Book Review – ‘From Empire to Nation: Art, history and the visualization of maritime Britain 1768–1829’ by James Davey
The second half of the eighteenth century saw the zenith of British imperialism, and Britain’s rise to maritime supremacy. This period also witnessed the emergence of ‘national art’, as seen through the creation of the Royal Academy, the remarkable production of visual culture, and the vast outpouring of writings that cemented public interest in its moral and civic values. The congruence of these developments, argues Geoff Quilley in this impressive publication, was not merely a coincidence, but symptomatic of an enduring relationship between art and the maritime world.
From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, ambitious British artists turned to the sea for inspiration, advancing ideas about Britishness and identity, just as the British nation was becoming enamoured with its navy and mercantile prowess. This is the major theme of From Empire to Nation, as the author navigates between these two developments, assessing how each affected the other. Quilley is certainly well placed to write such a work. Formerly the curator of fine art at the National Maritime Museum, and now a lecturer at University of Sussex, his knowledge of the subject, and the collections that inform it, is unsurpassed, which combine to form an important and genre-defining publication.