Empire and the Visual Representation of Nature, 1860-1960

Beinart, William and Hughes, Lotte (2008). Empire and the Visual Representation of Nature, 1860-1960. History Compass, 6(5) pp. 1177–1193.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1478-0542.2008.00530.x


This is a revised extract from a co-authored book, Environment and Empire (OUP, 2007). In this article, we explore some of the images transmitted about the landscapes and environments of the British empire, largely during the century after 1860. While our major focus is on British-based representations, some reference is made to artistic work elsewhere that fed into the imperial visual store. As a number of scholars have argued, some visual materials familiarized British audiences with far-flung conquered zones and naturalized their exploitation. However, these images were only one style of representation; there were many others and it is important to identify some of the complexity and variety of visual imaginations, developed in many different media. Settler and indigenous art and photography used images from nature to develop nationalist and indigenous reassertions. Images could transcend their intended purpose, and, as in the case of approaches to nature itself, there were contending voices. Jostling alongside images that celebrated exploitation and possession of colonized territories, there were others that championed nature or portrayed it sympathetically. Because of the power of visual media, these had a significant influence on conservationist thinking.

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