Threads of Empire

The Visual Economy of Cotton in the Indian and Atlantic Ocean Worlds 1840-1900

'Cotton Pickers', by Winslow Homer, 1876
My dissertation is an art historical study of the nineteenth-century processes of transmission and exchange, industry and manufacture, fashion and representation that shaped the Anglo-American cotton trade.  By mapping these processes – through the movement of cotton – it is possible to explore how cultures of production in Britain and the United States were shaped by a global set of connections that tied these countries to areas in India and West Africa.   As raw material and finished cloth, the movement of cotton helped establish important networks of trade and exchange and, as one of the most significant commodities of the nineteenth century, provided manufacturers, consumers and commentators with a tangible mode of engaging with the processes of commerce shaping nineteenth century Britain and the United States.  These networks were materialised through a range of objects that can reveal important historical insights into the ways nineteenth century workers, manufacturers, consumers and artists perceived the shifting global contexts in which they staged the transactions of their daily lives.  My research explores these contexts and perceptions by tracing the dialogic associations between hands that picked cotton and those that operated a spinning loom, between printers and painters, between growers, designers and wearers. 

In five case studies I follow the way cotton and its representations – in visual media, textiles and written descriptions – moved between different spaces during the nineteenth century.  My project commences in the early nineteenth century with the expansion of the domestic slave trade in the United States and the country’s concomitant emergence as the primary producer of raw cotton for a world market. The main focus of chapter one examines this historical development through the production and circulation of ‘negro cloth.’  Manufactured in New England, this cloth was sold to plantations in the South in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Using textile samples, industrial manuals, and British and American artwork, I consider how artists, such as the American painter Luther Terry and British commercial artist J R Barfoot, writers and audiences responded to this expanding global trade and their role within it.  I pay particular attention to how artists, manufacturers and commentators used cotton’s “supply chain” to metaphorically construct and integrate local spaces – here the Southern plantation and the New England factory – within a modernizing industrial landscape of global trade.  In chapter two I explore the relationship between geographies of labor and the production of cotton cloth from a British perspective. I follow the movement of slave picked cotton into the factories of Manchester, England and outwards to India and West Africa as printed cloth.  Using paintings by artists such as the British Eyre Crowe, as well as sample books and textile samples and newspaper prints I examine how this movement was represented, its implications for local practices of labor and design and how it shaped meanings of globalization in Victorian Britain.  In chapter three I look at representations of colonial Bombay during the years immediately prior to and following the American Civil War in commercial prints, photography and Indian Company paintings.  Focusing on Bombay’s industrialization and competition with Manchester and New England, I am interested in the symbolic meaning of cotton as a commodity and its association with ‘progress’ for Indian merchants and colonial administrators. In chapter four I look at the relationship of cotton, industrialization and representation following the American Civil War in the United States and the United Kingdom.  I compare the work of Winslow Homer, Edgar Degas and Eyre Crowe to uncover the symbolic meanings of the commodity during this period.  I ask how these meanings became used to re-construct, represent and conceptualize new spaces of industry and colonial expansion – at home and abroad – in an increasingly market driven landscape.  Chapter five extends this discussion of commerce and colonialism.  I use textile labels, sample books, photographs and material from Worlds Fairs held in the United States and Great Britain between 1881-1895 to explore the commercially inflected interactions of British and American merchants with Indian and West African communities at the turn of the nineteenth century. Using these sources I do two things.  I examine how merchants, ethnographers and black intellectuals like Booker T Washington and the artist Meta Warrick Fuller from Britain and the United States used the circuits of the cotton trade – physically and metaphorically – to construct meanings around late nineteenth-century globalization and social progress.  Simultaneously I explore how African and Indian cotton workers and wearers also participated (or not) in these circuits and shaped other meanings of national progress through their own cultural production.  In doing so I aim to show how the political and economic processes of commerce and colonialism were registered visually and had material implications at a local and international level.  Recent visual art has engaged with some of these historical movements and flows of cloth across space and time.  And so I conclude by examining how contemporary artists – Anne Wilson, Lubaina Himid, Leonardo Drew and Yinka Shonibare – draw on the representational and metaphoric meanings of cotton’s materiality to create interventions in current discourse around the meanings of post-colonial experience. 

In foregrounding the centrality of cultures of exchange in my project, I draw on and extend economic histories of cotton by Giorgio Riello, and scholarship by Tim Barringer, Helen Bradley Foster and Susan Bean, who examine the way the art and material culture of Britain and the United States was influenced by the transmission of objects and ideas across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  Drawing on this scholarship I focus on the mobility of objects by positioning them within both global and local networks.  As a result I follow the dynamic intersections suggested by the objects themselves to re-contextualize relations between people, places and things.  I use the historical life cycle of a commodity in this way to find new ways of examining otherwise disparate types of sources.  By closely focusing on the meaning of a range of objects as well as their movement within networks of commerce I aim to tighten the connections between the material and the conceptual that are central to historical analysis of material culture. Using this methodology I want to uncover, and map, the tangible connections between workers and wearers, colonial administrators and colonised communities, merchants and manufacturers across time and space.  In taking this approach my dissertation argues that cotton fabric, in its pattern, texture, production and social connotations might suggest a theoretical paradigm of representation for the global imperial networks connecting the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in the nineteenth century.  Examining processes of production and consumption provides a way of visualising how networks of trade led to moments of encounter and transmission and connecting cultural, aesthetic and socio-economic processes in this way we can examine how, and why, nineteenth-century notions of globalisation or cosmopolitanism emerged through the interactions and exploitations of colonial commerce.  In taking this interdisciplinary approach I aim to develop a more global approach to the History of Art, through drawing together the art and material cultures of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean.  By using these narratives of art, commerce and colonialism it is possible to establish new contexts for understanding the historical processes of visuality and perception that shaped the long nineteenth century.

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