Why I like this Module: Victorian Art and the British Empire

LOUISE GREENHILL (second year student)

As part of the second year module ‘Victorian Art and the British Empire,’ taught by Dr Kate Nichols, we all visited the Ikon Gallery in Brindley Place to see their exhibition on Thomas Bock (ran from 6 December 2017 – 11 March 2018) as in Week 9 of the term we would present our research on this subject to small groups of visitors from the Ikon’s Legacy Group for adult learners. From the start the project promised to be interesting and of particular interest to me was the fact that Bock himself was a fellow Brummie!

Thomas Bock was an engraver who was deported to Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land, in 1823 where he became a convict artist. The focus of our study was on the detailed watercolour portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people that he produced, which are striking in their sympathetic and personal depictions of each individual.

One of the main themes of this module is the idea that studying imperial art should give a voice to the colonial subjects depicted and recognise the two-way exchange between both cultures, and this is what we tried to do in our research of Youth Sitting. There is some evidence, mainly facial features and the records of the group, to suggest that the subject of this portrait was actually a Hawaiian called John/Joseph/Mclain/Mclean who worked as a sailor and travelled from Hawaii to New York to Liverpool where he was arrested and sentenced to deportation to Tasmania, so he turned out to be a very interesting man to research.


Youth Sitting

Perhaps the most interesting part of this portrait is the fact that the subject is portrayed completely naked, unlike the portraits of the Aboriginal people who are often wearing intricate, detailed outfits. The oddly flat proportions of the torso and the way in which the head seems superimposed to the body led to the theory that “John” was originally sketched with clothes which were, in a sense, removed in the final version. Further evidence to point to this is a preliminary sketch made by Bock which shows “John” again but he is wearing trousers and in the top right-hand corner of the sketch two figures that are sitting in the same cross-legged pose as our subject, are clearly wearing European style shirts and trousers. His nakedness is intriguing because as someone who had travelled around the world and was technically an English convict he surely would have worn English clothes as shown in the sketch. So why did Bock make this artistic decision? Perhaps he wanted to depict the group as similar, he also put a traditional Aboriginal spear into the portrait. Perhaps Bock himself, as a white European man, did not differentiate between different ethnicities. We even wondered if “John” himself wanted to be shown as similar to the Aboriginal people so that he could make a fresh start in Tasmania after his arrest. These are all just theories and there is no conclusive proof either way but the project raised many important questions about the importance of dress in imperial portraiture, the accuracy of portraits and the conflicting intentions of both artist and sitter. Thinking through all these issues and more besides made ‘Victorian Art and the British Empire’ a very interesting module indeed!!






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