by Ashley Jackson and David Tomkins
25 May 2011
Using fascinating printed documents that have survived by chance, the new Bodleian Library title vividly tells the story of the British Empire from the unusual angle of a unique collection of over 200 images of everyday life ephemera, many of which have never been previously published.
Illustrating Empire: A Visual History of British Imperialism entertains and informs as the authors guide the reader through the centuries and across continents with chapters focusing on the themes of emigration and settlement, imperial authority, exploration and knowledge, trade and commerce, travel and communications, popular culture, exhibitions and jubilees, and politics. With lively and accessible explanations accompanying the images, this book offers a new perspective on the historiography of culture and empire.
Ephemera or ‘things of short-lived interest’ provide a less obvious entry point into the past, through the most ordinary objects of the day – advertisements, playbills, postcards, labels, programmes, menus, games, ballads, match boxes and posters. Precisely because they were not intended to last, they tell us much about the past, encapsulating its preconceptions, anxieties and optimism. As the unofficial, unselfconscious historical remains of everyday life, they are often controversial and occasionally shocking to the modern reader, but always fascinating.
With over 1.5 million items, the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera held at the Bodleian Library is one of the most important and impressive in the world. Inspired by his work as a papyrologist, John de Monins Johnson began his collection of ‘common printed things’ after the First World War, continuing until his death in 1956. Believing that material should survive by chance rather than design, he collected British ephemera retrospectively. He was Printer to the University of Oxford from 1925-1946. One of the special collections of the Bodleian Library, the John Johnson Collection is an exceptional primary resource for historians.
In Illustrating Empire, these remnants from another age – such as a poster promoting orange growers, an advertisement for a cruise, an illustration of the Australian welcome given to a primrose sent from England (it was visited by 3,000 people nostalgic for home), a programme from the Ghanaian independence ceremony and an early advert for ‘currie powder’ – are interpreted and transformed into windows onto a wide range of subjects including agriculture, travel, development and aid, independence and consumerism – all seen through the matrix of imperialism that characterised the British world view in the 19th and 20th centuries.