Aquatint Worlds: Travel, Print, and Empire, 1770–1820 by Douglas Fordham - review by John McAleer

John McAleer

Viewing India on Acid

Aquatint Worlds: Travel, Print, and Empire, 1770–1820


Yale University Press 328pp £45 order from our bookshop

Samuel Prout’s Rudiments of Landscape in Progressive Studies, first published in 1813, was effusive in praising the work of those ‘enlightened travellers and celebrated artists’ who brought views of distant places to the British public in the form of high-quality, visually alluring illustrated books of travel. As a result of their labours, Prout proclaimed, ‘we can sit and securely traverse the extensive regions of the East, without quitting the elbow-chair’. And these books were not just confined to Asian subject matters. A few years earlier, in 1808, a reviewer in The Literary Panorama similarly lauded Samuel Daniell’s African Scenery and Animals ‘for bringing all the world home to our houses’.

For the artists Thomas and William Daniell, Samuel’s uncle and brother respectively, the aquatints they produced were ‘guiltless spoliations’ that served to convey ‘the picturesque beauties’ of the Indian subcontinent to readers and viewers in Europe. Decades of postcolonial critique and much insightful research have complicated this rather complacent assertion. Scholars across a range of disciplines now recognise the connection between travel and travel writing on the one hand and forms of imperial power and control on the other. Historians and art historians of travel, exploration and empire will be indebted to Douglas Fordham’s excellent new book for foregrounding the crucial role played by visual images – and aquatints in particular – in presenting European engagement with the wider world to audiences at home in the period it covers.

A pictorial form that evoked tone and colour much more successfully than other methods of printmaking, the aquatint provided a watercolour aesthetic. Aquatints were made by using resin and acid to create tiny channels in a metal plate, which was subsequently inked and passed through a printing press. By varying

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