. However, the diversity of work, and the range of quite specific colonial situations and cultural encounters from which it emerged, militate against this assemblage as forming an entirely coherent “global visual culture.” Indeed, such a vision runs the risk of merely reiterating the structures of power under review. Colonial encounters had a tendency to unsettle as well as to affirm. Some environments remained stubbornly alien and intractable, serving merely to reveal the limits of conventional codes.
Errors are understandable in compiling a wide-ranging book-length study, and Imperial Landscapes does contain various factual inaccuracies or misunderstandings. For example, the royal censorship of William Hodges’s exhibition of paintings reflecting on The Effects of Peace and The Consequences of War in the winter of 1794–95 is assigned erroneously to “Prince George (the future George IV),” when it actually was closed by his brother Frederick, Duke...