William Hodges' panoramic view of Matavai Bay, Tahiti, with Point Venus and Mount Orofena

A global gaze: British artists, landscape spaces, and the wider world in the late 18th century

Dr John McAleer explores how both British, and non-European, professional and amateur artists engaged with the British Empire via the medium of landscape art.

For Edmund Burke and his contemporaries in London, the second half of the 18th century was a time when ‘the great map of mankind’ unrolled before their eyes.[1] Britain’s trading networks grew, its empire expanded, and knowledge of other people and places increased. In short, Britain’s connections with the wider world became ever-more evident and increasingly important. This engagement with the rest of the world was filtered, partially at least, through the medium of landscape. British artists recorded and depicted all kinds of spaces and places around the globe. 

The ships of the East India Company introduced amateur and professional artists alike to the landscapes of India and China, as well as a variety of places on the maritime route to Asia. Voyages of scientific exploration, such as those to the Pacific led by James Cook in the 1770s, brought expedition artists into contact with the topographies of the tropics. And despite losing 13 colonies in North America, the depiction of landscape spaces in Canada and the Caribbean reflected themes of economic, historical and aesthetic importance to Britain. Many of these places, such as the islands of the Caribbean, lay within the formal boundaries of the British Empire. But many other landscapes, such as those in the Pacific and China, were never part of the formal Empire.

This article suggests how representations of landscape reflect Britain’s complex relationship with the wider world in the period: the depiction of economic and strategic interests; the recording of imperial expansion and resistance to it; exploration and encounter; and the translation of European aesthetic views to a variety of global contexts. 

Travelling artists

Professional artists travelled to far-flung corners of the expanding British Empire in the hope of making a lucrative living from the wealthy settlers and merchants with business concerns in these places. Their landscape depictions were often profoundly connected with the economic imperatives that drove British engagement with these regions. Recording scenes of plantation life and work required a careful balancing act between conveying the sense of an untouched pastoral idyll with an indication of the economic productivity of these places. 

Others made a living from travelling, such as those appointed as official expedition artists aboard the various voyages of scientific exploration that set off from Europe in the second half of the 18th century. Battling against unfamiliar climates, difficult travelling conditions, poor lighting, and lack of materials, these artists made hastily conceived sketches, jotting down the lie of the land, and the tones and effects of light and shade, with rapid pencil impressions and wash sketches. 

Despite the problems, these records were central to the work of exploration. The processes of seeing and recording landscapes in visual form were closely related to the scientific impulses underlying the expeditions. William Dampier’s voyage to New Holland (Australia) at the turn of the 18th century, for example, included ‘in the ship … a person skilled in drawing’.[2] George Anson’s highly successful account was similarly interleaved with ‘views of land, soundings, draughts of roads and ports, charts, and other materials for the improvement of geography and navigation’.[3]  

The artists who accompanied James Cook on his three voyages to the Pacific Ocean in the 1770s took these achievements to new heights, combining accuracy and truthfulness with a vibrant and dynamic aesthetic and artistic response to the Pacific. The Admiralty – the government department that sponsored the expeditions – instructed William Hodges, who went on Cook’s second voyage (1772–75), to make ‘drawings and paintings of such places in the countries you may touch at in the course of the said voyage as may be proper to give a more perfect idea thereof than can be formed from written descriptions only’.[4] His representations of the Pacific – primarily in the form of drawings, with some oil sketches – are vivid records of maritime exploration and the British engagement with the people and places of this ocean. 

View of Matavai Bay, Tahiti

View of Matavai Bay, Otaheite [Tahiti]; with Point Venus and One-Tree Hill, and Mount Orofena behind

Travelling the South Seas on Captain Cook's Second Voyage, William Hodges' drawings at the British Library record many exotic places like Tahiti, Tonga and Vanuatu.

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John Webber was similarly engaged on the third voyage (1776–80) ‘for the express purpose of supplying the unavoidable imperfections of written accounts, by enabling us to preserve, and to bring home, such drawings of the most memorable scenes of our transaction, as could be executed by a professed and skilled artist.[5]

Artists attached to official diplomatic missions were in a similar position. In an era of nascent globalisation, and as Europeans sought to develop commercial and political relationships with the rest of the world, the role of the diplomatic mission or ‘embassy’ was crucial. William Alexander was employed as the official artist on Lord Macartney’s embassy to China, which set off in 1792. Maritime views, coastal scenes and riverine depictions record the progress of the mission and the sheer visual variety and excitement for those embarked on it. Alexander’s skill as a landscape artist was also deployed to convey the visual interest of scenes on land. He used large blocks of wash in his view of the Great Wall of China, for example, to suggest the stone mass of the construction, while the mountainous landscape in the background is rendered in a more delicate mixture of hues.

Views of China by William Alexander

Watercolour of the Great Wall of China by William Alexander

William Alexander's drawings of China number in their hundreds; here are two examples from the King's Topographical Collection and the Asia, Pacific and Africa Department.

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Amateurs of landscape

Most representations of landscapes in the period were not made by professionals or expedition artists. A whole raft of amateurs – soldiers, sailors, merchants, colonial officials – made visual records of the places they came across. Some had basic training. Young midshipmen – the naval officers of the future – received instruction in making coastal profiles, for example, while the East India Company’s military officers were taught drawing at Addiscombe, the Company’s military college. But, although they worked without the extensive classical training or networks of patronage enjoyed by their professional peers, amateur artists played a crucial role in the British engagement with the wider world in the period and they have bequeathed an unrivalled archive of information about the places they encountered and their attitudes and responses to them.

A simple pen, ink and wash drawing by John McClean suggests some of the ways in which images by amateur artists might be interpreted.

Ruins of the citadel in Pondicherry after the attack by the British

Ruins of the citadel in Pondicherry after the attack by the British by Captain John McClean; Captain McClean draws the scene in the foreground

John McClean pictures Pondicherry in ruins a year after the Siege of 1760–61.

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McClean travelled to India in 1762 as an ensign in the Madras Engineers. In his drawing of the ruins of Pondicherry, McClean shows himself sketching in the foreground. This operates as a kind of visual shorthand, guaranteeing the truthfulness of the image by placing its creator in a prominent position. At first glance, then, this might appear to be a completely objective record. But McClean’s image might also have symbolic resonances: drawing or contemplating the ruins of fallen empires was an evocative theme in the 18th century, laden with ideas about the transience of life and the futility of human ambition. And the wider political context in which the image was produced is also important. Quite apart from any symbolism or artistic licence employed in its creation, the image records a key moment in the East India Company’s rise to power in India. Pondicherry was a French trading fort on the east coast that was captured by the British during the Seven Years War, a global struggle between the two emerging superpowers. After a blockade lasting some eight months, the French finally surrendered on 16 January 1761. McClean’s image captures the aftermath of the devastating siege.

Similar themes can be found in a watercolour painted nearly 40 years later by Captain John Johnston of the Bombay Engineers.

Waterfall near Haliyal

Waterfall near Haliyal with John Johnson sketching in the foreground; a leaf from Johnson's sketchbook

John Johnston kept a visual record of his Indian tour of duty in sketches and watercolour drawings.

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Held by© British Library

Like McClean, Johnson also represented himself in the foreground, suggesting his role as reliable eyewitness. This image was also made in the aftermath of a military victory, created shortly after the British had finally defeated Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore and one of the most tenacious opponents of British rule in the subcontinent. Unlike McClean’s depiction of rubble and ruins, however, there is little evidence of fighting here. The tree and waterfall suggest an idyllic contrast to war and destruction. And yet the visual charm of the image needs to be seen in the context of Johnson’s role as an engineer, charged with constructing the kinds of engineering projects and military surveillance that formed part of Johnson’s everyday work and helped to defeat Tipu. Aesthetic considerations and artistic composition undoubtedly played a role in creating these images but they sit side by side with the unfolding drama of the British rise to power in 18th-century India.

Alternative perspectives

How did non-European people engage with European travellers and their interest in land, space and place? Intriguingly, a number of depictions in the British Library collections offer insights into indigenous encounters with Europeans through the medium of landscape depiction.

The ‘Wellesley Album’ consists of seven groups of drawings (totalling 138) depicting monuments, manners and customs in India.[6] The drawings were probably made at the end of the 18th century for Richard Wellesley, the Governor General of Bengal and the highest-ranking British official in India. One of the artists was particularly inspired by William Hodges’s Select Views of India (1785–88), suggesting that Indian artists working in Calcutta were aware of the taste for particular ways of depicting and consuming landscape among British viewers. Hodges had travelled to India after returning from the Pacific with James Cook, and his work in the subcontinent was widely known and admired. One of the images is a loose interpretation of Hodges’ depiction of the ruins of the palace and mosque at ‘Futtypoor Sicri’, the royal city of Fatehpur Sikri south-west of Agra, which was published as Plate 11 in his Select Views.

The Jami Masjid and Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri

A View of the Ruins of part of the Palace and Mosque at Futty poor Sicri

William Hodges' aquatint series Select Views in India influenced British and Indian artists alike.

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While this Indian artist drew on European precedents, others offered an alternative to European models of perspective and pictorial composition. Tupaia, the Polynesian navigator who helped to guide James Cook and his crew around the South Pacific, was also interested in representing landscape. He may have been inspired by the official voyage artist aboard Cook’s Endeavour, Sydney Parkinson. But rather than following Parkinson’s visual language, Tupaia instead rendered the scene according to his own understanding of the relationship between land, sea and mankind. A view of Tahiti, probably done in early 1769, shows two war canoes, a sailing canoe and a long house, either side of which are pandanus, breadfruit, banana, coconut trees, and the taro plant.

Longhouse and Canoes in Tahiti

Polynesian longhouse in Tahiti with trees and plants; Tahitian canoes sailing in the foreground; by Tupai'a

In addition to map-making, Captain Cook's Raiatean navigator Tupaia produced drawings of the Society Islands such as this Tahitian scene.

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There is little attempt to convey perspective and Tupaia depicted both the plants above ground and their roots below suggesting that, for him, the entire plant is the ‘reality’. These examples demonstrate the ways in which the representation of landscape transcends the mere recording of territory. Instead, it offers an insight into the mechanics of exchange and encounter in the early modern globalised world.


As William Hodges prepared to travel to India, John McPherson described his mission as being ‘to bring … home upon paper … the most curious appearances of nature and art’.[7] This assessment could be applied to many of the artists – professional and amateur alike – who left Britain and encountered the world in the 18th century. Artists travelled within, for, and outside the Empire. Some went in search of wealth. Others embarked on voyages of scientific exploration. Many simply made visual records of the places they came across in the course of their working lives. In all of these cases, however, the medium of landscape played a key role in shaping their engagement with and experience of the wider world.


[1] Edmund Burke to Dr Robertson, 10 June 1777, in Charles William, Earl Fitzwilliam, and Sir Richard Bourke (eds), Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 4 vols (London: Francis and John Rivington, 1844), vol. 2, p. 163.

[2] William Dampier, A Voyage to New Holland (London: James Knapton, 1703), preface.

[3] Richard Walter, A Voyage round the World (London: John and Paul Knapton, 1748), p. ii.

[4] Quoted in Bernard Smith, ‘William Hodges and English Plein-air Painting’, Art History, 6 (1983), pp. 143–52 (p.145).

[5] James Cook and James King, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, 3 vols (London: Nicol and Cadell, 1784), vol. 1, p. 5.

[6] British Library, London, Add. Or. 1098–1235.

[7] British Library, Add. MS 29142, John McPherson to Warren Hastings, 31 December 1778, quoted in Finbarr Barry Flood, ‘Correct Delineations and Promiscuous Outlines: Envisioning India at the Trial of Warren Hastings ’, Art History, 29 (2006), pp. 47–78 (p.59).

  • John McAleer
  • Dr John McAleer is a lecturer in History at the University of Southampton.

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