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January 2015: Imperial Landscapes: Britain’s Global Visual Culture, 1745-1820

Reviewed by: Douglas Fordham, University of Virginia

John E. Crowley, Yale University Press, 2011. 320pp. US $85 (hardback).

In this ambitious and wide-ranging book, John Crowley argues that “in the second half of the eighteenth century British artists were disproportionately frequent and original in representing their imperial worlds topographically, and that distinctiveness makes their work inherently interesting from a comparative perspective.” (13) Crowley defines topographic representation as “how a place would appear to viewers if they went there themselves” (76) thereby distinguishing it from cartographic and other modes of representation. In the opening chapter Crowley examines the origins of topographic representation in Europe, and he argues for the precedence of British topography, particularly in the works of Paul Sandby, who worked on the Scottish Highland Survey following the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46. The book then follows British-born and trained artists around the globe in chapters dedicated to Canada, the Pacific, the West Indies, the United States of America, India, and Australia. By the end of this global Grand Tour the book leaves little doubt that topographic imagery constituted a major component of British visual culture. The book is stunningly illustrated and its geographic divisions provide helpful summaries of the field as well as convenient introductions to British imperial history and its representation. The reasons for Great Britain’s “topographic imperative,” however, remain frustratingly elusive, and Crowley’s thesis raises more questions than it answers. This may not be a bad thing for the fields of imperial history and art history upon which Crowley predominantly draws, but it does suggest just how difficult it can be to unite these disciplines to the satisfaction of specialists in either.

In the opening chapter of the book Crowley tests W.J.T. Mitchell’s oft-quoted claim that landscape “is something like the ‘dreamwork’ of imperialism”. (Mitchell, W.J.T., ed. Landscape and Power, 2nd ed., 2002, p. 10). Crowley challenges Mitchell’s phrase by arguing that landscape was rather “an underused resource for European imperialism” (16) prior to the mid-eighteenth century. This is a decidedly literal reading of Mitchell’s evocative “theses on landscape” and when the book ventures into causal explanations for British art’s topographical imperative it tends to produce a rather blunt variant of Mitchell’s thesis. “The landscape of the new imperial domain congratulated British military accomplishments” in Canada (57), “picturesquely topographic art naturalized the regime of slavery by making it part of the landscape,” (139) and “British landscape art of early British India functioned as self-propaganda for polite society among Britain’s political nation.”(203) Artistic agency and public reception, to say nothing of cultural resistance and political contingency, are held safely at bay in these sweeping generalizations. It is telling, for example, that Crowley’s discussion of “The Anti-Imperial Alternative” in British India refers exclusively to the Warren Hastings trial and associated textual sources.(184) For Crowley, topographic landscape is always imperial and expansionist, a view that is surely correct on balance, but which tends to level interesting distinctions and downplay the openness and instability of visual signification.

While the bourgeoning field of “art and the British empire” has fought to hold open and interrogate the precise relationship of art to empire, Crowley leaves little doubt that empire produced, or at least necessitated, Britain’s topographic imperative. William Blake’s searing retort to conventional wisdom, that “Empire follows Art and not Vice Versa as Englishmen suppose,” is nowhere to be found in Crowley’s narrative. The question of precedence and timing is an important one, because Crowley states in the conclusion that “By the late 1780s artists and patrons in other European visual cultures were emulating the British global landscape.”(227) This suggests a delay of no more than twenty years, since Crowley returns time and again to the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) as a major impetus to British topographical representation. How significant is this delay, and is this predominantly a function of the market-driven London book and print trade, British imperial circumstance, or other factors? Crowley makes a convincing case that publications related to the Cook expeditions, for example, stimulated European emulation in subsequent decades. With a few exceptions, however, Crowley brackets out direct comparisons between British art and the art of Continental Europe to the first and the last chapter. And yet these are some of the most suggestive and provocative claims in the book, and his thesis ultimately rests on the accuracy of those claims. This kind of comparative analysis, and the recognition that the imperial periphery was marked by a hybrid agglomeration of languages and national affiliations, offers significant opportunities for further research.

If Imperial Landscapes tends to homogenize “Britain’s Global Visual Culture,” as the subtitle informs us, it nonetheless does a remarkable job summarizing and rendering coherent a vast body of scholarship that is frequently sequestered in regional and disciplinary silos. As a synthetic narrative work it highlights fault lines within and between the disciplines of art and imperial history. By isolating topographic landscape as a fairly hermetic genre, Crowley manages to unite a broad swath of imagery from around the globe over three-quarters of a century. Those who analyze topographic landscape in relation to other strands of imperial visual culture, most notably ethnographic portraits, costume studies, and graphic satire, might draw very different conclusions. Similarly, the “Britishness” of topographic landscape identifies something fundamental about the art of the eighteenth century, but it should not preclude further study into the alternative identities and colonial assertions of difference that visual representation might yield. Imperial Landscapes suggests just how far the study of imperial representation has advanced in the past decade, and it brings this material together in new and unexpected ways. It marks a major contribution to the field and one that will undoubtedly stimulate further debate.


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