Colonial Nostalgia and the Picturesque:
George Robertson's Views of the Island of Jamaica

While sugar underwrote the Jamaican economy, artist George Robertson avoided all but a distant view of a plantation in order to make the Jamaican landscape a suitable subject for high art. The artist drew on European landscape conventions such as framing side-screens; alternating planes of light and shadow; and winding roads and rivers, designed to draw the viewer's eye into the center of the compositions.

These are the most aesthetically ambitious views of Jamaica published in the eighteenth century. The engravings (four from a set of six) are based on paintings by Robertson, who was brought to Jamaica by William Beckford of Somerley. Beckford was a planter who hoped to use Robertson's views in his history of Jamaica, but he ended up in debt and in prison, and published his book without illustrations.


The Plantation as Artful View
George Robertson, "A View in the island of Jamaica, of the Spring-head of Roaring River on the estate of William Beckford Esqr.," engraving. London, 1778.

Framing trees, a road and river winding into a bright distance ornamented by billowing clouds, small figures called "staffage": all of these elements from European landscape painting are used to aestheticize this view of the grounds of a sugar plantation owned by the artist's patron. There are slaves in this scene, but they are driving cattle and selling fruit, not cultivating sugar. In the foreground a woman, coded by her dress and skin tone as mixed race, buys produce from a kneeling slave. This vignette echoes an imperial motif, often used in book illustrations, in which kneeling figures personifying the continents offer up gifts to Britannia.


Banishing Labor to the Shadows
George Robertson, "A View in the island of Jamaica, of Roaring River Estate, belonging to William Beckford Esqr: near Savannah la Marr," engraving. London, 1778.

This idealized view of William Beckford of Somerley's plantation is the only one in the set that depicts buildings involved in sugar production. The roofs of the mill and other structures are nestled picturesquely below the mountains; the smoke breaking the horizon serves as the most visually striking sign of human activity. Slaves ornament the view, but the only labor actually pictured takes place in the shadows on the left: here a slave is bent over carrying a large bundle of cane. This figure echoes those of English rustics carrying wood that populate the works of artists like Thomas Gainsborough. Here and throughout the series, the artist works to make Jamaica beautiful and somewhat exotic, but also familiar.


Claude Goes to Jamaica
George Robertson, "A View in the island of Jamaica, of the bridge crossing the Cabaritta River, on the estate of William Beckford Esqr.," engraving. London, 1778.

The motif of the "bridge in the middle distance" was made famous by French seventeenth-century painter Claude Lorrain in his many idealized scenes of Italy, and it was often copied by later European artists. Here Robertson uses this device to associate this Jamaican scene with some of the most highly regarded landscapes in the canon of art. The figures provide a pleasing point of interest in the foreground (but laundering bed sheets in what appears to be a fast moving river, then hauling them out to dry, would be no small task).


Domesticating the Tropics
George Robertson, "A View in the island of Jamaica, of part of the River Cobre near Spanish Town," engraving. London, 1778.

At first glance this looks like a picturesque view of England's Peak District, with its swelling hills and winding rivers. The artist has offered up a scene that is both familiar and exotic: there are palm trees on the densely-wooded hillside, but they are not calculated to stand out as icons of tropicality. As in Dutch and English landscapes, small figures are seen on a winding road. European rustics morph into slaves that seem to have no masters and never venture near a cane field.


Colonial Nostalgia and the Picturesque:
G. W. C. Voorduin’s Views of the Dutch Colonies in South America and the West Indies

These colored lithographs were based on watercolors by a Dutch naval lieutenant just before slavery ended in the Dutch colonies. They draw on the conventions of Dutch river views and marine painting as well as on the aesthetics of the picturesque. The seventeenth century was seen as the golden age of Dutch painting and the golden age of the Dutch empire in the Americas. These lithographs call up both—especially those that adopt the commanding viewpoint of the shore taken from the water.


The Touristic Gaze
“Gezigten op plantaadjen aan de Riviere de Suriname,” colored lithograph.  In G. W. C. Voorduin, Gezigten uit Neerland's West-Indien, naar de natuur geteekend.  Amsterdam, 1860-62.
Jaglust was a coffee plantation and Suzanna’s Daal a sugar plantation that were located on the Suriname River. The image renders the two plantations as tourist sites viewed from a passing riverboat. The text offers details about the sugar mills and the process for making sugar, noting that most of the ninety sugar mills are steam powered. The image however, offers few hints about the activities taking place in the buildings onshore, except for the smoke stack that likely marks the boiling house.

Plantation Discipline vs. Artful Irregularity
“Een Plantaadje slavenkamp,” colored lithograph.  In G. W. C. Voorduin, Gezigten uit Neerland's West-Indien, naar de natuur geteekend.Amsterdam, 1860-62.

In this view of a slave village in Suriname, the artist strives to accommodate opposing organizing principals: 1) Regimentation—seen in the regularized placement of the huts along a central axis, which displays good plantation management. 2) Picturesque variety and irregularity—achieved through the use of dappled shadow, the placement of trees to break the horizon line, and the figures. Pictured with un-modulated black skin and bright clothing, the slaves add “local color” to the scene. In nineteenth-century Europe black skin was often deemed aesthetically inferior to white, but that didn’t prevent black slaves from becoming picturesque.


The Elegiac Cane
“Saba,” colored lithograph.In G. W. C. Voorduin, Gezigten uit Neerland's West-Indien, naar de natuur geteekend.  Amsterdam, 1860-62.

This elegiac image of the small volcanic island of Saba is the final plate in this lithographic set.  Voorduin’s text stresses the Edenic nature of this island, with its mild climate, fertile valley, and relatively bloodless history. In the lithograph, the island seems to float on the placid sea. Delicately tinted in pinks, blues, and greens, the scene seems more visionary than topographic.  An uprooted sugarcane plant floats in the foreground, evoking, perhaps, the general collapse of the sugar and slave economy in the Dutch colonies.


Exhibition may be seen in Reading Room from SEPTEMBER 2013 through december 2013.

K. Dian Kriz (Professor Emerita of History of Art and Architecture, Brown University), guest curator, with assistance from Susan Danforth (Curator of Maps and Prints); Elena Daniele (JCB Stuart Fellow 2012-13), curatorial assistant.