Magazine article Humanities

CHRONICLING an EMPIRE: PAINTINGS by VICTORIAN TRAVELERS

Magazine article Humanities

CHRONICLING an EMPIRE: PAINTINGS by VICTORIAN TRAVELERS

Article excerpt

VICTORIAN WOMEN WHO TRAVELED ABROAD ENCOUNTERED experiences they would never have imagined back home in their English parlors.

The copious watercolor sketches and writings produced during their travels reflect an immediacy that came with new daily life experiences and unanticipated adventures. Most who went abroad came from the upper classes, and many were amateur artists-although amateurs with strong artistic training and interest in their new surroundings.

From the early nineteenth century, watercolor and British artistic identity were inextricably intertwined. A stepchild to oil painting, watercolor nevertheless gained so many adherents that it warranted the founding in 1804 of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours. The evolution of watercolor in Britain presents close parallels to the advancing status of the women artists themselves, who were taught watercolor as a less serious medium for "lovely countrywomen."

Watercolor pigments and brushes were lightweight and portable. The ease of using this medium enabled artists to capture fleeting images of people, places, flora, and fauna. The transparency and luminosity of the medium particularly lent itself to the depiction of landscapes-subject matter in which women received tutoring and which they pursued extensively.

Travel provided Victorian women who lived within closely prescribed cultural and social constraints with new situations that challenged them. While this may have been "liberating" and a "release to experience enjoyment and to enrich themselves spiritually and mentally," the physical discomforts were considerable.

From 1837 to 1838, Frances H. (Fanny) Eden and her sister Emily accompanied their brother, George, then Governor General of India, through India, where she produced four sketch albums. She wrote to her friend Eleanor Grosvenor in England, earnestly asking "do you think I shall get safely back again? I have my doubts because the wild beasts in this country are real wild beasts, who will not listen to reason."

Eden conveys the feeling of living in a tent as part of a caravan on a rainy day with the "roof wet above & the floor wet below, the servants wet & miserable, the camels slipping & falling with their loads, the carts sticking in the mud with them."

Far from shying away from potential obstacles, Eden seems to have accepted the physical challenges. She describes setting off with an elephant and guide one afternoon to get to the top of a rock, but "the path was so steep . . . neither elephants nor bearers could get on, so I continued to walk up the rest of the road, taking a large escort with me for fear of a strong tiger & the view was beautiful (see my large sketch book)."

Life overseas also took a toll on one's mental state. Women artists often found themselves in situations far from family, friends, and familiar sights. Eden, for instance, complained of boredom with the limited social scene in Calcutta, and Charlotte Canning wrote that "my personal life is absolutely uneventful. Putting dimity in a drawing-room, or a new mat, is about the principal event I can look forward to."

Canning had moved to Calcutta with her husband, Charles Canning, who was appointed to the post of governor general of India in 1856. While there, she produced albums full of watercolor sketches depicting her surroundings. Her painting of her sitting room at Government House in Barrackpore provides hints about her life. Bright green shutters barely keep out the overwhelming Indian sunlight that suffuses the room, highlighting the numerous overstaffed chairs arranged in strategic groupings. Canning's personal space seems to be confined to the far right, where a large wood desk, bookshelves, and a small easel nestle quietly between two oversize European portraits.

Sketching their surroundings allowed women to set in motion the cognitive process of "I was here," "I encountered this," and "this is how I can best convey this unfamiliar experience to you. …

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