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Illustrating Empire

A Visual History of British Imperialism


Ashley Jackson & David Tomkins


Oxford: The Bodleian Library, 2011

Paperback. 216 pp. £19.99. ISBN 978 185124 3341


Reviewed by Adam Stephenson

Université de Picardie Jules-Verne, Amiens




With its 1.5 million different items—advertisements, playbills, postcards, labels, programmes, menus, games, ballads, match boxes, posters and so on dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries—the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Library in Oxford is one of the largest of its kind in the world. And with the ‘pictorial turn’ in the humanities, the vogue for history ‘from the bottom up’, the current interest in new kinds of historical sources, the post-modern distrust of grand historical narratives and the well-attested shorter attention spans of today’s readers, it might be thought that its hour had come.

This is certainly what the curators think. They are in the process of digitising 65,000 items and putting them on the Internet so that researchers, students, schools and amateurs can have access to them, and they project a whole series of history books based on the collection. Illustrating Empire: A Visual History of British Imperialism is the first of these.

The authors, Ashley Jackson, Professor of Imperial and Military History at King’s College London and David Tomkins, Project Manager at the collection, have arranged their material under eight chapter headings covering the main aspects of the British imperial experience insofar as they feature in the collection: emigration and settlement, imperial authority, exploration and knowledge, trade and marketing, travel and communications, leisure and popular culture, jubilees and exhibitions, and politics. In apparently well-informed, sensible and entertaining prose, they have written an introduction to each chapter, a paragraph or two of comment on each of the two hundred or so items and a general introduction to the volume.

If we see it as an attractive, instructive and relatively inexpensive coffee-table book of Victoriana and related matter, the work can be considered a success. Readers will enjoy the sunny picture of the Empire which emerges from this delightfully varied selection—advertisements for Canadian emigration and Australian dried fruit; commemorative images of heroic expeditions and royal visits; vivid depictions of native life (doc.1); celebrations in exhibitions, songs, shows and board games—tempered by a few denunciatory (if, alas, mostly image-free) pamphlets and posters (doc.2). However, when we try to consider Illustrating Empire on its own terms, as the flagship not only of a new series of historical works, but of the John Johnson Collection or even of new sciences of ephemerology and visual history, then our judgment must be more nuanced. To put it schematically, the authors do a bad job of writing, thinking and looking, and in the process, often make their images less visible. I will treat each of these points in turn.

(1) One of a series of four pictures of Australian life (1853)

To begin with, then, the language of their introductions and commentaries is grossly incorrect. Words are used wrongly (‘exulted’ for exalted, ‘inequities’ for iniquities, ‘infeasibly’ (sic) for improbably, ‘haled’ for hailed, ‘protrusion’—‘the protrusions of empire into people’s lives’, ‘obtrusion’—‘the empire’s political obtrusions’, ‘espoused’, ‘omniscient’, ‘per se’, ‘derive’ and dozens of others), and transitive and intransitive, singular and plural, mass and count nouns are mixed up in a never-ending stream of non sequiturs, dangling modifiers, clichés, clashing language registers and spectacular mixed metaphors (we see people ‘imbibing’ ‘a barrage of information’– or would do if we knew which of two dead metaphors that ‘barrage’ had brought back to life). The work can be recommended as a textbook of solecisms.

This sloppiness is due in part to a general policy of informality: right margins are not justified, the layout is user-seductive, the tone positively matey. Out of a ‘kaleidoscope of images’ in a ‘gallimaufry of forms’, say the authors, they have chosen a ‘medley…drawn at random’ from the collection. Not as randomly as all that, thank goodness, but to get at the truth about these images and the history they emerge from, the reader has constantly to negotiate linguistic obstacles. The authors’ taste for the vocabulary of amusing and edifying generality constantly misleads us: Imperium et libertas, they say, was ‘a popular phrase … bandied about by, among others, Winston Churchill’; no it wasn’t, it was the motto of the Primrose League, founded by Winston’s father, Lord Randolph; ‘a Royal Proclamation of 1763’, they tell us in a passage about indigenous elites, ‘confirmed the role in Canadian politics of what would later be termed the “First Nations”’; no it didn’t, it just said that the ‘Indians’ under the King’s protection were not to be molested, their lands not to be purchased or settled, the frauds and abuses against them to stop. No mention was made of their ‘role’ (whatever that might be—to exist?), still less of their elites. And the proclamation concerned not only Canada, but all British territories in North America—indeed, it was one of the first of the Royal provocations which led, thirteen years later, to the American Declaration of Independence.


(2) Poster advertising a meeting with a missionary who had been in China, mid-19th century

However, the authors’ carelessness with words sometimes seems to derive from a deeper confusion or ignorance. Basic historical concepts are used clumsily, not only abstractions like representation (the verb ‘to purvey’ is a particular favourite) and causality (‘to create’, etc.), but also supposedly more empirical notions (‘the Westminster political structure’, ‘the political media’, ‘politicized’, ‘exploitation’). Occasionally, they stray into the territory of postcolonial studies (‘to appropriate’, ‘the Western gaze’, ‘knowledge and power’, etc.), but without any apparent awareness of what this vocabulary brings with it, apart, apparently, from a right to condescend to the past. Their use of sneer quotes is a good example of this. Inverted commas are splashed around so liberally to mean ‘so-called’ (“superiority”, “improve”, “civilizing”, “experts”, “discovery”, “native law and custom” and so on) that we no longer know when they correspond to genuine quotations: evangelicals and utilitarians, we are told, saw the Empire as leading towards ‘human “upliftment”’; no they didn’t, the word was unknown in the 19th century. Sometimes, the authors trip themselves up on their quotes: ‘Some of the “barbaric” practices that (the missionaries) sought to eradicate', they say, are still considered “barbaric” ’; no: they are still considered barbaric. Quotation marks are abused throughout the work, now put around indirect speech, now omitted from passages lifted directly from the Internet. And when they are replaced by the more candid ‘so-called’, this misfires, too: the authors talk about ‘the so-called Communists in Southeast Asia’, as if the Communist Party of Malaya and the MNLA were either figments of the British imagination or a bunch of impostors.

Condescension also appears in non sequiturs. ‘Some (locals) were duly impressed, some indifferent, some contemptuous of British pretensions and the inequity (sic) of rule by foreign intruders. Nevertheless, the British enjoyed considerable success in co-opting indigenous elites.’ This ‘nevertheless’ is wrong, for the contradiction it announces is not with the apparently balanced previous sentence, but with the unspoken assumption that of course British rule was iniquitous and contemptible. (The word ‘duly’ in the cliché ‘duly impressed’ is one for the gullible natives.) ‘Exploration exoticized the wider world,’ we are told, but this can hardly be true, for the baroque monsters peopling maps and imaginations prior to exploration were infinitely more exotic than anything that came after, and anyway, elsewhere the authors say, a little more plausibly, that explorers and anthropologists ‘revealed how people lived’.

Sometimes they go beyond condescension and simply denounce their wicked subjects: ‘Joseph Chamberlain, the most egregious imperial politician’, etc. Most perverse is their moralistic denunciation of what they take to be 19th-century moralism: one missionary paper, they say (doc. 3), ‘strikes a typical moralizing tone’ in condemning Maori images; no it doesn’t, it calls the images ‘uncouth’, which is aesthetic, not moral condemnation, and it explains this by saying that the artists ‘change the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man,’ which is a theological reason, not a moral one. The words are familiar from Romans 1:23; standing behind them are the Second Commandment and the story of the Golden Calf, and they served against Catholics more than Maoris. Unfortunately, this is not the only quotation the authors miss, to the impoverishment of their commentary. The word ‘typical’ here (‘typical moralizing tone’) and elsewhere tells us as much about their own bland stereotypes as about the documents themselves. Certainly the largely positive images the book offers us need to be placed in a more nuanced context, but not in such ways as these. Occasionally the authors redress the balance, saying kind things about the missionaries’ educational role and denunciation of abuses, or comparing imperial publicity with today’s ‘fair trade’ pictures of ‘happy “native” women picking tea’, but the moral they draw—that we are no better than our forebears—should make them more cautious about condescending to their own typecast version of the past.


(3) CMS Missionary Papers, 1816 

More serious than any problem of attitude is the authors’ technical incompetence. They mishandle basic historical tools such as statistics, now needlessly precise, wrongly transcribed and taken from a single year but supposed to show growth over decades, now rounded out and fitted into punchy-sounding but meaningless sentences like ‘as late as the 1960s tens of thousands of children from British orphanages and care homes were sent to Australia and other settler colonies’. Tens of thousands … per year? we ask. Per decade? Between the beginning of the century and 1967, perhaps, but we can’t be sure. Even when the facts and figures are accurate and unambiguous, they too often serve to dazzle rather than enlighten.

Even worse, in a book of images, is the treatment of the images themselves. The authors nearly always use them as a pretext to talk about something else. Sometimes, by a process we might call ‘vertical conflation’, they run together different levels of reality, not distinguishing the book’s illustrations from the exhibition programmes, matchboxes, board games, etc. they represent, nor these from the pictures on them, and these latter hardly ever from the scenes, people, things and places depicted. At other times, by a process we might call ‘horizontal conflation’, they sidestep to whatever takes their fancy, as when an engraved portrait of George Augustus Selwyn, the first Bishop of New Zealand—or rather, a photo of an unidentified page containing it—is flanked by a paragraph devoted in large part to someone else, James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, or when, despite a tempting scene from Treasure Island, what must be the cover of a 1930 travel brochure for a cruise inspires a comment which mentions neither the cover nor the brochure nor the cruise, but tells us instead in pointless detail how, when and where the cruise ship met its end: ‘Of 832 passengers and crew, all but 5 survived’ (sic, doc. 4). Elsewhere, images of magazine covers give rise to gossip about the magazines themselves, their founders, fates, etc. This is certainly not the stuff of the ‘visual history’ we were promised in the title.


(4) Cover of a travel brochure (partly obscured by a related but unexplained item), 1930, and caption 

A special case of this ‘horizontal conflation’ is the slippage from a particular imperial image to social representations of the Empire that we see whenever the authors touch on the question of ‘the extent to which British society was, or was not, affected by imperial ideas.’ This has been an object of particularly lively debate recently, both because of its intrinsic historical interest and because of what it tells us about who we are supposed to blame for the British Empire. Although they announce that they are ‘seeking not to take sides’ in the debate, the authors go on to tell us dozens of times not only that ‘British society’ was ‘saturated’, ‘steeped’, ‘suffused’, ‘permeated’, etc. with imperial imagery, references and so on but also that these ‘shaped’ (or occasionally, ‘helped shape’) ‘British perceptions’. But how can we be sure of this? A collection showing only imperial imagery can tell us nothing about the much greater mass of non-imperial imagery; and we would need to know who saw these images, in what circumstances, how their behaviour changed afterwards, etc. In November 2011, in the children’s comic The Beano, the teacher of the Bash Street Kids still wears a mortar board, but this provides no evidence of teachers’ dress codes or government education policy, and one would hesitate to draw any conclusions about how it ‘shapes British perceptions’ of school. Occasionally, the authors recognize this—‘Of course, what people thought about such images, if they thought about them at all, is difficult to gauge’—but it does not lead them to nuance their judgments, still less to look more closely at the images they put before us.


(5) Stanley in Africa, the kind of aggressive, exciting, amoral image proposed by Dean 

Several of their pictures, for example, come from two publications, Dean’s Gold Medal Series, n°14, Stanley in Africa (doc. 5) and Darton’s Heroes in Africa (docs. 6 & 7: both dated ‘c.1890s' (sic)—in fact 1890). They are included in the chapter on Exploration and Knowledge, alongside missionary reports, the ground plan of Rhodes House, etc. and are treated similarly, the first being described as a ‘magazine…which presented stereotypical images of Africa’, the second as a ‘brochure’ whose ‘stories present common, albeit false, assumptions about Africa’. But this is all grossly misleading. These are not ‘magazines’ or ‘brochures’—perhaps for adults—but toy books, a familiar Victorian genre, not really ephemera at all and, more importantly, not for adults but for children, something which Jackson and Tomkins contrive not to notice. It is as if we had not distinguished The Beano and The Uses of Literacy. Most of the numbers in Dean’s series—Struwelpeter of Today, Stories about Jesus, Some Old Nursery Friends, etc—say nothing about Africa or the Empire, any more than do most of Darton’s publications. Dean had his books translated into other tongues including Swedish, not the language of a noticeably imperial nation in the 1890s (pace Norway), and Darton’s ‘common, albeit false’ assumption ‘that only European action could end the evils of the slave trade’ seems to me not false, but demonstrably true (not that European action did entirely wipe out the slave trade). And the description of the slave caravan given by Darton (doc.6) is, as far as I am able to ascertain, accurate enough for a children’s book.


(6) The more edifying vision of Africa proposed by Darton 

More importantly, the authors do not seem to notice that these two works and the images they contain are very different; indeed, in an article in BBC History Magazine July 2011 (accessible on the Internet) they confuse the two, giving the clearly printed cover of Dean’s Stanley in Africa the caption Darton’s Heroes in Africa’. But the two rival children’s publishers see the world very differently. The enterprising Dean is cashing in on the short-lived Stanley craze (he brought out spinoffs including a sort of jigsaw puzzle of his brutal, amoral pictures); Darton, on the other hand, the successor to a long line of Quaker publishers, tries to fill the young reader with pity for the victims of the slave trade. With a little attention, the different character of the images leaps to our eyes. Both include a shooting scene (docs. 5 & 7), but Darton does not show crazed savages being slaughtered, only arrows which have all fallen wide; the hero and his men are not arrayed in an immovable straight line stretching to infinity, but crouched defensively behind trees; etc. Jackson and Tomkins see no further than the catch-all ‘stereotypes’ and ‘common assumptions’ that they themselves have brought to the pictures. (Not that such stereotypes are absent; but more needs to be said.)


(7) Darton’s hero in a tight spot 

Too often, the authors not only do not see the image they have in front of them, but they make it difficult for us to see it too. An engraving of East India House in 1803 is accompanied by an account of an earlier building on the site. ‘Above the Doric pilasters,’ say the authors, describing Ionic columns, ‘was a frieze of treglyphs (sic), symbolizing the prudence and wisdom of the Company.’ Triglyphs cannot symbolise anything much—perhaps metopes are meant—and in such an abysm of ignorance, we cannot expect any competent speculation on, say, the different reasons why such dull classicism was preferred to the Neo-Mughal style chosen by returning Company nabobs at Daylesford, Sezincote and elsewhere.

Worse, we are not told the size of any of the objects represented, and many of them have been reduced, making the pictures difficult to appreciate and the words illegible (a problem also on the Internet site of the collection). A splendid-looking board game from1855, A Tour through the British Colonies and Foreign Possessions is sadly reduced to less than a third of its size, for instance (doc. 8, but see doc. 9). Furthermore, many of the objects are presented ‘aesthetically’, with one item obscuring another placed behind it. Among assorted ephemera relating to the South Sea Bubble, for instance, the most promising-looking document is largely hidden (& v. doc. 4 supra); elsewhere, documents are needlessly cut off by the edge of the page.


(8) A Tour Through the British Colonies and Foreign Possessions, John Betts & Co, 1855



(9) A Tour … detail (my restoration to full size): Jamaica. If you land on this square, you get another throw of the dice ‘to mark Britain’s role in abolishing the slave trade’ say the authors. (slavery?)


Even worse, we are hardly ever told the nature of the pictures, and never that some of them have been cut to fit onto one page. Among these is one of my favourites, A Nobleman in Ceylon (late eighteenth century) (doc.10). Where does it come from? What is its size and medium? Whose is the title? Even: does it belong in a collection of ephemera? The authors describe the image as ‘emphasizing the status of indigenous elites within the imperial system’; but ‘status’ is hopelessly vague (high status?/low status?), the ‘emphasizing’ belongs to the historian, not the source, and the ‘imperial system’ in question is not British but Dutch, for, as they go on to say, ‘in the late 18th century....Ceylon was ruled by the Dutch’. (This is not quite accurate, either, for they have forgotten the independent Kingdom of Kandy.) And once again the authors wade out of their depth into unfamiliar vocabulary, saying nonsensically that ‘(the nobleman’s) dhoti, with kastane with lion-headed hilt, is almost certainly… produced on the Coromandel coast.’ One would like to have been told more about the striking mixture of Eastern and Western clothes, the significance of the right hand tucked into the coat, etc.

‘Expertly written,’ says a back-cover testimonial from a serious historian who should have known better, and ‘beautifully reproduced’—perhaps the image on his front cover is less like a botched Photoshop job than the ill-cut, dark, discoloured one on mine. I will not discuss minor mistakes which a halfway competent proof-reader would have picked up—part of the introduction to Chapter 6 included in Chapter 7, documents and what they represent misidentified, etc.—but quickly conclude with the reflection that the title, Illustrating Empire: A Visual History of British Imperialism, is a triple misnomer: firstly, one cannot illustrate ‘Empire’, but only a text with pictures or an argument or theory with examples; secondly, this is not a history of British Imperialism, for too much is missing and too much non-imperial material is included; and thirdly, it does not correspond to any defensible notion of visual history, except, minimally, to the history of what things looked like. Furthermore, as a plea for printed ephemera, it is very misleading, given that the most historically instructive ephemera—trade lists, classified advertisements, etc.—are often textual not iconographic. In short, apart from the undeniable charm and interest of many of the images it contains, this work belongs with the ephemera it promotes, and may be of as much concern to historians of libraries, publishing and careers in the 21st century as to students of the British Empire in the 18th, 19th and 20th.


(10) A Nobleman in Ceylon (late 18th century)


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