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Western Viewers, Eastern Subjects: Scenes of Empire from the Illustrated Plate Books in the Mrs. James Ward Thorne Collection

January 2, 2007–May 1, 2007
Ryerson and Burnham Libraries

Britain’s triumph over France in the Seven Years’ War marked its emergence as a global power. The Franco-British Treaty of Paris (1763) gave Britain control over India, which in turn encouraged British citizens to travel to the subcontinent. In the later 18th century, a series of British military victories in India intensified interest in the new colony among the British public.

Eager to feed their curiosity, many British travelers made the long trip to India, finding along the way equally fascinating areas. Those who ventured by land were captivated by the sights and cultures of the Near East, including Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. Those who chose to travel by sea often did so for scientific or political gain. Captain James Cook’s voyages to the Pacific, for example, added Australia to Britain’s sphere of influence. Such travels fed a publishing industry eager to supply visual information about Britain’s exotic lands to a curious and image-hungry public.

Drawn from a collection of over 600 18th- and 19th-century illustrated colorplate books given to the Art Institute in 1940 by Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Western Viewers, Eastern Subjects shows the world of the East as it was reported by British travelers. Foreign travel titles such as the ones featured in the exhibition were widely collected and were a staple of many wealthy individuals’ libraries in the 1920s. Thorne, in fact, used many of her books as visual sources for the creation of her famous miniature rooms. Most of her travel titles are included and described in the standard catalogue of colorplate books based on a collection formed by Major J. R. Abbey, now at the Yale Center for British Art.

Killader's Tomb, Ouscottah, plate from Mysore Views, drawn on the spot by Lieut. James Hunter. Sold and Published by Edwd. Orme, His Majesty's Printseller, 59 New Bond Street, London.