Thursday 20, Friday 21 and Saturday 22 February 2020 Aix-Marseille University, 29 avenue Robert Schuman & Archives Nationale d’Outre-Mer, 29 chemin de Testa in Aix-en-Provence, France. Showcasing Empire  


Abstract: Since the heated debate that opposed British Empire historians Bernard Porter and John Mackenzie a few decades ago around the relation of the Victorians and Edwardians to their Empire, and more precisely, their appetite for the popular culture surrounding the Imperial project, scholarship has explored the multiple issues related to the omnipresence of imperial culture in Britain, at a time when the first consumer society was also emerging [Flanders]. Other studies have examined the way imperial culture was represented and developed in the British colonies. What were the range, scale and nature of the imperial impact on Britain [Thompson 3-4]? What were the repercussions of imperial culture in the territories under British rule?

John Mackenzie reminds us that in the second half of the nineteenth century people had entered “an era of more widespread availability of education – and hence of expanded levels of literacy- extension of the franchise (initially mainly among males), and therefore of mass politics.” He further adds that “all of this was accompanied by a burgeoning print culture, as well as forces of the mass market accompanied by extensive advertising, more readily consumable forms of entertainment, and other means by which extensive permeation could be achieved.” [Mackenzie 2]

This main thrust of this conference is imperial visual and material culture during the Victorian and Edwardian eras in Britain and in the colonies. We welcome proposals from all disciplines and areas (cultural studies, language and literature, history, geography, sociology, visual studies, anthropology …) which address issues related to the above theme as well as the multiple sub-themes and questionings which are presented below.

As regards the presence of Empire within Victorian, and later Edwardian societies, seminal works such as that of John Mackenzie’s own impressive production and his famed “Studies in Imperialism” or works like Andrew Thompson’s The Empire Strikes Back? The impact of Imperialism on Britain in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (2005) have underlined that there never was a unique, unanimous answer to the Empire and its seemingly attractive power. Asa Briggs, also writes that the Victorians’ own consciousness of things, late or early in the reign was expressed in different ways, reflecting not only different degrees of understanding and appropriation, but different, sometimes ambivalent or contradictory reactions [Briggs 32]. Thus, the response to the call for Empire in England was complex, multi-faceted and unpredictable. For mid-Victorians, political consciousness preceded legislative action; public opinion initiated parliamentary change. But public opinion needed to be organized and directed in order to exert significant influence [Bell 169].  It is therefore as a social force that public opinion is to be tackled, an emerging force, that was better educated, and now had the capacity to “buy cultural products that had hitherto remained beyond their purse” [Sebe 47] was therefore, more easily given to imperial stimuli.

Pieter Oosthuizen arguing that “in Victorian England, the population loved trinkets, tokens and curios” [Oosthuizen XIV], recorded an impressive variety of such products, following the Anglo-Boer War, that were presented to the public which sheds a light on the interplay between consumers and industrialists.  Anglo-Boer War memorabilia were made for display. They sought to recall battle scenes and bore the faces of officers and soldier or of the “enemy”. What types of other events (military conflicts, social gatherings…) during the middle period of British colonization were celebrated or commemorated with objects as souvenirs?

The aim of this conference is precisely, but not exclusively, to ponder on such “things as emissaries” as Asa Briggs once put it [Briggs 11], and to reconstruct the “intelligible universes” of the Victorians and Edwardians [Briggs 31]. Moreover, as this British historian points out, the notion of “appropriation” of things which pervaded British society, encouraged a sense of belonging to a community. As Disraeli envisioned the maintenance of Empire and the (comm) unity of Victorian England and “her” colonies, in 1874, the British ruling elite acted as a gateway to Victorian culture, both visual and material, in the Empire. “Modern” objects arrived in the colonies in a reverse movement, in all shapes and sizes, from the bicycle to the hairpin, through wall tiles, hagiographic pictures, chintz curtains, combs and powder puffs. They caused profound changes in the lifestyles, modes of behaviour and thought, but also spending patterns of the colonized. Beyond the comfort and sense (or illusion) that it gave the colonized consumer of “moving with times”, and becoming Westernized, objects, machines, but also colonial edifices, (from museums and bridges to clock towers and statues in street corners), became the all too conspicuous standard bearers and promoters of imperial grandeur. But, while they stood as symbols of the technological and inventive “superiority” of Great Britain, in the country and outside, did material culture in any way also become a binding force between ideas and individuals living in the various spaces of Empire?

Identity re-writing of this materiality is another line of thought. How were some of these Victorian things customized once they left their place of invention and were introduced into other “exotic” spaces and minds? Did their « reappropriation » cause the « erasure » and « re-writing » of their original identities? The many variations of this Western material culture in the colonial space, or the way colonial exoticism was represented in Britain are the object of remarkable works, by specialists like Saloni Mathur who writes that her book India by Design, Colonial History and Cultural Display (2007), is an attempt to understand the way the representations of the Indian sub-continent have been formed. Her study seeks to historicize cultural and epistemological dilemmas through the identification of a range of practices, ideas, and discourses of display. In her book Metallic Modern : Everyday Machines in colonial Sri Lanka (2014), approaching objects “in practice”, dedicated to the arrival of the sewing machine in the colonies during the late 19th century, Nira Wickramasinghe argues that access to all manner of objects and equipment by the indigenous population gave the latter the illusion of gaining some dignity and recognition in colonial society.

We invite as wide a range of areas as possible to be examined in order to identify and cross-reference the imperial cultural network that emerged in Victorian and Edwardian society and overseas. The following themes have been identified, but the list is by no means restrictive.


Theme 1. Empire and Image

The Construct of Empire through the fixed or animated image (photographs, cinema, posters, postcards, paintings …) What type of visual culture was propagated and what were its repercussions on the minds of viewers and consumers? The construct of Empire through photographs is a topic this conference would like to examine. Linked to photographs are picture postcards, another rich medium to bolster Empire studies, given that many of these postcards were a cross-class merger and could reach any part of the world, and therefore spread any message more easily than before. Other forms of image, such as cartoons, boys’ and girls’ (own) magazines and early cinema (F. Lacassin), belong to this age. In what ways did the cinematographic invention, the brainchild of the ingenious spirits of the day, accompanied by its massive quantity of objects and machines but also edifices and sites, have an impact on the British and colonial minds?

Theme 2. Other Empire Things “as emissaries”.

Objects of commemoration, of celebration, of decoration. The huge market of ‘Victorian and Edwardian things’ is a field seldom tackled by academics, yet they are precious primary sources that can shed a light on the British frame of mind of the time. Indeed, Victorians produced massive quantities of objects which referred to the Empire, and the wars that were waged there, ranging from ceramics and porcelain (plates, services, tea-sets, mugs, tobacco jars), gold and silverware, glassware, busts and statuettes, (Staffordshire figures) to apparel and accessories for ladies (jewellery, brooches, hairpins, handkerchiefs…) and toys (puppets, dolls, model soldiers, uniforms for children…). Objects were either utilities or ephemera such as match covers, paperweights, pipes, tables, chocolate or tobacco boxes, photographs, maps, newspapers and magazines, cigarette cards, posters, music sheets, postcards, silk bookmarks, tapestries, and of course books. To what extent did they contribute to further whetting the Victorian penchant for material culture? Through the questions it raises, this event is an opportunity to study society through the analysis of visual and tangible source material. What types of events (military conflicts, social gatherings…) during the middle period of British colonization were celebrated or commemorated with objects as souvenirs?

Theme 3. Empire in writing.

Literary constructs and Empire. The conference will also highlight the links between Empire and literature, the latter term to be understood in a wide sense, to counteract the trend where there has perhaps been an excessive concentration on canonical, famous and literary texts, when we can surely learn more by looking at popular, mass market works. Other literary forms too, however, have been extensively investigated in this context: including drama, travel writing, children’s literature, and newspapers [Howe 170].  For example, how did colonial literature frame young boys’ mind up to the point that they took colonial glory images with them to the Somme in 1916 [Fussel 135]?

Theme 4. Exhibiting Empire. Past and present

Displaying Empire at Home and Abroad. Other fields may be examined as well, such as the modes and methods of displaying Empire (museums, exhibitions, ethnic shows, cinema etc) as well as the various agents/agencies through which Empire spread, such as war and the army [Paris], heroes [Sebe], women, tourism and travelling in the Empire, life in the colonies, missionaries and religion, health, sport, art, etc.

Theme 5. Empires in comparative perspective

            Trans-European perspectives on cultures of imperial display. The visual representation of imperial possessions was a widespread phenomenon shared all around Europe, especially as the ‘new Imperialism’ was reaching its climax and the greatness of a country was expected to translate into large expanses of the world painted in its national colours. Old colonial powers such as Spain or France, or recent ones such as Belgium, Germany and Italy, all took pride in celebrating their ‘achievements’ overseas, and a sustained comparative effort with Britain is necessary to understand not only the European colonial experience, but also the specificities of British imperial traditions. Drawing on recent historiographical experiments around the concepts of ‘inter-imperialism’ (Stephen Tuffnell), ‘imperial argument’ (Martin Thomas and Richard Toye) or ‘cosmopolitan approaches to Empire’ (Berny Sèbe), this theme explores how comparative or transnational approaches can be usefully applied to the realm of visual displays of empire.



Works cited


Bell Duncan, The Idea of Greater Britain Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2007.


Briggs Asa, Victorian Things, Penguin Books, 1988.


Flanders Judith, Consuming Passions leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain, London, Harper Perennial, 2006.


Fussel Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975.


Harris Clare E., The Museum on the Roof of the World, Art, Politics, and the Representation of Tibet, Chicago and London, Chicago University Press, 2012.


Howe Stephen, “Empire and Ideology” in Sarah Stockwell (ed) The British Empire Themes and Perspectives, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2008, 157-176.


MacKenzie John (ed.), European Empires and the People. Popular Responses to Imperialism in France, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Italy, “Introduction”, Manchester University Press, Studies in Imperialism, 2011. 1-18.


Mathur Saloni, India by Design Colonial History and Cultural Display, Berkley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 2007.

Oosthuizen Pieter, Boer War Memorabilia the Collectors’ Guide, Edmonton, The Alderman Press, 1987.

Paris Michael, Warrior Nation Images of War in British Popular Culture, 1850-2000, London, Reaktion Books, 2000.

Pitts Jennifer, A Turn to Empire. The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2005.

Sebe Berny, Heroic Imperialists in Africa The Promotion and French Colonial Heroes, 1870-1939, Manchester University Press, Studies in Imperialism, 2013.


Sèbe Berny, ‘Towards Cosmopolitan Perspectives on European Empires and their Echoes? The Case for a European Framework’, in K. Nicolaidis, B. Sèbe and G. Maas (eds.), Echoes of Empire: Memory, Identity and Colonial Legacies, London, IB Tauris, 2015, pp. 123-140.


Thomas Martin and Toye Richard, Arguing About Empire, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Thompson Andrew, The Empire Strikes Back? The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-nineteenth Century, Harlow, Pearson Longman, 2005.

Tuffnell Stephen, ‘Anglo-American Inter-Imperialism: US Expansion and the British World, c.1865-1914’, Britain and the World 7.2 (2014), 174-195.


Wickramasinghe Nira, Metallic Modern: Everyday Machines in colonial Sri Lanka, New York, Berghahn Books, 2014.


Organising team for the LERMA: Prof. Gilles Teulié, Dr. Fanny Robles

Scientific Commitee : Prof. Nathalie Vanfasse, Dr Matthew Graves, Dr Marc Calvini-Lefebvre, Dr Alice Byrne, Prof. Gilles Teulié, Dr. Fanny Robles, Prof. Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, Prof. Fabienne Moine.

Keynote Speaker: Prof. John Mackenzie (Lancaster University) ‘Cultures of Display: the Mirror of Imperialism’

Second-and third-day speakers: Prof. Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin (Université of la Réunion), Dr. Berny Sèbe (Université of Birmingham)

Thematic:  Visual and material culture and the British Empire.


Language of the Conference: English and French

Publication : A selection of articles will be published in English in the academic journal of the society called « les Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens (CVE) » founded in 1974

Partnership :  Université de la Réunion, University of Birmingham, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM- Aix-en-Provence).

Student Programme and international partnership : A doctorate programme is scheduled during this conference which includes PhD students from Aix-Marseille University and the University of Birmingham, who work on Empires.

Any query should be forwarded to Gilles Teulié ( and Please send an abstract, not more than 300 words (with a title) and a bio, not more than 100 words. Proposals should be submitted by 30 September 2019. Feedback will be given by mid-October. Please drop your proposal and details on our website




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