UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Filth, ruin, and the colonial picturesque : James Baillie Fraser's representations of Calcutta and the Black Hole monument Sciampacone, Amanda Christina Hui


In the early nineteenth century, British consumers increasingly demanded representations of foreign areas newly opened up by British imperial expansion. This thesis considers a series of twenty-four aquatints by British artist James Baillie Fraser, published between 1824 and 1826 as Views of Calcutta and its Environs. Fraser’s images at first glance appear to support the views held by European medical men and tourists of the period, who represented Calcutta as a city built in a pestilential environment, and divided between a seemingly tainted, Bengali “black town” and a pristine, European “white town.” The white town was framed as a city of orderly neoclassical palaces, wide boulevards, and salubrious squares, whereas the black town was marked out as a chaotic space of disease and filth. By marshalling the tropes of the picturesque, an aesthetic mode that had long been associated with landscape and travel, and by advertising the series as following in the tradition of earlier representations of India ––– such as the late eighteenth-century prints of Thomas and William Daniell that celebrated Britain’s success in bringing progress and civilization to Bengal ––– Fraser’s Views of Calcutta offered viewers important vistas that marked Britain’s presence in the city. However, while much of the scholarship has interpreted Fraser’s images as seamless depictions of British hegemony, these readings obscure the slippages, tensions, and ambiguities that take form in his prints. My thesis focuses on four of Fraser’s aquatints that picture key sites in Calcutta, including the British buildings in Tank Square, the monument to the Black Hole incident, the Hindu temple known as the “Black Pagoda,” and the native bazaar on Chitpore Road. I argue that rather than portraying British hegemony and a clear division between the white and black towns of Calcutta, Fraser’s images distinguish themselves from earlier representations by paradoxically revealing the fluidity of these boundaries. As a result, Fraser’s collection registers the tenuousness of British power over the perceived dangers of both the tropical environment and the native population, while also asserting the need to constantly maintain sanitary order by removing what was perceived as matter out of place.

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