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Seminar on “Raffles and the Ruins of Empire” by Dr Sarah Tiffin

Monday, 10 December 2018 – Dr Sarah Tiffin spoke at a Politics of Arts in Southeast Asia seminar on the depictions of the ruins of Java by British artists. In particular, the seminar examined the illustrations of ruined Hindu and Buddhist candis which appeared in the book by Sir Stamford Raffles, The History of Java (1817), and how the depiction and production of these illustrations reveal his aspirations for British imperial rule in the region.

Dr Tiffin said that the illustrations in The History of Java were typical of the way in which ruins were consumed and understood by early nineteenth century British audiences – these images conveyed spectacular and grandiose human achievements that are eventually doomed to decay. She pointed out that the ruin was a popular motif of the picturesque style in Britain during the 18th and early 19th centuries. They were highly idealised and the style depicted nature not necessarily as it was, but how it should be: gracefully rustic and rugged. 

Ruined landscapes in The History of Java were not only altered to emphasise their picturesque qualities, but also designed to promote the imperial endeavour. Dr Tiffin argued that the conditions in these illustrations served to portray a benign and progressive rule of the culturally more advanced and technologically more sophisticated Europeans. An illustration of one of the temples on the Dieng Plateau by William Daniell, an accomplished English landscape artist and printmaker, was exhibited during the seminar. Dr Tiffin explained how Daniell interpreted Dutch drawings of the candi, and introduced the picturesque elements of plants and foliage over a once grand building to evoke thoughts on the transitory quality of human achievement. Other illustrations by James Mitan, members of Raffles’ administration, as well as other commissioned artists were also studied during the seminar. 


Professor Donald Weatherbee, ISEAS Visiting Professorial Fellow, and Dr Sarah Tiffin in conversation (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)

Raffles undoubtedly had a political or diplomatic strategic purpose in such depictions of the ruins. Dr Tiffin argued that The History of Java and its commissioned series of illustrations depicting melancholic landscapes with ruins were a subtle way for him to “imbue a sense of loss” of the Javanese Civilization’s glory and, by extension, a lost opportunity for the British in not colonizing Java. She concluded the seminar by comparing The History of Java ruin images with an illustration published in 1830 of a view of the town and harbour taken from Government Hill (now known as Fort Canning Hill) in Singapore. According to Dr Tiffin, the Singapore illustration represented the antithesis of The History of Java ruin landscapes. According to her, the viewer “is privileged with a vision as far reaching as Raffles’ own: looking over the burgeoning settlement, across the ship-filled harbour that was becoming of such consequence to British fortunes, and out to the open sea beyond”. 


Dr Tiffin interacting with the audience after the seminar (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)

During the question and answer session, the 67-strong audience ––– from ministries and embassies, universities, art galleries, museums, and private sectors ––– engaged with the speaker on a range of topics, including the purpose and use of figures in the picturesque landscape images, the influence of post-colonial discourse and theory in analysing the illustrations in Raffles’ volume, the problems in citation and the attribution of sources in The History of Java, the uneven attention given to Islam in The History of Java, and the range of motifs that were used in British depiction of Southeast Asia in art and literature.