Event Date: 25 November 2015
London SW1P 4RG
Artist and Empire: The Long Nineteenth Century
Gillian Forrester (Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Yale Center for British Art) – Noel B. Livingston’s Gallery of Illustrious Jamaicans
In this paper I will recuperate the project of the Livingston Album, arguing that it constitutes a significant endeavor to construct a portrait of post-emancipation colonial Jamaican society during a transitional period marked by social and political unrest and economic decline, between 1865, the year of the Morant Bay Rebellion, and 1901, the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Photography, and specifically portrait photography, played a significant, if hitherto unexplored, role in the social formation of Victorian Jamaica, enabling individuals to construct a sense of cohesion and collective memory, albeit fragile if not illusory, in the colony at a time of profound economic and social instability. Although sentimental relationships are embedded into the fabric of the album, the overarching organizational principle is that of class and occupation: we encounter clerics of various denominations, as well as army officers, civil servants, a newspaper proprietor, lawyers, merchants, missionaries, physicians, planters, and politicians, all male, the majority white but some brown, mostly Christian, but some Jewish, and just one black sitter. Occasionally wives, sisters, and children are included, but the central project of the album seems to be to construct a portrait of a homosocial social network, and the album serves to remind us of the possibility of constructing an alternate history of empire, one in which civil servants, solicitors, and clerks, constituted the category of “men of eminence.” I will suggest that there is a politics inherent in the act of compilation of what seems on first sight a collection of banal images of mainly forgotten individuals, constituting as it does an endeavor to normalize the life of a colony that had its foundations in slavery, institutionalized brutality, and trauma. Allan Trachtenberg has characterized Mathew Brady’s Gallery of Illustrious Americans as a “figurative domestic circle in which all are familiar and thereby familial,” and this conception also seems to lie at the heart of the project of the Livingston Album.
Whilst insisting on the local significance of the album, I will also situate it in a broader transnational framework, in relation to the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery in London as well as to the publications of portrait photographs that proliferated in Britain and North America in the late nineteenth century. I will also briefly discuss the Livingston Album in relation to two other photographic albums, which were assembled by Alexander Dudgeon Gulland and William Walker Whitehall Johnston, British army officers and amateur photographers stationed in Jamaica during the Morant Bay Rebellion, and acquired by the Firestone Library at Princeton University and the Beinecke Library in 2009 and 2011 respectively. Both albums, in particular Gulland’s, contain some of the most compelling known visual images relating to the traumatic events of 1865, but their inclusion of photographs relating to other colonial sites, including India, situates them as more generic imperial travelogues and underscores the distinctiveness of the Livingston Album as a specifically Jamaican project.