Irish Travelling Artists: Ireland, Southern Asia and the British Empire 1760-1850

Mcdermott, Siobhan Clare (2019). Irish Travelling Artists: Ireland, Southern Asia and the British Empire 1760-1850. PhD thesis The Open University.



The aim of this thesis is to show that Irish art made in the period under discussion, the late-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, should not be considered solely in terms of Ireland’s relationship with England as heretofore, but rather, within the framework of the wider British Empire. As will be demonstrated, this approach both enhances Irish art-historical scholarship and contributes to more general studies concerning art and the British Empire.

During this time of accelerating imperial expansion, Ireland’s experience of empire became increasingly ambivalent: Irish people moved through the empire as traders, soldiers and settlers, yet Ireland itself remained a colonised land. Thus, the analysis of art made by Irish travelling artists brings a new perspective to the question of art’s role in the imperial project, since intra-imperial comparisons and contrasts may be made which would not otherwise be possible.

The thesis focuses on the work of two Irish artists who travelled to Southern Asia. Active initially in the commercial centre of Calcutta and then in the more militarised town of Madras, Thomas Hickey worked in India during a period of transition as British interests in the subcontinent shifted from those of trade to conquest and territorial expansion; consequently, his paintings offer illuminating insights into art’s changing functions at a pivotal moment in Anglo-Indian relations. By contrast, Andrew Nicholl, travelled somewhat later to Ceylon, serving its colonial institutions as the British Empire reached the height of its power. Ceylon has rarely been discussed in the context of art and empire, the thesis, therefore, opens up a new area of scholarship informed by Nicholl’s experience.

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