Event Date: 25 November 2015
London SW1P 4RG
Artist and Empire: The Long Nineteenth Century
Temi Odumosu (Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at Copenhagen University) – This is how you see her? Rachel Pringle of Barbados by Thomas Rowlandson’s hand
In the absence of other evidence, Thomas Rowlandson’s large etching of the Barbadian tavern-keeper and property owner Rachel Pringle provides the only representation of her physical likeness. Etched during 1796 after a portrait by an anonymous artist, and published by William Holland in a portfolio of “West Indies Prints”, its figuring of Pringle as an obese and middle aged woman of colour, stoically seated in front of a tryst between a young creole woman and two English men, has come to define the way in which she has been understood and viewed. But why should we believe this imaging, particularly at the hands of a London caricaturist working for a subversive publisher? What kind of pressure has it exerted on the small but infamous archive of her life? And how has the portrait extended its affective reach beyond the few impressions taken from the original etched plate?
This paper will address these questions in an attempt to challenge our acceptance of the print as a “true” likeness, by probing the unsettling aesthetic values governing colonial image production at the end of the 18th century. It will explore scholarly suggestions that the additional figures in the portrait enact a biographical narrative, and suggest how this thesis might be extended to allegory if read using Rowlandson’s common language of parody and satire. Ultimately my aim is to show that although distorted recognition of African identities during this period was inevitable, those distortions and reactions to them across time, and in differing locations within the transatlantic contact zone, say much more about the ideological legacies of empire.