Visualising History: Geography, Art and Exhibitions

by Fiona Ferbrache

Emigration, Plymouth Cattewater (oil painting by Gordon Frickers, (www.frickers.co.uk/art/home-page/) reproduced with his kind permission).

Many different forms of representation have provided inspiration to geographers: works of literature, art, photography, political analysis, tutorials and journal articles, to name a few.

Recently, I had the opportunity to view some paintings produced by marine artist Gordon Frickers, which provide detailed insight on geographies of the modern and ancient marine world.  Frickers’ paintings are underpinned by comprehensive research of written texts, photographs and objects to produce a visual portrait that is as accurate as possible.  One of his scenes Emigration, Plymouth Cattewater, is an illustration of emigrants departing Plymouth in the 19th century¹.  This particular painting reveals a largely forgotten business at a time of significant historical migration, and invites the viewer’s curiosity.  It seems clear that geographers cannot understand the world without paying attention to such visual forms of representation.

In 2009, the RGS-IBG hosted an exhibition: Hidden Histories Made Visible.  Its aim was to bring into full view those people who have been only partially visible in other representations i.e. photographers, Sherpas and cartographers who made expeditions possible but who remain in the shadow of explorers such as Livingstone and Mallory.  The exhibition is the subject of Felix Driver’s paper in TIBG.  He illustrates the way in which the exhibition challenges assumptions about the history of exploration and geography – in this case celebrating the role of the supporting team rather than the individual explorer.  Driver demonstrates how the exhibition’s choreography conveys this message, and reminds us that any representation of the world – even an exhibition – is always partial.  For anyone organising an exhibition, this is a useful read.

After viewing Frickers’ work and reading Driver’s account of Hidden Histories, one is reminded of the value to geographers of paying critical attention to visual forms of representation.  In conjunction, a number of recent and current exhibitions might inspire geographers with alternative perspectives:

The Robinson Institute by Patrick Keiller at the Tate Modern

Writing Britain: wastelands to wonderlands at the British Library

Geographical blueprint: the art of the handcrafted globe at the Royal Geographical Society

Felix Driver, Hidden histories made visible? Reflections on a geographical exhibition,Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00529.x

Gordon Frickers’ website provides further information about his paintings and associated research.

¹ The Port of Chester was also a significant point of departure for emigrants, albeit less so than the major ports of London, Liverpool and Plymouth.  Frickers’ The Port of Chester (1863), shows this port at its busiest period.

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