Tag Archives: British Empire

The Shots heard round the World

No, not that one, the (three) ones that came years before, which killed Major-General James Wolfe on this day at the decisive Seven Years’ War Battle of Quebec in 1759, a death that was disseminated around the world through the iconic 1770 painting by Benjamin West. The painting and its reproductions, in oil, print, tole, pottery and caricature, became a powerful symbol of the emerging British Empire, even though it was rather ironically the creation of an American-born artist. West broke with tradition by depicting the fallen hero in contemporary uniform rather than classical dress, thus intensifying the identification of his contemporaries, yet still portrayed an eternal, Christ-like figure. The painting was a sensation when it was first exhibited, and for quite a few years thereafter.


Benjamin West, Death of General West, 1770National Gallery of Canada.

I’m hardly the first historian to pontificate on the importance of this painting: I’m leaning pretty heavily on the analysis of Simon Schama (albeit in “historical novella” form in Dead Certainties:  Unwarranted Speculations, 1991) and Linda Colley, more straightforwardly in her magisterial Britons. Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (1992). Colley calls the painting a “splendid fraud” in that none of the onlookers were even there, most particularly the pensive Native American, who was of course fighting on the other side in what is referred to as the “French and Indian War” over here. Still, Colley observes that “The Death of Wolfe started a vogue for paintings of members of the British officer class defying the world, or directing it, or dying in battle at the moment of victory.”  I think this “vogue” was probably due as much to the prints of the painting as the painting itself (most after William Woollett’s engraving), because they were everywhere, in constant circulation  up until at least 1820 as far as I can tell: through the American and Napoleonic wars, when Britain needed its heroes. I suppose it was only the cult of Nelson that diminished that of Wolfe, somewhat.







Print made by William Woollett, 1776; Etching for John Young’s  ‘A Catalogue of Pictures at Grosvenor House’, 1820; Print by John Rogers , 1830, all Collection of the British Museum; Tole Tray, Northeast Auctions; Creamware Jugs, Christies Auctions; and The Death of the Great Wolf, a satire on the passing of the Treason and Sedition Bills, in 1795, James Gillray, British Museum.

Eleven Lost Days

When people in Salem, and any other British territory around the world, went to bed last night in 1752 it was September 2, but when they woke up this morning it was September 14: they “lost” eleven days as Great Britain and its colonies made the big switch from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar, at long last.  The latter was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 in the midst of the religious conflict that followed in the wake of the Reformation; Queen Elizabeth had been excommunicated and declared a heretic by his predecessor:  there was no way her Godly country would accept such a papal imposition. While other Protestant countries accepted the new calendar within decades, Britain held out for nearly two centuries.

Gregorian Calendar Gregory

Gregorian Calendar Eliz

Engraving of  Pop Gregory XIII after Bartolomeo Passarotti, 1572, and print by Pieter van der Heyden of Queen Elizabeth as Diana, judging Pope Gregory  as Calisto, c. 1584, British Museum, London.

Religious fervor had subsided considerably by the eighteenth century, if not before. The conduct of both international and Great British commerce made the “Old Style” calendar inconvenient, and so Parliament passed the Calendar Act of 1750, commencing two years of transition to the “New Style” calendar: the year 1751 commenced on 25 March, the Julian New Year, and ran until 31 December, while 1752 began on January I, but sliced off the eleven September days to align the British calendar with that of the Continent. Two short years, and then the British Empire was part of the uniform calendar world.  Despite the placement of a “given us our eleven days” placard in Hogarth’s Election Entertainment (1755) there does not seem to have been much resistance in Britain, and even less over here as gazetteers carefully explained the big change. Nathaniel Ames, author of An Astronomical Diary; or Almanack for the Year of our Lord Christ, 1752  devoted his last few pages to explaining that the “striking off the Eleven Days between the 2d and 14th of September, A.D. 1752 was effected “to produce an Uniformity in the Computation of Time throughout the christian Part of the World…”, and the Boston Gazette, the Virginia Almanack, and Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack included explanations and references to the Act of Parliament that had, quite literally, cut their time short.

Virginia Almanack 1752

Poor Richard's Almanack 1752 cover

Kate Greenaway 1888

Virginia Almanack page for September 1752 and 1752 cover of Poor Richard’s Almanack, Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia; The modern calendar: Kate Greenaway’s almanac page for 1888–and 2013, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

The Queen Pitches

I must admit to indulging in a bit too much anniversaic history of late but the Anglophile in me cannot resist today’s anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession (in 1837) especially as her successor just had such a big show. I’ve just discovered the most interesting Salem connection as well:  the Queen’s third cousin, Dr. Ernst Bruno de Gersdorff, left his native Germany shortly after his graduation from medical school and in the midst of the revolutions of 1848, and wound up here, where he began what looks like a very successful homeopathic medical practice and married the sister of one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in town, Judge Joseph Choate, who would later be appointed American ambassador to Great Britain!  A small world of connected people in the transatlantic Victorian Age.

It’s the Queen’s day, not the doctor’s, so I want to pull up some images from my teaching files, featuring the very commercial Victoria as pitchman to the world, at the very peak of the British Empire.  Here is the Queen/Empress of India/safeguard of the Constitution selling oats, soap, stoves, cloth, and cigarettes (produced by both British and American manufacturers) in the 1880s and 1890s.

Victorian advertising ephemera from the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, the British Library, the British Museum, Duke University’s Digital “Emergence of Advertising in America” Collection, and the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

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