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As Britain developed its colonies in the 18th century, there was a natural public curiosity to know what they looked like. Artists responded to the call.
Until the 18th century, the artistic representation of places in European art fell into two main categories. There was the topographical tradition, its precisely delineated landscapes and townscapes drawn in monochrome ink, often with a view to reproduction in the form of engravings. Set against this was the idealized, colourful landscape painting influenced by artists such as Claude Lorrain (1600–82), a French artist who worked mainly in Italy. The ‘Claudian’ style became very popular.
Crowley discusses these at some length, with telling examples of works by Canaletto (an Italian who went abroad to paint views of Britain) and Richard Wilson (a Welshman who went to paint views of Italy). He also notes that the first artists to marry the two traditions to any degree were watercolourists. Pre-eminent among these was Paul Sandby (1731–1809), the only watercolourist among the founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768 (and the subject of an exhibition there in 2010). Sandby directed British landscape art towards the recording of scenic experience at first hand, notably in his capacity as draughtsman to the military survey of Scotland in the 1750s: ‘The British global landscape began in Scotland’. By the 1770s, the combination of accurate recording and painterly presentation had become a norm in topographical art.
Crowley then examines developments around the globe in chapters devoted to specific areas of the world: Canada first (Crowley is a Canadian), then the Pacific, the West Indies, the United States of America, India and Australia. Some of the material will be familiar to those who know this period well, but many of the examples are new, and they are well selected to illustrate Crowley’s observations.
In every new colonial territory, we see an overriding tendency on the part of artists to ‘Europeanize’ the landscapes before them. However much artists emphasized that their views were ‘drawn on the spot’, they simply couldn’t help themselves – there was just too strong a mental habit of seeing everything through the eyes of the predecessors who had formed their styles. Take for example the artist William Hodges, who painted among the first – indeed sometimes the very first – European views of many locations (some of his works were exhibited at the Queen’s House, Greenwich, London in 2004). A Londoner, his style and technique owe much to Richard Wilson, the Claudian painter who was first Hodges’ teacher and then his employer. Hodges applied these Claudian influences very fully to his representations abroad, and one could be forgiven for mistaking some of his views for Italy or Britain rather than India. This tendency had a re-assuring effect, rendering the new territories less daunting to British viewers, and conveniently making them appear rather more attractive than they might otherwise have looked.
To the modern mind, the oddest-looking country in this publication is Australia, where the depictions of peaceful country scenes – windmills, neat fields and orderly farm buildings – could pass for places in Britain. In this way the artists were making the point that these penal colonies were indeed places of British stability and order.
Several of the artists mentioned in this book have already been the subject of other publications, but this is the first to discuss imperial landscape art from such a broad perspective, or to examine so closely how the developments abroad paralleled those in Britain. It serves both as a book on art history, and an historical analysis of how British visual culture played its part in the politics of colonization.
This book will be of interest to both the general reader and academic alike. Indeed, it is worth looking at simply for its lavish, well-captioned illustrations, which comprise a wonderful gallery of artists and locations.
Imperial Landscapes: Britain’s Global Visual Culture 1745–1820by John E. Crowley is published by Yale University Press, 2011. 320 pp. 50 colour and 100 mono illus. ISBN 978-0-300-17050-4