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Seeing history in colour makes the past less foreign

Seeing history in colour makes the past less foreign

A vivid panorama of the world from 1850 to 1960 is both startling and educative

A vivid panorama of the world from 1850 to 1960 is both startling and educative

David Gelber | August 15th 2018

“Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred”, wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson, commemorating the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean war. Around 110 men died in the assault, which was seen as so disastrous it led to the resignation of the British government. Roger Fenton took this picture of the local landscape (below) six months after the battle. Yet even at this early date in the history of photography, images were not immune to manipulation. Fenton was accused of dressing the scenery with cannonballs to add to the drama of the scene. Long before the advent of Photoshop, the camera was proving itself a less than reliable witness.

“The Colour of Time”, a collaboration between the historian Dan Jones and the artist Marina Amaral, opens with Fenton’s confection. The book presents a panorama of world history from 1850 to 1960 through 200 photographs taken during this period. The pictures, though, are very different from the grainy, monochrome images that readers of the Daily Sketch, the Graphic and countless other newspapers launched to take advantage of the new medium would have seen: they have been rendered into full colour. The results are often startling, even in the cases of familiar images, of which there are a fair few.

 

Valley of death The site of the Battle of Balaclava (Image: Getty and Marina Amaral)

To some extent, “The Colour of Time” is an exercise in fancy. Jones and Amaral admit that while they have tried to base their colour selections on research, hues that cannot be verified must be left to the palette of the imagination. In many cases, the events that the authors have chosen to document constrain the range of colours. For the decades of the two world wars, khaki, gunmetal and umber predominate. Elsewhere, though, there are opportunities for more exuberant turns: portraits of kings and queens in shimmering robes and glistening jewels, shots of airships combusting and incendiaries burning, studies of actors and performers in outlandish costumes and daring make-up. Occasionally, the heavy hand of CGI intercedes – a dress seems too garish, a skyscape too phosphorescent, a pair of eyes too piercing – but for the most part the effects are plausible.

The title promises a global history, and the pictures do not disappoint: Asia and Africa go toe to toe with Europe and the Americas. Without fanfare, the authors have chosen photographs that not only document the major events of the period, but also speak to the present. Holy war, racial and gender inequalities, climate change, innovations in communication, fake news – none of these, “The Colour of Time” reminds us, are unique to our own century. 

 

Lewis Powell, 1865

Monarchs, presidents and politicians were quick to embrace photography as a way of reaching parts of the public previously beyond their reach. But it was soon not enough for the people simply to know their leaders. If anything, the public appetite for images of outlaws, rebels and criminals was greater than for pictures of the statesmen these figures defied. Alexander Gardner’s portrait of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirator Lewis Powell sought to satisfy that hunger. Powell, who stabbed US secretary of state William H. Seward almost to death in 1865, looks more like a matinee idol than a murderer manqué. Was this a 19th-century version of clickbait?

 

Slave auction house, Atlanta, 1860s

The barbarities of slavery are nowadays well known, but perhaps more shocking to modern eyes even than the sight of slaves toiling on a plantation is an image such as this from Atlanta in the 1860s, showing an auction house for trafficked humans lodged casually among tobacconists and homeware stores. Rendered in bright colours, the photograph is more arresting still – a reminder of how, right up to the time of abolition, the trade in slaves carried on in plain sight, in spite of the international censure directed at those who perpetuated it.

 

Japanese naval officers, 1894

Today, China is the undisputed hegemon of Asia, but at the end of the 19th century it was a different story. In 1894 Japan went to war against the Qing dynasty of China. In less than a year it had seized Taiwan and parts of Manchuria and ended Chinese suzerainty over Korea. The following decade, the Japanese routed the Russians and established themselves as masters of the western Pacific. This picture, taken aboard a Japanese corvette during the first of these conflicts, shows how rapidly the previously closed country had embraced Western technology in the four decades since Commodore Perry sailed into the Bay of Edo.

 

The HMS Audacious in a storm, 1914

HMS Audacious, one of the Royal Navy’s most advanced ships, had been in service for only a year when it was sunk by a German mine in October 1914, a few months into the first world war. The loss of one of its capital vessels in the early stages of the conflict was more ignominy than the British government could bear. Its destruction was kept secret by the Admiralty. For four years, HMS Audacious continued to appear on naval lists and schedules of ship movements as though it were riding the waves rather than sitting on the seabed. The episode gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “an audacious lie”.

 

Syria, 1925

Damascus smoulders. This picture of the Syrian capital in ruins could come from 2018. In fact, it was taken almost a century earlier. In 1925, as in 2011, the Syrian people rose against a small elite that monopolised power in the country. In this case, the ruling clique was formed not of Alawites but of Frenchmen. Following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during the first world war, France had been granted sovereignty over Syria by the League of Nations, but much of its largely Muslim population resented the imposition of a foreign, heathen power. It took two years for the French to suppress the revolt, which, then as now, was characterised by fierce urban fighting.

 

Measuring swimsuits, 1920s

The early decades of the 20th century saw European and American women achieve hard-fought victories in the fields of suffrage and workplace rights. Yet well into the 1920s and beyond, women continued to be treated as second-class citizens, subject to despotic and demeaning restrictions. In Washington, DC, for instance, female bathers in the Potomac River were inspected to ensure that their swimwear rose no more than four inches above the knee. The fashion police, needless to say, were male. 

The Colour of Time: A New History of the World 1850 to 1960 by Dan Jones & Marina Amaral (Head of Zeus)