In our final lesson, we discussed “the picturesque” and how the British colonies would produce romanticized, picturesque images of colonized landscapes, covering up a reality of instability or conflict that may have been happening at the time. In addition to determining what was being omitted from these images, I would like to explore the audience for these images and why. Were they for British citizens who were meant to have a false idea of colonized life? Or were they for those living in the colonies? What effects did they have on the audience and why?
My research argues that British artists were making these images for British citizens for several reasons. Firstly, it was to portray certain, seemingly unquestionable ideas about life in the colonies in order to maintain the public’s support for British control. In Aestheticizing Empire: The Colonial Picturesque as a Modality of Travel, Sean P. Smith utilizes two travelogues by British imperial tourists in Burma to determine the four uses of the “colonial picturesque”. He ascertained one function was facilitating the unification of Britain and its colonies under the Crown by encouraging emigration.1 Krista A. Thompson cites promotional material for tourism as one of the many ways this function was fulfilled. These representations depicted manicured, tidy and domesticated tropical nature, “with disciplined black inhabitants who exhibited the model traits of British colonization” to create an idea of both the landscape and the people as tamed.2 This provided a sense of comfort to British citizens, both by familiarizing the landscape and by confirming the land’s ability to be safely under British control.3 Thompson also notes that local photography stores on the islands were becoming tourist agencies, photographers were creating souvenirs for travelers, and by the turn of the century, hotels were becoming exhibition spaces for artists’ work.4 So secondly, the production of picturesque art in the colonies was a distinct and widely used tool for boosting travel and stimulating the tourism industry.
This falls in line with Smith’s second purported function of the picturesque, which was to create a “nostalgic desire” for pre-colonial life while obfuscating the violent side of imperialism (and therefore maintaining support for it). Souvenirs were incredibly popular, and they generated a perpetual longing for the location, especially once the tourist returned home.5 After 1840, photography became the dominant method of documentation and was seen as objective and historically accurate, especially when coming from an unfamiliar place.6 For example, a popular postcard image across the Caribbean was a young black boy eating sugar cane, smiling in a non-threatening way; many postcards used this trope to fashion a comforting idea of a foreign but domestic (and therefore familiar) people.7 Mementos like postcards from Jamaica, which were nearly always taken by Europeans to be sold to European tourists, depicted an exotic yet tame and timeless world, activating nostalgia for that tropical, non-industrial fantasy.8 A different approach can be seen in V.C. Scott O’Connor’s photograph In the Northern Reaches from his book The Silken East (1904). He captures a broad tree in front of a tranquil lake, while a Burmese fisherman crouches on a boat in the middleground and large hills stretch out in the background. This photograph was accompanied by a written description of “the might of England” and “the immemorial tradition of conquest” that prevented the migration of the Kachin people9, promoting pride in British intervention and perhaps insinuating the scene’s tranquility was British handiwork. I imagine this would encourage British citizens to desire this simple life while reassuring them of their universal power. These ideals were absorbed because photographs (and by extension, in the case of O’Connor, photographers) were believed to be unconditionally truthful.
Further, Reverend William Gilpin, who popularized the genre of “the picturesque”, himself advocated for the artists editing their landscapes. Part of this editing included removing the consequences of settlement.10 In class we looked at James Hakewill’s A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica (1825), a book of illustrations in which Hakewill would erase or artistically hide the living quarters of slaves and diminish their presence as labourers or upkeepers of the land, even though slave labour was used throughout the colonies.11 Thompson writes that images like Hakewill’s, which depicted the estates of British absentee landholders in Jamaica, were likely displayed in the houses of these landowners. The book itself was published in London, and it was even dedicated to “the noblemen and gentlemen proprietors of the estates in the West Indies”.12 So clearly these images were specially made for British consumption in British households. It can then be estimated that if landholders were proudly displaying illustrations of their estate in their homes, the images brought a sense of ownership, pride, and status.
Artists also avoided or removed any conflict that would portray British colonization as violent or unnecessary. For example, William Hodges’ Travels in India (1793) consisted of illustrations from a tour through the Indian landscape that portrayed it as timeless and ancient, when in reality the land was in a state of constant battle between the British and Indian armies. He effectively erased history to support the British imperial project.13 In the case of the Caribbean illustrations, those were made amidst significant abolitionist debates happening in London, and images like Hakewill’s could also be seen as propaganda made for British citizens to view imperialism and slavery as beneficial and prosperous.14
To conclude, these images were made by British people for British people, and they were circulated for several reasons: to ensure public belief in British imperialism, to galvanize British tourism and unity in their colonies, to satisfy British nostalgia, and to provide comfort and pride for British tourists and landholders. These kinds of images permeate art history, and if we don’t acknowledge their context, our perceptions of non-Western societies and people are affected. I’m reminded of Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus (2019), a monumental sculpture that looks like a traditional marble fountain from afar, but on closer inspection actually tells the tale of the subjugation of Africans at the hands of the British, notably during the transatlantic slave trade. Like the picturesque photographs and postcards in British colonies, her work is innocuous at first glance, and it isn’t until closer inspection and further contextual knowledge that the imperialist truths in the art are revealed. As we have reiterated many times, no image is neutral, and every image has power.