Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 14, 2020
Douglas Fordham Aquatint Worlds: Travel, Print, and Empire, 1770–1820 New Haven, CT and London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2019. 328 pp.; 215 ills. Cloth $60.00 (9781913107048)

In Aquatint Worlds, Douglas Fordham argues that the medium of aquatint, a type of tonal printmaking, unified an aesthetic for picturing travel, in particular the architecture, peoples, and landscapes that came into view with the expansion of the British empire. This is a global and material history and a critical intervention in the history of print. From William Ivins’s description of engraved lines as a “net of rationality” to John Berger’s contemplation of “ways of seeing” art through reproduction, theorists have argued that technologies of print condition the reception of images. Fordham posits that aquatint was one such “worldmaking” mode, which trained Europeans in conceptualizing difference during a short but intense period at the turn of the nineteenth century, the “age of aquatint” (5).

Aquatint is a method of adding tonal contrast to an etched plate. With additional washes of hand coloring, it translated the popular aesthetic of watercolor into a reproducible format. Though aquatints could be printed individually, publishers identified the medium as ideal for documenting foreign lands in illustrated books for a commercial audience, causing images to dominate. Fordham argues that they “generated visual meanings” in circumstances where there were no “clear textual authorities,” drawing together an ostensibly “scientific” and objective “visual inquiry” with a subjective one based on a “powerful aesthetic affect” (6–8). In this mode, the imagination met the eyewitness account to constitute “the world as representation” (6).

Artists manipulated aquatint’s affinities to watercolor and the Picturesque to render unfamiliar, distant views of exploration, trade, and conquest in a familiar, intimate mode, making diverse views legible to a metropolitan audience. Aquatint books enabled armchair travelers to immerse themselves in other cultures while also remaining “studiously detached from the scene unfolding before” them (212). This aloof visualization of travel entwined with empire-building, which had virulent repercussions in the development of racial and ethnic stereotypes even as it appeared to broaden knowledge of the world. At once a means of ascertaining places and peoples, aquatint also worked to constitute the British subject through its visualization of difference.

Fordham draws attention to both the sensory pleasures of aquatint books and the insidious system of classifying cultures they could disseminate, and this layered analysis of artistic, commercial, and colonial aims makes the book rich with insight. Structured in six chapters, it begins with the processes of aquatint printing before delving into three distinct books about India, China, and South Africa and their authors. Fordham recovers the biographies of these traveling “artist-etcher-publishers” (162) who promoted the medium and identifies Indigenous artists, amateur women artists, and publishers in Britain with whom they engaged. He concludes with a meditation on how aquatint travel books created a worldview, in turn shaping Britons’ conception of themselves.

Specifically, chapter 1 explores the aquatint technology, which enabled more convincing reproductions of watercolors made popular by artists and soldiers trained in surveillance. Aquatint and watercolor highlighted perception—the tactile as well as the visual—in artists’ attention to nature and its atmospheric effects, its organization in a Picturesque style, and the topographic, ostensibly factual transcription of a view. If “inquiry and affect” met in what Fordham terms this “haptic picturesque,” then they were realized at home and abroad, at leisure and in conquest, with aquatint becoming the ideal medium for “globe-trotting artists and book publishers” (56). Next Fordham turns to such globetrotters to explore their ingenuity as independent rather than state agents, even if they leaned on British military and trading networks. That they formed a loose network is one of the fascinating threads that binds the artists as well as the chapters together: Thomas and William Daniell popularized aquatint for travel books in India (chapter 2); they intersected with the draftsman William Alexander in China (chapter 3); and Samuel Daniell, another member of the family, centers chapter 4, on South Africa.

Fordham establishes Thomas and William Daniell as leading aquatint innovators who bridged the aesthetic of the Picturesque refined in British landscape painting with architectural sites abroad. Their six volumes of hand-colored aquatints, Oriental Scenery (1795–1808), relied on compositional structures familiar from Claude Lorrain, among others, while introducing the specificities of Indian architecture on antiquarian and topographic lines. However, Fordham argues, the Daniells also normalized the colonial reality of the British in India. They introduced Indian architecture as of the past, from ancient Hindu temples to early modern Mughal tombs, rarely addressing contemporary scenes of conquest. While this laid the groundwork for British histories of Indian architecture, they nevertheless represented India’s varied sites as part of a recognizable, uncontested, antique land “through the medium of aquatint” (65). Yet a critical disruption, Fordham writes, tested the “interpretive limits” of the Daniells’ project and allows for mitigating against the male British protagonists who center the history (60): after the death of fellow artist James Wales, the Daniells adapted his drawings—and those of the Indian artist Gangaram Tambat, whom he employed—of rock-carved temples in western India and published them in Oriental Scenery. Entwining Indian and British perspectives and hewing closer to the sublime than the Picturesque, this volume confounded the Daniells’ overarching aesthetic.

Fordham turns in chapter 3 to Chinese costume in William Alexander’s Costume of China (1797–1805). Alexander was one of the draftsmen who accompanied Lord Macartney’s embassy to China in the 1790s, but rather than documenting British negotiations with the Qianlong emperor for an advantageous trading agreement or other courtly views, he focused on quotidian scenes of people and their dress, expanding the geographic and typological scope of the European costume book. Positioned between news and entertainment, politics and fashion, The Costume of China documented Chinese culture through the varied social statuses, employments, gender roles, and mercantile opportunities identified through people’s dress. The ability to open such a book and observe others established a subjectivity allowing the British to “roam the world directing an attentive, and even intrusive, gaze anywhere they liked without consequence” (153). The Costume of China and books about other countries’ costumes thus cemented an aquatint mode even as other print types, especially graphic satire, and paintings produced by the Chinese artist workshop Pu-Qua mocked too pat a version of any view.

Building from landscape to costume to the “complex relation of humans to one another and their environment” (165), Fordham turns next to Samuel Daniell’s African Scenery and Animals (1804–5) and its insidious ascriptions of difference. Daniell focused not on the landscape of Cape Town but on South African animals and peoples in the eastern “frontier.” Yet he rendered the communities he encountered pristine—including the Khoekhoe, Xhosa, San, and Tswana, then little known to Europeans—as if they were in a Rousseauian “natural” state of “freedom,” untouched by violence and colonialism (166, 188). Such a “natural” state, of course, was a brutal fiction, which Fordham highlights through the different lives of two women: Lady Anne Barnard, an amateur artist in Cape Town with her husband, a high-ranking colonial official, and Sara Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman infamously exhibited by Europeans as the “Hottentot Venus” (203). Barnard was both a rival and patron of Samuel Daniell, though she was constrained by her gender and class from adequately publishing her work or traveling to extend it. Yet her drawings serve as a foil to Daniell’s in their acknowledgment of the “ethnic and racial hybridity” of African communities even as she participated in their displacement and enslavement (191–94). While Baartman was not explicitly part of Daniell’s or Barnard’s works, Fordham includes the history of her sexual and racial objectification in exhibitions and graphic satires in London to situate African Scenery and Animals and to glean, if at all possible, the agency of those portrayed.

These case studies form idiosyncratic microhistories of artist-etcher-publishers and their subjects, whereas the final two chapters draw them together to ask what the aquatint travel book indicates in sum. This extension is possible because of John Roland Abbey’s collection, now at the Yale Center for British Art, which Fordham plumbed both to assess broad publication trends in the period and to select the main books for his study. Significantly, he identifies the aquatint travel book as having been a global phenomenon since its origin: from the 1770s to the 1790s, aquatint books about Europe and about travel abroad were published in the same numbers, with about a quarter made by the military. By 1800, the number about places outside of Europe had doubled (34), and by the 1820s the travel book had changed to a smaller, more inexpensive format, which would further shift the market (220–21).

With this data in hand, Fordham stresses the process by which the aquatint travel book became a way of seeing, a mode that was commercial and spectacular and rested on the articulation of difference. In this, Aquatint Worlds is in conversation with other important works on the history of print, stereotype, and the imperial Picturesque, such as by Marshall McLuhan (1962), David Bindman (2002) and Romita Ray (2013). Fordham adds a critical and engaging new dimension to this literature; he draws the role of aquatint into the history of print and links it to the aesthetics of travel, empire, and difference as well as the British conception of self at the turn of the nineteenth century. For these aquatints were not simply “guiltless spoliations,” as the Daniells called them, that “transport[ed] to Europe the picturesque beauties of those favored regions” (262). Rather, as Fordham insightfully argues, the medium stimulated a method of viewing that shaped perceivers’ conception of the world and could result in tragic consequences for those perceived. This book powerfully reveals these processes—from the technical to the biographical, stereotypical, and satirical—so that we may be seduced by aquatint but also fundamentally aware and wary of its aesthetic.

Holly Shaffer
Brown University