Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Expansion of England? Rethinking Scotland's Place in the Architectural History of the Wider British World

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Expansion of England? Rethinking Scotland's Place in the Architectural History of the Wider British World

Article excerpt

The principal title of this essay may be taken as a conceit. But it highlights a basic misconstruction that has plagued the political understanding of the British Isles for centuries. It comes from J. R. Seeley's popular account of the British Empire published in the early 1880s, entitled precisely that, The Expansion of England.1 Although Seeley refers to 'England' throughout the book, it is clear he is describing what had become by 1707 the nation state of Britain, or more precisely Great Britain (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after 1801). This constant if not stubborn reference to England by Seeley would seem all the more peculiar given that the critical moments of success for the empire in his account are seen to begin with the eighteenth century. Why he refers to England alone is not clear. It might be that he viewed 'the empire' as originally, and thus ultimately, an English invention; or simply that the idea of 'England' (and its compound referents) was taken for granted as signifying Britain in the minds of his contemporaries.2 Consequently, to the modern reader, there remains a fundamental confusion at the heart of the book's narrative when, in a single sentence, Seeley can talk of England and then 'Greater Britain' without qualification, as if his readers were naturally capable of making this conceptual leap.

Seeley was of course not the only one to conflate England with the idea of Britain, or to lump the Scots and the Welsh, let alone the Irish, in with the idea of Englishness.3 After all, one of the proudest and most famous Scots of all, David Livingstone, was prone to calling himself an Englishman when it suited.4 Indeed, as the title of Seeley's book suggests, it was not so long ago that the term 'England' was effectively a synecdoche for Britain in much historical writing, and, for those who travel abroad regularly, 'the English' is a phrase one commonly hears with reference to people from the British Isles, whether they be Scottish, Welsh, or in fact English.5 I am none of these, I should confess-although I have comparatively ancient Scottish ancestry. As an Australian living in Edinburgh, when abroad I am often described as being 'from England', and sometimes even presented as 'English'! Despite all the efforts of 'New British' and 'four nations' history in recent decades, much confusion still prevails.

There is a serious historiographic point to this, which I wish to explore here. It refers to the idea of British imperialism, and, more specifically, revolves around the question of what it actually means to speak of a 'British' empire. Consequently, and by extension, it concerns what it means to use a term such as 'British architecture'. I have written elsewhere on what I think such a term ought to encompass, grounding my observations in J. G. A. Pocock's conclusions regarding the idea of British history.6 But I want to unpack this some more by suggesting that such an idea, while remaining coherent, would benefit from further disaggregation if we are to understand properly how the various nations, cultures, and ethnicities of 'Britain' made identifiable, and in some cases unique, contributions to the built environment throughout the wider British world. In this respect 'Britishness', as will be argued here, must be understood as neither an entirely disaggregated nor wholly coherent phenomenon, but more as a series of interrelationships.

I raise this matter because all too often I see reference made to 'British imperial' or 'British colonial' architecture without adequate qualification.7 In common parlance such terms do of course have a certain efficacy, but they have also become shorthand for any kind of architecture-particularly state-sponsored architecture-that was produced under the auspices of British colonial expansion and rule. This has led over the years to such architecture being seen as representing an undifferentiated cultural and political homogenate (i.e. 'Britain', and more generally 'the West'), leaving it somewhat vulnerable to the critical operations of postcolonial theory, which seeks to deconstruct it on account of its apparent discursive consistency with respect to political, economic, and cultural subjugation. …

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