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Visual Framing and Reversible Social Hierarchies

Exploring specific codes of visual language and the development of visual literacy within imperial contexts defines current understandings and new perspectives on the history of the British Empire. The visual as a tool of expression and re-presentation remains central to open-ended and objective critiques of colonial gender, racial, and social politics. Interpreting an image, whether a photograph, a still frame from a film, or a painting, almost always relies on two key preliminary conditions: the viewer’s cultural and visual literacy (i.e. how and what they have already learnt to identify in an image as specific to a cultural dynamic) and the visual syntax of the image itself. From this perspective, using visual research methods to reinterpret particular historical events or cultural hierarchies specific to British imperial contexts proves sometimes to be a perplexing exercise, especially when historians apply a procrustean theoretical framework. For instance, interpretative uniformity of visual syntax applied to two similarly framed images can often invalidate established knowledge of imperial racial and social hierarchies.

The two images discussed in this section are visually structured on an identical foreground-versus-background narrative. In the first image (see Figure 2.1), we see representatives of the United Grand Lodge of England Deputation during their visit to Calcutta (Kolkata) in December 1927/ January 1928. Lord Cornwallis, Grand Deputy Master, Sir John Ferguson, Sir J.E. Kynaston Studd, Col. S. Pleydell-Bouverie, and Bishop Foss-Westcott are seen posing outdoors for an official group portrait. Several Indian servants watch them from inside a building—they are located at

Still from amateur film ‘United Grand Lodge of England Deputation to India, Calcutta, India. December 1927-January 1928’. Sir Eric Studd

Figure 2.1 Still from amateur film ‘United Grand Lodge of England Deputation to India, Calcutta, India. December 1927-January 1928’. Sir Eric Studd.

Source: Courtesy of Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge. Screenshot.

the right edge of the image, contained in the space shaped by a large window frame.

The social and racial hierarchies portrayed in this image match the then Freemasonic ranks and orders of seniority as well as the late imperial racial dynamics: those shown in the foreground of the image embodied supremacy per se. However, should the same visual analytical framework be applied to the image used by Jan Morris in The Spectacle of Empire (1982) to ‘illustrate’ Victorian colonial lifestyle in South Africa the resulting visual narrative would instantly challenge, even cancel, the authenticity of British imperial authority and power dynamic on the continent. On this occasion,11 at the forefront of the image are four African men of different ages posing at ease, palms crossed, whether hanging or resting on their hips. Within the logic of colonial iconography these men’s portrait functions as a marker of the British colonialist’s, Mr. Fletcher’s wealth and management responsibilities, i.e. colonial estate manned by reliable servants. Their presence centre stage is thus only illustrative of their objectification as living props of imperial control rather than denotative of their own power over, and ownership of, the site and social context. However, within the logic of the visual syntax proposed by this image, and confirmed by the customary visual narratives found in images similar to Eric Studd’s, Mr Fletcher’s servants function as symbols of racial and social supremacy while his (Caucasian) wife and baby, seated in the background on the veranda, are assigned a second-class role within the imperial gender and racial networks—historically, an incorrect narrative. Thus, this image presents a visual storyline that challenges and falsifies imperial historical data and, at the same time, proposes a credible reading of gender and social hierarchies due to the visual priming inherent in its structure: most important features of the image are almost always placed at the front-centre. Once again, had this image been considered by the author as a primary research source, the irony of this narratorial paradox would have offered a richer space for the reinterpretation of British imperial ‘life-styles’ in the colonies—one that would have gone beyond a mere auxiliary illustration of popular imperial narratives nostalgically retold as late as the 1980s.

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