- Imperial Landscapes: Britain’s Global Visual Culture, 1745–1820
Britain’s early conquests over much of the rest of the world created a new domestic market for landscape depictions of these overseas colonies. John Crowley’s splendid book proceeds continent by continent, using 269 illustrations (the majority in color) to show how British and other European artists, cartographers, and surveyors represented Britain’s new acquisitions, in the interests of Britons both at home and in the colonies. Crowley argues persuasively that Britons developed the landscape genre in particular to attempt to incorporate these new colonized lands into Britain’s domestic visual culture.
Crowley’s own vision links his chapters into his overall argument, which analyzes the origins and early development of British landscape painting over the entire imperial arena from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. He first shows that, until the mid eighteenth century, this genre had few British practitioners. Then, following the long-established lead of continental artists, Britons began painting and etching landscapes of the British Isles. This landscape genre reflected a growing public awareness of the British nation as a whole. This impetus soon made Britain “a net exporter of graphic art” (p. 64) to the continent. Simultaneously, Britons began to depict their distant colonies, especially after the first global war (the Seven Years War, 1756–1763), shaping their representations to try to incorporate these colonies into the emerging British imperial culture. These paintings and etchings gained “reportorial quality” and authenticity by often explicitly noting that the artist made them “on the spot” (p. 59). Only after the 1820s, Crowley concludes, did other European powers catch up with Britain’s model for cultural incorporation of overseas empires through landscape art.
Throughout his book, Crowley emphasizes the “work” that these landscape artists performed to construct the British empire—making its validity and existence possible in British minds. For example, he contrasts Captain James Cook’s “colonialist gestures [which] amounted to little more than leaving a few pigs to improve food resources and naming places after British aristocrats” with the accomplishment of “artists aboard his vessels [who] created a Pacific landscape . . . which helped naturalize the potential of Pacific spaces as British environments” (p. 109). For the West Indies, Crowley shows how artists painted in the service of planter-slave owners through artistic “apologetic anti-abolitionism” (p. 126), striving to make slavery appear benign to the [End Page 712] public and politicians back in Britain. Concentrating on his own readings of this art, however, Crowley only occasionally discusses the public reception of it in Britain at the popular level.
Crowley has made the strategic decision to organize his chapters by continent, sequentially Canada, the Pacific, the West Indies, the United States of America (shown as even more culturally British after the American Revolution than before), India, and Australia. This organizing principle enables him to highlight, for each colony individually, how particular artists worked to assimilate that colony’s distinctive and varied physical spaces into British domestic visual and political culture. While reinforcing his overall argument, his quite reasonable synchronic approach however deemphasizes the movement of artists among these colonies, intercolonial influences, and chronological developments in world history as a whole. Crowley skillfully avoids repeating discussion of these globally significant events, except as necessary for these separate histories of each colony, but thereby inevitably flattens to some extent this half century into a single stage in the development of British art as a whole.
In support of his argument, Crowley uses original textual sources as well as reproductions of art and other graphics. He quotes extensively from writing by his featured artists and their contemporaries, especially written descriptions of the physical environment. Given the book’s large number of illustrations and the necessary reduction of large landscapes into much smaller reproductions, Crowley himself describes important details in the original art that are sometime not (or barely) perceptible to the reader on the page, despite the high quality of the printing. He begins each chapter with a facing full...