Birkbeck Eighteenth-Century Research Group: Professor Geoff Quilley – 26 February 2020

Lecture: Wednesday 26 February, 6-8pm – Keynes Library, School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square. WC1H 0PD

Professor Geoff Quilley, University of Sussex: ‘The Economy of Human Life: Arthur William Devis’s Representations of 1790s India’

Following his 1783 shipwreck on the island of Palau on board the East India Company ship Antelope, the entrepreneurial artist Arthur William Devis diverted his career to India, following the legendary wealth of Company officials and traders. On the back of a successful portrait-painting business, in the 1790s he embarked on a highly ambitious (and ultimately over-ambitious) painting and print-making project representing the arts, manufactures and customs of Bengal. Putatively titled ‘The Economy of Human Life’, the project was never in the end completed, but the resulting pictures provide an unprecedented combination of colonial ethnography and genre painting’s scrutiny of the mundane, together with historical and philosophical research into Indian society based on the scholarship of Sir William Jones’s Asiatick Society of Bengal.

This paper will examine Devis’s artistic project in the context of East India Company commercial and colonial politics, to argue for its significance not just for the understanding of the visual culture of British India, but for the understanding of British art’s inextricable engagement with commercial empire.

Geoff Quilley is Professor of Art History at the University of Sussex, specialising in the relation of British and western visual culture to empire and global expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He was previously Curator of Fine Art at the National Maritime Museum, London, and has written and edited numerous books, including Empire to Nation: Art, History and the Visualization of Maritime Britain, 1768-1829 (Yale University Press 2011). His new book, British Art and the East India Company, will be published by Boydell and Brewer in May 2020: https://boydellandbrewer.com/subject/maritime-history/british-art-and-the-east-india-company-hb.html