Travel and visual memory

September 3, 2012

‘I don’t travel with a camera. My holiday becomes the snapshots and anything I forget to record is lost’, says the protagonist of Alex Garland’s 1990s backpacker novel The Beach, which Danny Boyle made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and, weirdly, Tilda Swinton. The Beach was a blockbuster, both as a book and as a film, partly because it represented an increasingly popular experience: relatively affluent young men and women from England travelling ‘gap year’ itineraries through South-east Asia.

Garland’s statement about photographs is something of a commonplace now, at the end of the summer holidays, in 2012 – the idea that the holiday album can replace the memory of the holiday. The holiday and the memory of the holiday are counterpointed, or triangulated, in Garland’s imagination, against visual capture.

Seventeenth-century understandings of visual representation have been given a great deal of critical attention over the past two decades. In the introduction to Artful Science: Enlightenment, Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education, Barbara Maria Stafford argues that ‘visual education’ ‘arose in the early modern period’:

Significantly, it developed on the boundaries between art and technology, game and experiment, image and speech. The exchange of information was simultaneously creative and playful. We need, therefore, to get beyond the artificial dichotomy presently entrenched in our society between higher cognitive function and the supposed merely physical manufacture of ‘pretty pictures’. In the integrated (not just interdisciplinary) research of the future, the traditional fields studying the development and techniques of representation will have to merge with the ongoing enquiry into visualization. In light of the present electronic upheaval, the historical understanding of images must form part of a continuum looking at the production, function and meaning of every kind of design. [p.xxv]

It was common, in late seventeenth-century England, for relatively affluent young gentlemen of a certain disposition to take themselves off on an educational foreign tour, keeping, usually, to conventional itineraries. When Edward Browne, aged 24, was travelling in Europe in 1668-9, he sent many things home: a box full of different kinds of metal ore, several notebooks, a diary, copied-out letters; a book of dried plants from the physic garden at Padua, and probably much else too. He sent most of these things to his father, Thomas Browne, in Norwich, and other things to the Royal Society in London. Edward Browne also bought back at least two picture albums, now held in the British Library (Additional manuscripts 5233 and 5234). Unfortunately, copyright and image charges mean I can’t reproduce them here. Captions and verbal descriptions will have to give a sense of Browne’s collection.

The opening pages contain a series of black and white engravings and watercolours of Turkey and Persia. They show desert landscapes, markets, camps, riders, and, on folio 13, ‘The curing of ye colicke by ye Persians by treading on their Bellies, & ye hubble bubble or Instrumt thro which they smoke Tobacco’.

Browne also has a picture of a jasper waterbutt owned by a hairdresser in Cairo. A Sultan’s crown with ‘Oestridge egges’ dangling off it with the apostles’ faces drawn on them. A Moorish palace with moors and jesters looking out of the windows.  Portraits of gypsies in their costumes. What looks like a placid cow, but turns out to be a gilded bull: ‘Among the many odde curiosities in the City of Nurnburg I observd a bull of wood and guilded and set in the Shambles’. There are several town views and pictures of bridges and aqueducts. (Browne was especially interested in bridges, and in the back of a different journal he had made a list of  ‘famous bridges I have seen’ – all the famous London bridges, the bridge in Bristol, Pont Neuf in Paris – and so on.)

In the middle of the book, looking a bit out of place, is  ‘John Higgins born at Wolsall in Staffordshire’ – Higgins, most likely an acrobat, is shown doing ‘his several postures’.

There are pictures of different kinds of boats, with captions: ‘In these boats live whole families’. There is a diagram sent from Lisbon of the late eruption at Tenerife, and a representation of an enormous pillar, which is done as one very long projecting arm, cut out (perhaps a couple of centimetres wide) and folded into the book – when you fold it out, it reaches about a metre or so beyond the album.

When Browne got home he published his Travels in two different books of 1673 and 1677. The books were successful, and the two were published together in a more lavish synoptic edition of 1685. This edition had more pictures in it, most of which had been engraved from the originals in Browne’s albums.  In the preface to the new edition, Browne declines to describe these new pictures, because a ‘Particular Description’ in the preface ‘would prevent the satisfaction of considering [these objects] in their proper places; to which I shall refer you, wishing you the same pleasure in viewing them there, that I have had formerly in beholding them in their due Situations, and in the Contemplation and Description of them afterwards’ (Browne 1685, sig.Ar).

There is an interesting analogy between the real object, in its ‘due situation’ – things as they are seen in their native environments – and ‘viewing them’ as they are visually represented in the book. These two things are counterpointed, or triangulated, in Browne’s imagination, against verbal description, which would ‘prevent the satisfaction’ of visual experience in the ‘proper places’. In his mind, at least as he describes it here, visual memory is analogous to real experience, and it is in writing that places are displaced in our minds. I am sure Browne’s picture collections would be worth further study.

* British Library Additional Manuscript 5233,4

* Edward Browne, A Brief Account of Some Travels in Hungaria, Austria, Styria, Servia, Bulgaria, Carinthia, Macedonia, Carniola., Thessaly and Friuli, London: Benjamin Tooke at St Paul’s, 1673

* An Account of Several Travels Through a great part of Germany, London: For Benjamin Tooke at the sign of the Ship, 1677

* A brief account of some travels in divers parts of Europe viz Hungaria, Servia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Thessaly, Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, and Friuli : through a great part of Germany, and the Low-Countries : through Marca Trevisana, and Lombardy on both sides of the Po, London: For Benjamin Tooke at the sign of the Ship, 1685

* Alex Garland, The Beach, London: Penguin 1996

* Barbara Maria Stafford, Artful Science: Enlightenment, Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1994


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