Interdisciplinary History – Visual Cultures and Constitutional Developments in 18th-century Britain

The following considerations will be discussed at the seminar on “interdisciplinary history”, chaired by Dr. Paul Kerry and Prof. Ludmilla Jordanova at Pembroke College, Oxford, on 16 April 2015:

“In the age of unwritten constitutions and developing nation states, complex networks of media were particularly vital to the formation of solid political entities. Every period of political change in Britain and the colonies seems to have coincided with a serious shift in the contemporary evaluation of specific media, and this crisis-related media criticism reveals fundamental perceptions of the early modern constitutional framework. As an example thereof, my workshop paper will give insight into the long-term development of 18th century political imagery and according concepts of leadership and good governance.
In the first half of the 18th century, the liberation of printing regulations and the intense interaction of courtly art policy and (Jacobite) counter-visualisation paved the way for further controversies over elite portraiture and depictions of state violence. On the one hand, visual representations of rebels or rulers remained a well-proven ingredient of ritually staged protest (e.g. mock processions, Pope Burnings, oppositional balls and dinners). On the other hand, 18th century visual culture began to absorb and to replace actual enactments of violence or iconoclasm by imagined violence within works of art.
While representations of real-life punishments and executions became more formalised and reserved, gory violence was frequently displayed in political caricatures. Beheaded rebel leaders were resurrected as “ghosts on pilgrimage” in illustrated broadsides, and in the 1770s and 1780s, the fictitious hanging of royal ministers was a popular element in British graphic satire. In reaction to the “massacre” of French king Louis XVI, however, printmakers and recipients approached such imagery more critically. In part, the 1790s saw a visual revival of monarchical displays of splendour and aristocratic heroism.

massacre of french king CUT
Although republican movements both in Britain, continental Europe and America had erected liberty trees as symbols of a new order, the need for formidable leaders and their observable presence continued even after the American independence. Late 18th century political theorists were well aware that many citizens might neither understand nor appreciate an impersonal, abstract constitution represented by several exchangeable delegates instead of one identifiable monarch. And as political space expanded and political agency multiplied, Enlightenment society was on the verge of disintegration. In the newly established United States, lavish feasts and art production in honour of George Washington contrasted sharply with the glorification of the common, unrewarded soldier. Within the British Isles, opposition leaders from John Wilkes to Charles James Fox likewise struggled for revised yet startling modes of self-representation.
Frequent experiences of dissent and inequality eventually called for communicational integration of opposition. 18th century crises were thus not only destructive to material culture or marked by human tragedy and bloodshed, but often highly constructive in regard to non-violent conflict culture and consensual identity. Bearing this two-fold outcome of the age of revolutions in mind, I would like to draw attention to the complexity of the modern state, which imposed augmenting requirements on the individual state resident. As education and personal compliance became an ever more indispensable foundation of active citizenship, post-18th century societies experienced unprecedented vulnerability whenever individuals were not permitted or able to keep abreast. Until today, constitutionalism has in fact remained work in progress and will continuously require collective realisation through dialogue-oriented political communication.”


Monika Barget

Since September 2013, I have been a member of the international research group "Revolts as Communicative Events" based at the University of Konstanz, Germany. My research interests include early modern constitutional history and political iconography.

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