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English Surrealism versus the Luftwaffe: Paul Nash’s “Bomber in the Corn”

May 25, 2012

On 27 August 1940, Kenneth Clark, Chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), wrote a congratulatory letter to the artist Paul Nash: ‘your six beautiful watercolours of crashed German bombers were received with delight by the whole committee.’ The series, entitled Raiders or Marching against England, was one of Nash’s first significant contributions to Clark’s WAAC, and “Bomber in the Corn” was instantly recognised as being superlative amongst the six pieces. As another fellow war artist, the eminent John Piper, wrote in The Spectator: ‘[it] is the best of the series… no summoning of melodrama; no wallowing in tragedy. A setting sun, some trees in a copse, [which] decorate the stage from which these strange facts are announced simply.’

Nash had received his official letter of appointment to the British War Artists Scheme on 11 March 1940. An attaché to the Ministry of Information, Nash’s ostensible role in the scheme was to produce propaganda and, being attached to the Air Ministry, was expected to produce pictures of heroic RAF airmen duelling with, and indeed shooting down, numerous Huns out of a blue painted sky. Yet, and conversely, Nash, and particularly Clark, had a bifurcating vision of what art in wartime could and should be. The air marshals would have, no doubt, felt a twinge of perplexity and concern had they known of Clark’s own designs for his own ‘Few’; his own edifying Band of Brothers, endowed ‘to provide a memorable record of the war and its associated activities… [by artists] more sensitive and observant than ordinary people’.

Bomber in the Corn

Therefore, as Nash commented later, the image – a downed Luftwaffe bomber in a Kent cornfield – was not just a lowly and derivative propagandist’s creation, but something ‘designed to emphasise the incongruity of the alien machines, helpless out of their element, in the idyllic English landscape’. Art, therefore, could and would transcend the licentious cants of war, or at least retain some of the artist’s fervent tenets. What the Air Ministry might think was not Nash’s concern. So, when Nash the Surrealist approached the task, he came at it with his own distinctively peculiar brand of Surrealism that had made his name during the interwar period. Accordingly, when John Piper scrutinised the artwork he recognised Nash’s signature and voice. Indeed, he saw it as clear as ever, as if Nash’s work was not compromised by the demands of war, but, on the contrary, had been unleashed to its most potent potential: ‘in a way Paul Nash has been anticipating these pictures by all his work for several years… for a long time his ideal pictorial topic has been the object in the wrong box, that in some odd way turns out to be the inevitable box.’

Nash, to Piper’s relief, had retained his Surrealist edge – it had even been nurtured. Indeed, in 1939 upon the outbreak of war, the at first despondent Nash thought the war was some cruel joke, designed to internationalize the phantasmagorical, ‘thought up by André Breton and Salvador Dali in conjunction with the Marx Brothers’. After all, what could be more ‘surreal’ than the image of war itself? And as Nash commented, it was indeed a strange sight; of enemy aeroplanes, ‘out of their element… alien machines,’ stranded in the bucolic idylls of Kent, where once the pastoral artist Samuel Palmer, of whom Nash was an ardent fan, had painted his own visions of evocative Eden-like pastures. War had affected an aesthetic oxymoron – and of course, Kent was soon to attain the chiming soubriquet: Hellfire-Corner. The pastoral peace had been invaded and shattered, the natural elements shaken to their core, with swatted flying machines littering the innocently rustic copses and cornfields of England’s green and pleasant land (indeed, William Blake was held in just as high regard by Nash). Of course, in August 1940 the fate of Albion was teetering on the knife-edge, with the Battle of Britain being fought, and fighting for, in one aspect – Nash’s aspect – the evocative virtues seemingly summed up in the country’s own sacred landscape. Patriotism, as so many of the WAAC’s artists depicted, had deep roots sown into the topography of the realm itself. After all, one should, indeed, know what the county was fighting for; not just for the emblematic, national notions of liberty, but also the very literal dirt of Britain itself. Nash’s image, Bomber in the Corn, imbued the sense of a landscape threatened, containing a crashed bomber, but others, quite alive, up in the sky, hovering like hawks on the prowl, preparing to pounce upon the threatened isle.

Yet Nash, the misotyrannist, was, and he himself wanted to be, as the picture suggests, the propagandist; even if Clark frowned upon such a notion. Nash believed in art, but he also realised the danger that such expressions faced against Nazi tyranny. Indeed, as Nash remarked, above all he wanted ‘to strike a blow on behalf of the RAF, apart from any triumph of art for its own sake’. In the case of this statement – Nash’s almost zealous ipsedixitism – the aim was to shoot down the Nazi myth of invincibility, The Sunday Times noting of the picture: ‘what Paul Nash has conveyed so well is the inertness of a thing built to move at incredible speeds, and the harmlessness of a monster whose only function is to do harm.’ Therefore, Nash had mobilised his talents in defence of the realm, and to defend the right to posses and utilize his brush with full autonomy. However, his watercolour’s worth as anything other than an allegory for Britain’s threatened vistas, like many of the WAAC’s productions, is dubious. Of course, Clark’s own vision for his artists never supposed that the images created would ever actually primarily function as propaganda, but instead were concieved, by Clark at least, to act as a record of wartime, serving as a national archive of war – indeed, now many of the WAAC images are housed in the Imperial War Museum. This view was visibly and unashamedly elitist, for the delectation of Clark’s intellectual circle. Nash hoped for more, that his images would be reproduced as postcards and dropped over Germany; this never happened.

Nash had to make do with having his six watercolours displayed in an August exhibition of war art at the National Gallery in 1940. The art critic for The Times had little to say of Nash’s contribution, only that they were ‘deeply imaginative’, though, it must be said, the critic had a great deal less to say about much of the other featured work. The prickly art critic Douglas Cooper, however, thought Nash’s series the best of the pictures depicting the air conflict, the subject providing Nash with ‘excellent flotsam and jetsam’, but commented that the artist had ‘just missed his effect’. Outside of Clark’s WAAC grouping the six pieces received a lukewarm reception. This included the Air Ministry, who deemed all of Nash’s images, including later contributions, to be too Surrealist; the central complaint being that his planes weren’t realistic enough, there also being a distinct lack of victorious RAF pilots, the Few. Eventually it became too much and Nash was fired. Clark, revealing his elitist persona, later commented that the WAAC’s ‘taste [was] too modern’ for the simple, unsophisticated estimations of the Air Ministry’.

Paul Nash sketching aircraft wreckage in 1940

Nash’s Bomber in the Corn, if evaluated as part of Nash’s overall wartime contribution, was a failure in terms of propaganda. Rather, and the fact that the likes Clark and Piper represented the only grouping that actually appreciated the work is testament to this, the artwork only accomplished half of Nash’s aspiration: to please Clark’s intimate circle at the WAAC with a superior work reflecting the committee’s own vision of high art as a body upholding the moral and aesthetic integrity of British Art. Yet, for Nash, and indeed Nash’s contemporary viewer, the maxim at the heart of Bomber in the Corn was one exclaiming a poetic bellow of fighting talk – just as much for the nourishment of his own need to make a contribution to the war effort than anything else – Nash was too old, and often too ill, to participate in any other way (he would die in 1946). Hence, the image was an improvised one man war effort, combining both form and message. Indeed, it was a piece of visual rhetoric, exclaiming a common, particularly British patriotic axiom; that the conjuring of the panorama, threatened by the Luftwaffe raider, could induce a rallying fervour in the defence of the realm. This was nothing new; artists such as J.M.W. Turner, and the caricaturists George Cruikshank and James Gillray, had utilized the same concept of sacred geography when Britain, as in 1940, was on ropes fighting against Napoleonic France.

Nash’s own predilection for English lyricism was also imbued with the language of William Blake, his great hero and influence. Nash once wrote that ‘the motive power which animates [English] art… is of the land… [and] if its expression could be designated I would say it is almost entirely lyrical’. Blake, therefore, and his often confrontational language – of the ‘bow of burning gold… the arrows of desire… the spear… Mental Fight,’ which emphasized the vital need to actually fight for ‘Jerusalem’ – was the sort of pugnacious espousal, also recognisably Churchillian in nature, that engaged and spurred on Nash in his own lyrically painted efforts. And never was this stance more appropriate than in the dark days of 1940, after the disaster/deliverance of Dunkirk, when, apart from Spitfires, rhetoric was the only other weapon left in the national arsenal. Of course, the corporeal actualities of war dictated that it was only ever going to be actual Spitfires – not paintings – that would shoot down Hitler’s ambitions.

Nash’s Bomber in the Corn was a statement revealing a moment in time when Britain was under mortal threat; yet also reveals how one artist, Nash, with the backing of an intellectual elite, under Clark, combated the menace with the tools most available and familiar to him. It was a reaction that failed in terms of propaganda. However, it succeeded in terms of art and record, so thought the WAAC at least (and so too the author). Today, as Clark hoped, the image indeed serves as a lasting account of a vital moment in Britain’s history when a small clique of artists, Nash included, sought to achieve just that: to bare testimony. In sequel to Bomber in the Corn, Nash would go on to paint some of the most iconic images of the Second World War, indeed of any war – Totes Meer (1940); Battle of Britain (1941). The watercolour, Bomber in the Corn, did not satisfy the Air Ministry, nor by any stretch of the imagination did it win the Battle of Britain, it did not even accomplish all of the artist’s aims; yet it was, and still is, an evidence of where the artist was going in the last years of his life, and showed that the sword – his sword – albeit a paintbrush, would not sleep in his hand.


‘The tale is in every Englishman’s mouth’ – Waterloo in Fiction

September 14, 2011

George danced with Rebecca twice or thrice – how many times Amelia scarcely knew. She sat quite unnoticed in her corner, except when Rawdon came up with some words of clumsy conversation: and later in the evening, when Captain Dobbin made so bold as to bring her refreshments and sit beside her. He did not like to ask her why she was so sad; but as a pretext for the tears which were filling in her eyes, she told him that Mrs. Crawley had alarmed her by telling her that George would go on playing.

This was William Makepeace Thackeray’s own fictional interpretation of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, in his Magnum Opus, the novel Vanity Fair, published in serial form between 1847 and 1848. In his account, the fictional, young Amelia Sedley, the story’s heroine – in a novel without a hero – is taken to the ball by her husband, George Osbourne, an officer in Wellington’s army. George, not an entirely responsible husband, flirts with the married Becky Sharpe. At the ball things come to a head, with George fixing his attentions on Becky, and Amelia retires from the scene alone and in a state of distress, though making the excuse to Captain Dobbin that her distress is caused by her husband’s gambling. All this is set against the historical context of the Hundred Days, Napoleon’s attempt at again seizing power in Europe in 1815. The image of Napoleon had stuck fast in Thackeray’s young mind, quite literally. After the death, in 1815, of his father, an employee of the East India Company, the young Thackeray was sent from his birthplace in India to England in 1816; his mother remained in India. On the journey Thackeray’s ship made a stop at the island of St Helena, where Napoleon was languishing in imprisonment after his defeat at Waterloo. Only aged around five years old, though old enough to remember a face, Thackeray’s brief sight of Napoleon must have been one of his first memories as a child.

In 1842, many years after the encounter, Thackeray was in Ireland, compiling what would become his travel book, The Irish Sketch Book. During his visit he attended a dinner at the house of the Irish author Charles Lever. In attendance was, also, the military historian Captain William Siborne. Siborne was a soldier, but not a veteran of Waterloo, he had joined Wellington’s army of occupation in August 1815. Though not having a distinguished career in soldiering Siborne went on to become one of Waterloo’s most prominent historians. Since the 1830s he had been compiling accounts of the battle from various participants. In 1842 Siborne was close to publishing his authorative, and still much respected work, History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815 (published in 1844). Also in attendance was Major Francis Dwyer, a cavalry officer. Dwyer later described the post-dinner converse and the supposed genesis of Vanity Fair:

As dinner proceeded, and after the ladies had retired, the two protagonists began to skirmish, endeavouring to draw each other out. Neither knew much of the other, beyond what could be gleaned from their published works. Thackeray had as yet written only under an assumed name or anonymously; it was not so easy to get at him through his writings. Lever on the contrary had put his name to one or two works of so marked a character, that it seemed quite natural to connect his own individuality with that of some of his earlier heroes, who were, as we know, somewhat flighty and eccentric. The conversation had been led by Lever to the subject of the battle of Waterloo; he wished to afford Captain Siborne an opportunity of saying a word, perhaps too, he wanted to show that he himself knew something of the matter; he had in fact picked up during his sojourn at Brussels a certain amount of anecdote and detail that did very well for after-dinner conversation. Thackeray soon joined in; he did not pretend to know anything about the great battle, but he evidently wished to spur on Lever to identify himself with Charles O’Malley, just as George IV used to do of himself, with regard to some real or imaginary general of the German Legion.

Siborne suggested that Thackeray should attend a military parade that was to take place the next day. Dwyer accompanied him to the park, where the review was taking place, and upon their arrival found a brigade of heavy cavalry charging in their direction. Despite Dwyer’s reassurances, the short-sighted Thackeray was not keen to move closer for a better look. Despite this, the experienced Dwyer gave an instructive narration of all the manoeuvres taking place. Afterwards, when walking into Dublin after the parade, with all things military on his mind, Thackeray commented to Dwyer about the idea of writing Waterloo into fiction:

Thackeray remarked that a great amount of interest still attached to everything connected with Waterloo, the British public seeming never to tire of it; he had been thinking since we met at dinner of writing something on the subject himself, but he did not see his way clearly. Lever’s treatment of it in ‘O’Malley’ seemed to him much too imaginative and high-flown, in fact audacious and regardless of all probability. This I could scarcely deny, but said that Lever thought only of his hero, and used the battle itself just as the manager of a theatre does the scenes which he gets painted to suit the dialogue. Thackeray thought that the amount of interest shown was a proof of the existence of a very deep-seated national feeling, and having survived so long, ‘how intense,’ said he, ‘must it have been at the time, and how widely spread amongst all classes of society.’ From what Captain Siborne had mentioned at Lever’s house, added to what he had himself seen on that day at the review, he seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that it would be useless for him to attempt anything in the way of military scene-painting that could lay the slightest claim to correctness, and he scarcely disguised his ridicule of Lever’s method of treating such matters… On the whole, too, he seemed much inclined to ‘laugh at martial might,’ although he still held to the idea that ‘something might be made of Waterloo,’ even without the smoke and din of the action being introduced. I have an indistinct recollection, too, of his having said as much subsequently at Lever’s house. Years afterwards, on reading ‘Vanity Fair,’ the whole conversation and the circumstances under which it took place, came back to me, and I became aware of the great thoughtfulness and foresight with which Thackeray planned out his work, and how careful he was to attempt nothing doubtful or beyond his power.

Thackeray made of Waterloo a story of human details, relationships and tragedies; the Duchess of Richmond’s ball being a scene which the dialogue could play to, rather than the opposite. Thackeray saw individual tragedy and heartbreak through the haze of battle heroics. So it plays out, in Chapter XXIX, with the ill-treated, pregnant Amelia. After the ball George returns to his wife, who is asleep on the bed, and is struck by an all too late realisation, one of guilt and regret:

By the pale night-lamp he could see her sweet, pale face – the purple eyelids were fringed and closed, and one round arm, smooth and white, lay outside of the coverlet. Good God! how pure she was; how gentle, how tender, and how friendless! and he, how selfish, brutal, and black with crime! Heart-stained, and shame-stricken, he stood at the bed’s foot, and looked at the sleeping girl. How dared he – who was he, to pray for one so spotless! God bless her! God bless her! He came to the bedside, and looked at the hand, the little soft hand, lying asleep; he bent over the pillow noisily towards the gentle pale face. Two fair arms closed tenderly round his neck as he stooped down. “I am awake, George,” the poor child said, with a sob fit to break the little heart that nestled so closely by his own. She was awake, poor soul, and to what? At that moment a bugle from the Place of Arms began sounding and was taken up through the town; and amidst the drums of the infantry, and the shrill pipes of the Scotch, the whole city awoke.

George marches with his regiment, off to war, and is subsequently killed on the field of Waterloo a few days later, shot through the heart. However, Thackeray remains true, not concentrating on military scene-painting and keeps the narrative on Amelia, in Brussels, alongside the other civilians; the only reference to the battle being the roar of cannon in the distance, as the women worry and Brussels panics. The narrator comments in Chapter XXX that:

We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants. When the decks are cleared for action we go below and wait meekly. We should only be in the way of the manoeuvres that gallant fellows are performing overhead.

In this, Thackeray created something quite unique among the portrayals of Waterloo at the time; something humanist and something not triumphant, or jingoistic, as might be expected. Indeed, at the end of Chapter XXXII, Thackeray writes the most extraordinary, shockingly modern paragraph, alluding to the futility of war and the lie behind so-called triumph:

The tale is in every Englishman’s mouth; and you and I, who were children when the great battle was won and lost, are never tired of hearing and recounting the history of that famous action. Its remembrance rankles still in the bosoms of millions of the countrymen of those brave men that lost the day. They pant for an opportunity of revenging that humiliation; and if a contest, ending in a victory on their part, should ensue, elating them in their turn, and leaving its cursed legacy of hatred and rage behind to us, there is no end to the so-called glory and shame, and to the alternations of successful and unsuccessful murder, in which two high-spirited nations might engage. Centuries hence, we Frenchmen and Englishmen might be boasting and killing each other still, carrying out bravely the Devil’s code of honour.

Thackeray died in 1863 as one of Britain’s most successful and cherished satirists. Among his other well known works are: The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) and Pendennis (1848-50).

“Aut Visum Aut Non” An Interview with David Milne – Curator of 18 Folgate Steet

May 9, 2011

Aut Visum Aut Non” – You either see it or you don’t – the motto of 18 Folgate Street, Denis Sever’s House.  And it is a house, not a museum, so says David Milne, its curator, though he defines his role more as “custodian,” to keep Sever’s vision alive. 

In 1979, Dennis Sever, a young Californian, purchased the dilapidated house on Folgate Street, amongst the other ghosts of Spitalfields’ past. In 1999 he died, but in the two decades previous Dennis had transformed himself and his house into a sublime echo of London’s Georgian past, living only by candlelight, without electricity or any of the 20th Century’s other modern amenities.  It wasn’t long before Dennis accepted paying visitors into his home to view what he had created. “At first they laughed,” explains Milne, mostly the academics whose sensibilities were not welcoming to an American creating his own, not altogether authentic, 18th Century paradise in the heart of the East End. Yet, for the great majority, such as Milne, who truly did see – in reference to the Latin script motto – their eyes were opened onto an entirely unique world, completely unrivalled by any of the other historical houses in Britain, or indeed the world.      

Kitchen of 18 Folgate Street

This is not to say that there is not an opposite view. Many, especially in the early days, cited the house as something unrealistic – and that it couldn’t possibly be a true representation of what it sought to emulate. Though there is, undeniably, something ostentatious about the house, it is not supposed to be something of text book precision, but, as Milne puts it, something more about “taste,” in the tangy flavour sense of the word. So it’s important not to miss the point in all of this; the first thing that you notice, that appeals to one’s senses, is the smell. This is apparent as soon as you enter the house. It’s something that teasingly can’t be placed, a musty smokiness that can suddenly transform into a sweet scented bouquet as you enter another room. Unlike exhibitions and houses that attempt to reproduce a past time, that are often cold and stale, 18 Folgate Street is something that massages the senses through the spectacle of its own drama.

Milne is also keen to point out that there is a confine in all of this, a narrative. When Dennis Sever was alive he created a fictional family of Huguenot silk-weavers, by the name of Jervis, who co-habited the house with him. This idea has been kept and each room portrays evidence of their existence – it being designed as if they have just left the room, always remaining elusive, but still tangible. In this way, it is the small details that count, and there are many such minutiae that come together, joyously, to make this representation: a cup of coffee, still warm and steaming; another cup broken on the floor; the aftermath of a nights booze up, with wine stains on the table cloth and toppled chairs in the true Hogarthian manner; freshly buttered scones on a plate; an ink scribbled note on a table; a wig casually flung to the side; all props in the grand performance. Above all, Dennis Sever called his house, his home, a “still-life drama”.

Milne and Sever were good friends. The first time Milne glared through the windows of 18 Folgate Street he believed, for one brief moment, that he had stumbled into a real 18th Century scene. From that moment, the house had affected a gravitational pull upon him. He tells me – as we sit in the ground floor lounge, with shards of light penetrating the dusty air – that as the years went by he became more involved with the house, and when Dennis was dying of cancer Milne told him that he would fully commit himself to the house. Dennis, who was in his final few weeks of his life, simply replied: “You will do what you want.”  A strange comment perhaps, but, as Milne explains, Dennis really meant this as a sort of freedom, knowing that the house could only survive in its current exceptional epoch of non-conformity by its own individuality, but also the passion of people willing to involve themselves with it.

David Milne

As the interviewer, I, of course, had come prepared with a prepared list of questions; perhaps the obvious assortment of expected queries. However, this soon appeared drivel of the highest order – Milne and 18 Folgate Street, both endearing, seemed to require a higher question, something more profound. Milne, in particular, spoke with an importance directed towards what the house represented, but not pompously so. It seemed that what really mattered, in this age of sterility, was that it was a haven for the imagination, where the story could be set, and thrive. Indeed, it is of little surprise that the house appeals particularly to the artist; David Hockney being counted amongst its more notable admirateurs. In this aspect, for me, it also soon became very apparent that the usual questions that should be directed towards a museum or historical place simply couldn’t be applied to 18 Folgate Street. Therefore, the conversation was very much centred on an organic dialogue where a certain theme would emerge, rather than be summoned – and so the interview carried on.      

Milne made reference to a group of Italians who had recently visited and who likened the place to a Caravaggio painting. In this sense, Milne touches upon one of the central points in the psyche of the house: the theatrical eccentricity of its own conception. In terms of public history, the house has now come to serve as an inspiration. Historical trusts, from all over the world, now come to 18 Folgate Street for ideas about how to enliven their own exhibits. Milne himself has travelled far and wide to endear 18 Folgate Street’s particular and peculiar philosophy to a now more receptive crowd of academics seeking to make history come alive. So the great notion is to add colour to black and white and, in doing so, to enliven the public to the great whiffs of history, to walk through the door and be hit by a wave of scented history. So it is, indeed, an oddity, a museum and theatre in one, a concept which is seeping ever more into accepted public history thought. I, for one, think this can only be a great positive for the concept of the “museum”. For this is a place where you come to walk in the dimly lit space, to soak up the aromatic blend of a past drama; one of trodden antique carpets, breadcrumbs between the floorboards – glorious untidiness – ruffled bed sheets, un-emptied chamber pots and tobacco dirtied punch tables. Here you can, with only a small dose of one’s own imagination, experience the scents and whispers of history’s elusive spectres: “Aut Visum Aut Non

For visiting hours and other info on 18 Folgate Street visit their website at

Wyld’s Great Globe 1851 AD

March 9, 2011

It was a beautiful thing, the Globe, an orb of planetary wonder and awe; home to the human race; the perfect construct; the representation of God’s creation – 60 feet and 4 inches in diameter – ‘Wyld’s Great Globe’ was truly a wondrous fabrication. Situated in Leicester Square, it was the earth in miniature, easily navigated and traversed by the viewing citizen. As Punch Magazine noted:

‘First of all, there is not a single turnpike on the road. There is no dust, nor any throwing of eggs, nor flour, as on the journey from Epsom. And again, there are no beggars, as in Ireland, – no revolutions, as in France, – no monks or mosquitoes, as in Italy – and no insults, as in America.’

An eccentric entity, it was designed to coincide with the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, but its own ambition in size had excluded it from the not so small Crystal Palace. A planetarium in opposite, it forsook the spectacle of the cosmos and focused, instead, on the marvels of the more worldly formation of the earth incarnate. A hollowed out sphere, 188 feet in circumference, the atlas was inverted so that the public viewed the shaped landscape from the inside of the gas-lit sphere. Ascending and descending an internal staircase, it was a theatre of geographical features, depicting not just continents, but also the various and to scale precipitous elevations – plaster of Paris the surrogate to natural geology.

File:Greatglobe sectional.png

Cross Section of Wyld's Globe

Although some may have observed that the ‘Great Almighty’ had created his universe in a mere six days – Wyld’s taking 3 months – and that in comparison it was somewhat more exquisite than its Leicester Square rival, Wyld’s creation was no less miraculous in its own conception. At a cost of one shilling the curious visitor would enter, or rather emerge, from the southern part of the Pacific Ocean. Antarctica was absent, Wyld dismissing the presence of a great southern polar continent as an absurd notion. He did, however, find a use for the void space in the less romantic fashion of staircase supports. The North Pole did, on the other hand, exist in the form of a somewhat inadequate ventilation system that caused the tourist to perspire to the extreme. One contemporary writer noted, with irony, that ‘the heat reflected on all sides from the concave surfaces rises to make a little Sahara of the North Pole Station’. The surface of Wyld’s earth was ten miles to the inch. Yet, to better portray the bumps and dips of his contoured masterpiece, it was decided to extenuate these features by an altitude 10x that of the surface: a mile to the inch. It was not the exemplar of ordinance survey precision. Rather, it was an exercise in cartographic amusement: placidly serene rivers, fiery molten lava volcanoes and all. After taking a few steps forward past the Cape of Good Hope the viewer would fly over the Indian Ocean and reach Australia; taking flight up more steps, the west coast of Africa, the Atlantic and Panama; the next level, the central Pacific, Asia, North Africa; the final fourth gallery, and highest accent of mankind, Europe, and North America. As an attraction it proved popular. Just as the Great Exhibition itself, it drew in the massed multitude as well as the aristocratic notables. Commenting on the Globe, Punch found great similarities with that of a beefsteak pie, with its hard-baked pastry surface, bumpy potato hills, and rich gravy tributaries. Casting their eye on England they found it remarkable:

‘That a country which occupies so large a space in the thoughts of the world, should take up so little room on the surface of it. England, that has filled so many leaves in the world’s history, is scarcely the size of a cabbage leaf; and London, which prides itself upon being the centre of civilization, is not half so big as Tom Thumb’s nose.’

1851: It was a time to stand back and survey the country’s achievements. Britannia ruled the waves; it also ruled a not insignificant portion of terra firma, a quarter, in fact, of the world’s crusty coating of mountains, desert, rainforest, hills, and various other geographical interests. Hugeness as a unit had been redefined and measurement was the religion that translated topographical wonder into more easily deciphered visage. A cheap black and white print of aqua-sublime falls in a Canadian extreme, an exotically well-stocked Serengeti plain, or a succulent Himalayan foothill was all very well when it came down to landscaped vista, but in terms of empire, it failed to convey the vastness of it all. More importantly, the distance and grand mottled complexity of a world empire could not be summarised by a lone chimp precariously perched on the branch of the juju tree. Something else had to employed to sweep away geo-ignorance. As the Empire’s soldiers, explorers and chaplains ventured out into vast undefined continents, to ‘conquer’ was not just a military or evangelical idiom, but one of geographical delineation – holding up a battered lamp to the dark, scarily veiled, unknowns. Those that returned came back with queer objects and fantastical fables of hellish mosquito infested infernos. They also brought back the holiest of all explorative objects: the accurately drawn map.

 By the mid-19th Century the compiled knowledge of a generation’s voyage was being grafted together into ever more detailed atlases, not just of the world, but also of the Empire. There was no better literal illustration of a nation’s success than a topographical list of possession. Educated citizens wanted, quite literally, to widen their horizons beyond the chimney pot landscapes of London and the homely hop fields of Home Counties Kent and Sussex. If Britannia possessed the empire on which the sun never set, then one, or rather those destiny ordained Christians of Albion, should better know what it was, exactly, that they owned. For there was a genuine sense of religious responsibility: to educate, enlighten and Christianize the dark corners of the world. Exporting godly values to the heathen was the basis of the Empire’s spiritual economy. India had been the original project for these bright aspirations. Missionaries in 1851 could pronounce with confidence that the sub-continent had been cured of many of its superstitious and morally backward failings. Of course the Mutiny of 1857 would shake these over-enthusiastic pretentions to virtual oblivion, but nonetheless, the self-congratulation of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had created not so much a righteous crusade, but rather an escalating series of pious excursions, armed with guns as well as bibles, to areas already opened up by the jaunts of imperial commerce. The middle of the 19th Century saw the great project turn its gaze upon the ‘Dark Continent’.

Comparison was all too obvious. In Wyld’s guidebook to accompany his globe he described, in deep contrast to Britain, Africa’s ‘low state of civilisation’ and his own theoretical explanation for its current state:

‘The great mainland of Africa is as yet too little known, and too little civilised, to afford the interest of other portions of the globe. Shaped like a heart, the vast rainless desert of the Sahara, in the larger upper portions, forms a physical feature of the greatest significance. By this barrier civilization was prevented from travelling south, and trade impeded.’

For Wyld, geography was at the heart of civilisation. He looked back to the explanations of history to assess ‘the great facts of physical and political geography, with their thousand incidents’. It was commerce that was the true necessity of exploration and civilisation. The Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans had thrived and perished on these principles. The overland Indo-European trade routes of the Middle-Ages, that linked the subcontinent to Europe, had brought great wealth and discovery to numerous nations. Yet, as Wyld argued, upon the discovery of the sea route around the southern Cape of Africa, the land route, and in turn the Mediterranean, had been rendered void, to the great cost of Alexandria, Constantinople, Genoa and Venice in terms of wealth and prosperity. The same rules, gains and dangers, applied to Africa and, indeed, the British Empire itself. Knowledge, therefore, of the Earth’s intricate terrains, natural barriers, treasure bearing seas, caravan carrying plains and gold laden hills, was the key factor in the wealth of nations and their peoples. Wyld was not alone in this summation.

Wyld, more than anyone else, realised how these gains and consequent effects might be converted into a more tangible piece of personal enterprise. Wyld believed that:

‘What one examines for amusement, another investigates for business; while the child is gathering up the elements of the past, the politician is diving into the future, and the man of business seeking how he may profit by the present.’

Of these it was the very latter, ‘the present’, which most concerned him; for it was the exchange of currency that most excited his calculating mind. He had inherited the business, J. Wyld & Son, from his father, James Wyld the Elder. The father had infused the son with his own vast knowledge of the world. The Younger Wyld also learnt of the substantial remunerations that could be gained from a lucrative business. Wyld the Elder had brought the business up through the production of high-quality and varied maps – the military movements of the Peninsular War, and in 1815, the year of Waterloo, he published the New map of the world, exhibiting at one view the extent, religion, population, and degrees of civilisation of each country. His maps also covered the dead ancient civilisations, printing charts of Giovanni Baptista Belzoni’s travels into antiquity in Egypt. These all sold well and running through his son’s veins was the same mercantile blood. When Father Wyld died in 1836, being buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, the baton fell to James Wyld the Younger.


James Wyld the Younger

In 1851, the year of his Globe, Wyld marketed a multitude of maps and crucially they were cheap. A 2ft. High 2ft 8in. wide Map of Afghanistan was procurable at an affordable ten shillings. A similar sized map of India, showing its civil and military stations, cost 15 shillings. Australia just was 6 shillings; and a General Map of Africa, just five shillings. Wyld’s Educational Maps, depicting the worlds continents and Britannia itself, was 6s in sheets, 14s varnished, providing the customer with the most recent discoveries via the travels of her most courageous explorers. There was even an up to date Missionary Atlas, ‘showing the stations of the Protestant missionary societies’, depicting Christianity’s moral fronts and frontlines throughout the world – the armchair general’s evangelical atlas of operation. Wyld’s mapmaking was not just limited to the speculation of the general public. In recognition of his work he was made geographer to Queen Victoria and H.R.H. Prince Albert, something of which Wyld did not fail to allude to in his advertising, for he was also the grand master of self-promotion. Enclosing his giant Globe in 1851 was a building containing atlases and maps, his own; educating and advertising, acting as school and gigantean billboard in one. Opportunity called in 1854 with the start of the Crimean War; an expedition of national pride and not just the answer to the pesky Eastern Question. Wyld cashed in on the mood by fitting out a room with a large map of Sevastopol with model armies and the trophies of war – appealing to the boyish tin soldier psyche as much apparent in grown adults as in excitable eight year old boys. The Globe lasted just ten years, but commercially it was a triumph with Wyld recouping his expenses in the first year alone. In 1853 1.2 million visited. It was also a coup in didactic education. School parties were given access for half-price and the whole project was remarkably modern in its novel notion: providing knowledge via an interactively quirky exhibition, appealing to commoner and gentleman alike and enduring longer in span than its approximates 150 years later. James Wyld the Younger died in 1887 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.