The aim of this conference is precisely, but not exclusively, to ponder on such “things as emissaries” as Asa Briggs once put it [Briggs 11], and to reconstruct the “intelligible universes” of the Victorians and Edwardians [Briggs 31]. Moreover, as this British historian points out, the notion of “appropriation” of things which pervaded British society, encouraged a sense of belonging to a community. As Disraeli envisioned the maintenance of Empire and the (comm) unity of Victorian England and “her” colonies, in 1874, the British ruling elite acted as a gateway to Victorian culture, both visual and material, in the Empire. “Modern” objects arrived in the colonies in a reverse movement, in all shapes and sizes, from the bicycle to the hairpin, through wall tiles, hagiographic pictures, chintz curtains, combs and powder puffs. They caused profound changes in the lifestyles, modes of behaviour and thought, but also spending patterns of the colonized. Beyond the comfort and sense (or illusion) that it gave the colonized consumer of “moving with times”, and becoming Westernized, objects, machines, but also colonial edifices, (from museums and bridges to clock towers and statues in street corners), became the all too conspicuous standard bearers and promoters of imperial grandeur. But, while they stood as symbols of the technological and inventive “superiority” of Great Britain, in the country and outside, did material culture in any way also become a binding force between ideas and individuals living in the various spaces of Empire?

Identity re-writing of this materiality is another line of thought. How were some of these Victorian things customized once they left their place of invention and were introduced into other “exotic” spaces and minds? Did their « reappropriation » cause the « erasure » and « re-writing » of their original identities? The many variations of this Western material culture in the colonial space, or the way colonial exoticism was represented in Britain are the object of remarkable works, by specialists like Saloni Mathur who writes that her book India by Design, Colonial History and Cultural Display (2007), is an attempt to understand the way the representations of the Indian sub-continent have been formed. Her study seeks to historicize cultural and epistemological dilemmas through the identification of a range of practices, ideas, and discourses of display. In her book Metallic Modern : Everyday Machines in colonial Sri Lanka (2014), approaching objects “in practice”, dedicated to the arrival of the sewing machine in the colonies during the late 19th century, Nira Wickramasinghe argues that access to all manner of objects and equipment by the indigenous population gave the latter the illusion of gaining some dignity and recognition in colonial society.

We invite as wide a range of areas as possible to be examined in order to identify and cross-reference the imperial cultural network that emerged in Victorian and Edwardian society and overseas. The following themes have been identified, but the list is by no means restrictive.


Theme 1. Empire and Image

The Construct of Empire through the fixed or animated image (photographs, cinema, posters, postcards, paintings …) What type of visual culture was propagated and what were its repercussions on the minds of viewers and consumers? The construct of Empire through photographs is a topic this conference would like to examine. Linked to photographs are picture postcards, another rich medium to bolster Empire studies, given that many of these postcards were a cross-class merger and could reach any part of the world, and therefore spread any message more easily than before. Other forms of image, such as cartoons, boys’ and girls’ (own) magazines and early cinema (F. Lacassin), belong to this age. In what ways did the cinematographic invention, the brainchild of the ingenious spirits of the day, accompanied by its massive quantity of objects and machines but also edifices and sites, have an impact on the British and colonial minds?

Theme 2. Other Empire Things “as emissaries”.

Objects of commemoration, of celebration, of decoration. The huge market of ‘Victorian and Edwardian things’ is a field seldom tackled by academics, yet they are precious primary sources that can shed a light on the British frame of mind of the time. Indeed, Victorians produced massive quantities of objects which referred to the Empire, and the wars that were waged there, ranging from ceramics and porcelain (plates, services, tea-sets, mugs, tobacco jars), gold and silverware, glassware, busts and statuettes, (Staffordshire figures) to apparel and accessories for ladies (jewellery, brooches, hairpins, handkerchiefs...) and toys (puppets, dolls, model soldiers, uniforms for children…). Objects were either utilities or ephemera such as match covers, paperweights, pipes, tables, chocolate or tobacco boxes, photographs, maps, newspapers and magazines, cigarette cards, posters, music sheets, postcards, silk bookmarks, tapestries, and of course books. To what extent did they contribute to further whetting the Victorian penchant for material culture? Through the questions it raises, this event is an opportunity to study society through the analysis of visual and tangible source material. What types of events (military conflicts, social gatherings…) during the middle period of British colonization were celebrated or commemorated with objects as souvenirs?

Theme 3. Empire in writing.

Literary constructs and Empire. The conference will also highlight the links between Empire and literature, the latter term to be understood in a wide sense, to counteract the trend where there has perhaps been an excessive concentration on canonical, famous and literary texts, when we can surely learn more by looking at popular, mass market works. Other literary forms too, however, have been extensively investigated in this context: including drama, travel writing, children’s literature, and newspapers [Howe 170].  For example, how did colonial literature frame young boys’ mind up to the point that they took colonial glory images with them to the Somme in 1916 [Fussel 135]?

Theme 4. Exhibiting Empire. Past and present

Displaying Empire at Home and Abroad. Other fields may be examined as well, such as the modes and methods of displaying Empire (museums, exhibitions, ethnic shows, cinema etc) as well as the various agents/agencies through which Empire spread, such as war and the army [Paris], heroes [Sebe], women, tourism and travelling in the Empire, life in the colonies, missionaries and religion, health, sport, art, etc. 

Theme 5. Empires in comparative perspective

            Trans-European perspectives on cultures of imperial display. The visual representation of imperial possessions was a widespread phenomenon shared all around Europe, especially as the ‘new Imperialism’ was reaching its climax and the greatness of a country was expected to translate into large expanses of the world painted in its national colours. Old colonial powers such as Spain or France, or recent ones such as Belgium, Germany and Italy, all took pride in celebrating their ‘achievements’ overseas, and a sustained comparative effort with Britain is necessary to understand not only the European colonial experience, but also the specificities of British imperial traditions. Drawing on recent historiographical experiments around the concepts of ‘inter-imperialism’ (Stephen Tuffnell), ‘imperial argument’ (Martin Thomas and Richard Toye) or ‘cosmopolitan approaches to Empire’ (Berny Sèbe), this theme explores how comparative or transnational approaches can be usefully applied to the realm of visual displays of empire.

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