The Age of Empire
Britain’s Imperial Architecture from 1880-1930
London: Aurum Press, 2015
Hardcover. 191 p. 150 colour and b&w ills. ISBN 978-1781312254. £35
Reviewed by G.A. Bremner
University of Edinburgh
It should be observed from the outset that Clive Aslet’s The Age of Empire : Britain’s Imperial Architecture from 1880-1930 is not a scholarly account of the subject indicated by its title. Rather, it is more a picture book with a limited amount of accompanying text – what, for lack of a better term, one might call a coffee table book. Admittedly, and to be fair to the author and his publisher, it does not purport to be anything more. I only mention this because, upon perusal of the title, it might be mistaken by some readers for a serious study of the subject, which, it has to be said, is still lacking in the wider field of architectural history. In other words, given the paucity of serious-minded general literature on the topic of British imperial and colonial architecture (there are many specialist and regional studies), those looking out for such literature (students and scholars) might rush to it in the hope that it fulfils this need. On that score they will be sorely disappointed, however.
Again, I do not mention this with any disparaging intent – after all, the book is what it is. Indeed, with this limitation in mind, Aslet’s The Age of Empire is not only quite useful but also enjoyable to read. For those new to the subject, it has a reasonably good introductory essay that considers the range and type of building that can be considered ‘imperial’ (even if this is stretched a little far at times), and makes an attempt to understand these within a wider social and cultural framework. The text is lively if a little unrelenting, thus allowing the author to pack a lot into a small amount of space. As a consequence, the prose is more journalistic than analytical, resulting in something approaching a whistle-stop, ‘greatest hits’ tour of imperial buildings, ceremonials, and other events than any kind of systematic or considered search for what constitutes Britain’s imperial presence in built form. The book’s content comprises the introductory essay mentioned, plus a further six sections (as they are not really chapters), progressing in rough chronological sequence, each with its own brief introductory text. Here we encounter such subjects as state buildings and ceremonial in Britain, the architecture (and vehicles) of transport, war memorials, and buildings of entertainment (theatres, galleries, exhibitions centres etc.). As there is very little normal textual content, the copious illustrations are fulsomely captioned. On this account alone the book is worth the perusal of even the most knowledgeable scholar in the field, for Aslet has assembled an impressive and illuminating array of illustrations, which is one of the book’s strengths.
There is, however, an ambiguity concerning the book’s title, leading to potential confusion over its scope. Prima facie, the title suggests comprehensive geographic coverage, hinging on the phrase ‘Britain’s imperial architecture’. But the vast majority of the content is focused on the British Isles, with only the occasional glance into the wider empire. To be sure, the concluding section, ‘Wider Still and Wider’, deals exclusively with the world beyond Britain, but this represents only a minor portion of the overall content. The book’s subtitle might therefore be taken to mean ‘Britain’ in its insular sense; but, if so, why the separate chapter on the wider empire? For some, the book will not live up to its promise in this regard.
But this apparent weakness turns out to be the book’s ultimate strength. In dealing predominantly with the metropolis, Aslet’s The Age of Empire engages with an aspect of Britain’s imperial history and heritage that has been all but neglected by architectural historians. Traditionally, architectural historians have taken ‘imperial architecture’ to be those buildings erected overseas, beyond the British Isles, as if Britain’s presence and experience in the wider world had little or no effect on its own built environment. Attitudes to this have now changed, and Aslet’s book reflects this change. Thus, although neither scholarly nor particularly critical, The Age of Empire does represent something of a corrective in this regard, and that has to be welcome. Wittingly or otherwise, it highlights the fact that the British imperial world included Britain itself, and that this was an important aspect of British purpose and identity in the world during the period covered by the book.
Although there are many hits, there are some conspicuous misses too. Take, for instance the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. We are told by Aslet that this monument was not concerned with and thus did not feature any iconography relating to empire . But, as Colin Cunningham, Tim Barringer, and myself have shown, even the lightest of analyses demonstrates that both the educated viewing public, as well as the artists who worked on it, understood the memorial’s imperial and colonial resonances precisely. Also, owing to the compressed nature of the text, we get many unqualified passing comments, such as ‘the dreadful Glasgow City Chambers’ . Upon reading this, one might wonder if Aslet has seen the building. My own opinion (for what it is worth) is that the Glasgow City Chambers is quite an impressive building, and one that could have played both happily and neatly into Aslet’s imperial narrative, being the landmark municipal structure of the ‘second city’ of empire. Indeed, its interior is particularly impressive, with reputedly the largest staircase in marble ever erected – a fitting symbol of the wealth generated in a city inextricably linked to the fortunes of the British Empire.
Apart from these limitations, the only other major criticisms that could be levelled at this book are 1) its rather loose interpretation of what counts as an ‘imperial’ building, and 2) what some will inevitably perceive as its uncritical if not celebratory tone vis-à-vis empire and imperialism. On the first count, Aslet tends to impute imperial(ist) meaning to events and structures merely owing to their popular presence in Britain during the time under discussion, such as libraries, universities, galleries, theatres, hotels, sporting events (like Wimbledon), and shops. But this represents a fundamental confusion at the heart of the book in which there is a tendency to conflate buildings and events that did have imperial associations with those that arguably did not. The suggestion appears to be that everything was imperial during the great age of empire (one can only imagine what Bernard Porter would make of this!). A case might have been made for such buildings and events, but, again, owing to the limited nature of the text, it is not. The second major criticism is more serious. In the ilk of previous such productions, including Jan Morris’s Stones of Empire (1983), Robert Fermor-Hesketh’s Architecture of the British Empire (1986), or even Philip Davies’s Splendours of the Raj (1985), Aslet’s The Age of Empire is really about the spectacle of empire, and therefore is too concerned with high imperial culture, but in a way that does not hold that culture to account. Indeed, at times the slick images convey a certain romance for empire that will no doubt make some readers cringe.
Be this as it may, Aslet has produced a visual feast that at the very least will encourage readers to think about the possible, if on occasion incredulous, connections that can be made between built form and imperial imagining in Britain during the great age of empire.
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