Introducing Dr Sean Willcock

Dr Sean Willcock's interests span art, photography and print culture in the long nineteenth century, with a particular focus on the visual legacies of the British Empire. His first monograph, Victorian Visions of War and Peace: Aesthetics, Sovereignty and Violence in the British Empire, c. 1851-1900 (Yale University Press / Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art) is published December 2021. 

Tell us about your research. 

My research spans art, photography and print culture in the long nineteenth century, with a particular focus on how such visual material has defined the experience and memory of violence. I’ve recently finished a book about how the arrival of photography and the rise of the illustrated press in the Victorian era shaped British perceptions of their empire and the frequent wars that were needed to sustain it. I’m interested in how new visual technologies were implicated in broader shifts in cultural sensibilities regarding the picturing and witnessing of violence. 

Can you explain the shift in public and political discourse that accompanied the rise of photography and 19th-century mass media? 

Let’s take the period immediately following one of the defining moments of the Victorian era, the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was staged at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park and was heralded by some as a ‘Temple of Peace’. Its celebration of trade and artistic interchange was supposed to usher in a new age in which violent international competition was no longer necessary. However, this geopolitical utopianism was difficult to sustain in the coming decade, which saw Britain at war everywhere from Crimea to China.  

These conflicts were given unprecedented visual coverage. The coterminous rise of the popular illustrated press and photographic technologies was part of a broader revolution in communications, from telegraphy to railways and steamship transportation. New forms of violent imagery quickly became entrenched in British culture. Photographers operating in warzones and war artists working ‘on the spot’ fed a growing public appetite for images of global conflict. Publications like the Illustrated London News and The Graphic catered to what Rudyard Kipling would go on to describe in his 1890 story The Light That Failed as ‘the blind, brutal, British public’s bestial thirst for blood.’  

Illustrated journalism was to modern society what gladiatorial combat had been to the ancient world: ‘They have no arenas now’, Kipling wrote, ‘but they must have special correspondents.’ To later Victorian generations accustomed to consuming images of incessant colonial wars, the grand claims which the Great Exhibition had made for ‘the arts of peace’ in 1851 seemed like a quaint relic of an innocent time.  

In your academic profile, you mention ‘the wide-ranging traffic that developed between art and violence during the Victorian era’. Can you explain, perhaps giving examples? 

There was a shift in British taste surrounding the artistic representation of violence in this period. In 1861, William Michael Rossetti could still make the claim that, due to their apparently superior moral sensibility (compared to, say, those bloodthirsty French), British painters ‘have never fully grappled with military art, they have only hovered around the edges’. Soon afterwards, however, there was a radical expansion of the market for just this sort of painting. Why? It’s partly to do with the increasing visibility of warfare in the illustrated weeklies and the growing enthusiasm of the middle classes for the army, as demonstrated by the Volunteer Movement established in 1859.  

Such things paved the way for the newfound prominence of military subjects at respectable institutions like the Royal Academy. The popularisation of military art was spearheaded by the work of Elizabeth Butler, whose breakthrough piece, The Roll Call (1874), struck a sombre and humanitarian tone. But the genre was increasingly dominated by the more triumphal compositions of the male military painters who followed in Butler’s wake. These pictures owed more to the style of the pictorial press, and in figures like Richard Caton Woodville, who worked as an engraver for the Illustrated London News, the press artist and the battle painter were one and the same. So, when it comes to colonial war, we see a traffic emerge between different forms of imagery: the visual ephemera of the press; new forms of photographic media; and the more traditional realms of the fine arts.  

Is it the case that the Victorians were influenced by mass media in ways that today’s citizens might find familiar? Who stood to gain back then? 

There are parallels. The increasing presence of visual technologies like the camera in warzones and at diplomatic summits was beginning to create a pressure for certain modes of behaviour to be displayed. There are numerous examples of people staging violence for the camera or posing in dangerous situations in the middle of battle so that an artist could make a sketch.  

We can see a feedback loop developing between visual media and Victorian experience in a manner that anticipates the way that, today, our world is defined not only by the passive consumption of images but by the active production of them. Making images isn’t something that happens separately from events; it is a practice that is increasingly embedded in the event itself, shaping its contours and informing its outcomes.  

As for who benefitted, for the most part it was the colonial state. Artists and photographers were on friendly terms with the military in this period and generally produced reports that valorised an imperial ideal of bravery and derring-do. But violence was a thorny subject nonetheless, particularly when represented through photography, and in my book I also explore those rare but significant moments when photographs of military violence ended up raising troubling ethical and political issues for the British authorities. 

What are your plans for the Department's courses and programmes in history of art for the year ahead? 

I’m going to be working with the new Director of Studies, Leah Clark, to develop the history of art curriculum in various ways. For example, there is currently very little on photography in our programmes. As a historian of photography, this is one of the key things I’d like to incorporate into our courses.  

I also see significant overlap between my area of research and that of other academic staff here, and I hope this will make for some fruitful interdisciplinary collaborations, particularly around the history of British colonialism in India. 

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Published 15 November 2021