"On the Spot": travelling artists and Abolitionism, 1770-1830

Thomas, Sarah (2011) "On the Spot": travelling artists and Abolitionism, 1770-1830. Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, 8(2), pp. 213-232. ISSN (print) 1478-8810


Until recently the visual culture of Atlantic slavery has rarely been critically scrutinised. Yet in the first decades of the nineteenth century slavery was frequently represented by European travelling artists, often in the most graphic, sometimes voyeuristic, detail. This paper examines the work of several itinerant artists, in particular Augustus Earle (1793-1838) and Agostino Brunias (1730-1796), whose very mobility along the edges of empire was part of a much larger circulatory system of exchange (people, goods and ideas) and diplomacy that characterised Europe's Age of Expansion. It focuses on the role of the travelling artist, and visual culture more generally, in the development of British abolitionism between 1770 and 1830. It discusses the broad circulation of slave imagery within European culture and argues for greater recognition of the role of such imagery in the abolitionist debates that divided Britain. Furthermore, it suggests that the epistemological authority conferred on the travelling artist—the quintessential eyewitness—was key to the rhetorical power of his (rarely her) images. Artists such as Earle viewed the New World as a boundless source of fresh material that could potentially propel them to fame and fortune. Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), on the other hand, was conscious of contributing to a global scientific mission, a Humboldtian imperative that by the 1820s propelled him and others to travel beyond the traditional itinerary of the Grand Tour. Some artists were implicated in the very fabric of slavery itself, particularly those in the British West Indies such as William Clark (working 1820s) and Richard Bridgens (1785-1846); others, particularly those in Brazil, expressed strong abolitionist sentiments. Fuelled by evangelical zeal to record all aspects of the New World, these artists recognised the importance of representing the harsh realities of slave life. Unlike those in the metropole who depicted slavery (most often in caustic satirical drawings), many travelling artists believed strongly in the evidential value of their images, a value attributed to their global mobility. The paper examines the varied and complex means by which visual culture played a significant and often overlooked role in the political struggles that beset the period.

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