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Modern Institutions and the Civilizing Mission

In September 1927, Edward McKnight Kauffer’s “One Third of the Empire is in the Tropics” poster set appeared on over one thousand specially built poster frames across Britain and in capital cities across the British Empire (figs. 1 and 2). Commissioned by the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), an organization established by the British government in May 1926 to increase sales of Empire goods and products, it was the Board’s first modernist poster series. Featuring a lush color palette, flattened perspective, geometric motifs and stylized Black bodies, these posters represents a troubling conflation of imperialist ideology and modernist aesthetics, all commissioned by a state-funded institution.

Edward McKnight Kauffer, “One Third of the Empire is in the Tropics” Poster Set
Fig. 1. Edward McKnight Kauffer, “One Third of the Empire is in the Tropics” Poster Set, Empire Marketing Board, 1927. L-R: Cocoa, Cocoa: Three-Fifths of the World’s Supply from Empire Sources, Jungles To-Day are Gold Mines To-Morrow, Bananas: The Empire Exports 12,000,000 Bunches a Year, Bananas. Images courtesy of Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. Reproduced with permission from Simon Rendall.
Fig. 2. Empire Marketing Board Hoardings
Fig. 2. “Empire Marketing Board Hoardings,” Commercial Art, February 4, 1928, 45. Image courtesy of David Bownes.

In The Location of Culture, Homi K. Bhabha explores how such institutions constructed and perpetuated what he terms “colonial discourse.” For Bhabha, this “form of discourse” is “crucial to the binding of a range of differences and discriminations that inform the discursive and political practices of racial and cultural hierarchization.”[1] He plays particular attention to the role of the stereotype, colonial discourse’s “major discursive strategy”: we can see colonial stereotypes at work in “One Third of the Empire is in the Tropics.” As Bhabha suggests, though, rather than simply identifying such images as positive or negative, our “point of intervention” should be to understand “the processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse” (Bhabha, Location, 67). In these posters, the processes of subjectification are complex and contradictory. The central inscription reveals that “WE” (Britain) sell more goods to the “TROPICAL AFRICAN COLONIES” than “WE” buy, rendering the territories more important as buyers than as producers. In Bananas and Cocoa (fig. 3), however, the EMB chooses not to depict the African population as consumers. Instead, they are depicted as primitive colonial subjects, working to harvest bananas and cocoa for “THE HOME COUNTRY.” Despite the statistics (which would have been illegible for those viewing the posters at a distance), the posters end up reinforcing the stereotypical image of Africans in traditional dress in jungles.

Edward McKight Kauffer, Cocoa,
Fig. 3. Edward McKnight Kauffer, Cocoa, Empire Marketing Board, 1927. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. Reproduced with permission from Simon Rendall.

Where do modernist aesthetics fit into this colonial discourse? On a surface level, modernist aesthetics refigured the empire as bright, exciting, and exotic. It was a rebranding exercise: the vocabulary of modern design helped colonial relations appear more progressive while the processes of subjectification remained the same. Posters like “One Third of the Empire is in the Tropics” represent just one way in which modern institutions mobilized modernist design to perpetuate colonial discourse. I refer here to “modern institutions” not modernist institutions: the organizations I’m concerned with (the EMB, the GPO, London Underground, Imperial Airways, etc.) used modernism in publicity materials, but I wouldn’t describe their organizing structure or their aims and objectives as “modernist.” Modernist aesthetics were employed strategically—of the 800 posters produced between 1926 and 1933, only a small proportion could be described as modernist—but as Michael McCluskey argues in his essay on the GPO, modernist design was used by interwar institutions to connote modernity and efficiency. According to its Secretary Stephen Tallents, the EMB used publicity to “present the Empire as a forward-looking conception, more modern and better equipped than some of the prevailing concentrations of international organization.”[2] Modernist design was particularly used to depict speed the swift and orderly exchange of goods and information across the empire, such as in “Make the Empire Share Larger,” produced by Mann (fig. 4).

Service Studios, “Make the Empire Share Larger” Poster Set
Fig. 4. Mann, “Make the Empire Share Larger” Poster Set, Empire Marketing board, c.1930. L-R: The Value of Our Foodstuffs and Raw Materials from Home (in black) and Overseas (drawn to scale) (inverse), Make the Empire Share Larger, Our Share (in black) of Total Imports into Some Empire and Foreign Countries (drawn to scale), Make the Empire Share Larger (inverse), The Value of Our Foodstuffs and Raw Materials from Home (in black) and Overseas (drawn to scale). Images courtesy of Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.

The relationship between colonial discourse and modernist aesthetics was not a simple, unidirectional one, however. As we will see below, colonial discourse shaped the institutional use of modernist art and design. The official nineteenth-century doctrine of the “civilizing mission” defined not only the way in which modern institutions interacted with “native” populations, but also domestic audiences. The idea that the populace needed to be “improved” by an artistic, legislative or intellectual elite characterized the work of many interwar institutions (the EMB, GPO, London Underground, Design & Industries Association, Arts League of Service) regardless of whether they addressed those living in the colonies, the British Isles, or both. These efforts to “improve” the population constitute one of the institutional strategies of population control described by Michel Foucault. As he reminds us in “The Subject and Power,” the term “government” refers not only to “political structures or to the management of states; rather it designate[s] the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed . . . To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others.”[3] I want to use this essay, in conjunction with McCluskey’s contribution to this cluster, to examine the ways in which institutions used modernist aesthetics to construct better citizens: individuals with patriotic buying habits, progressive views, and more refined artistic taste.

Art as a Civilizing Force

Despite its official remit to mount a “publicity campaign on behalf of Empire foodstuffs,” the EMB Publicity Committee’s emphasis quickly shifted from selling goods to ideas.[4] Through their poster, press, film, radio, exhibition and shop display campaigns, the publicity subcommittees portrayed the empire as a “forward-looking conception,” one which “stood for peace” and “fair labor conditions.”[5] This rhetoric of empire as a force for good characterizes what has variously been termed the “white man’s burden,” the “civilizing mission,” or “imperialist philanthropy”: as Michael Mann notes, central to these notions was the assumption that “colonial subjects were too backward to govern themselves and that they had to be ‘uplifted.’”[6] This philosophy imbued the EMB from its inception: its founder, the Conservative MP and Colonial Secretary Leo Amery talked about “vast backward regions of Africa, inhabited by primitive peoples whom we are only beginning to lift up from the more elementary barbarism”; in Tallents’s unpublished memoir, he states that “Every Colonial Civil Servant knows how much more could and should be done in helping backward peoples to learn new and more scientific ways of rearing their children, tilling their soil and improving their health” (“Prelude,” 10–11).[7] For Tallents and his colleagues, only the empire could help educate these “backward peoples.” It was an altruistic institution dedicated, in the words of Mann, to bringing “the fruits of progress and modernity to [its] subject peoples” (Mann, “Torchbearers,” 5).

The part that the EMB played in depicting and legitimizing the “civilizing mission” is well documented, most notably in Uma Kothari’s excellent 2014 Third World Quarterly article.[8] She describes how EMB posters portrayed “the colonized” as “‘out there’ yet also part of a collective project for the establishment of a common wealth of people across the Empire” (Kothari, “Trade,” 51). We can see this dual articulation of Otherness and community in “Empire Buyers are Empire Builders” (fig. 5).

“Empire Builders” Poster Set
Fig. 5. “Empire Builders” Poster Set, Empire Marketing Board, 1927. L-R: G. Spencer Pryse, Rice Planting in India; Dora Batty, The Rice Fields of India; Fred Taylor, The Empire Shop; Dora Batty, The Tea Gardens of Ceylon; G. Spencer Pryse, Tea Picking in Ceylon. Images courtesy of Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. G. Spencer Pryse images reproduced with permission from Tessa Spencer Pryse.

In this series, typical of the tone and style of early EMB poster sets, G. Spencer Pryse’s romanticized depictions of “native” workers laboring industriously for the good of the Empire flank Fred Taylor’s image of the quintessential English grocer, with a mother fulfilling her “duty of buying imperially” (Tallents, “Publicity,” 10). The posters collapse the vast and unknowable Empire, making it more accessible through the grocer’s shop with Empire goods labelled by country of origin and Dora Batty’s whimsical letterpress posters telling the story of tea. More importantly, the series reiterates a key EMB ideology: the idea of the Empire as a family, in which the Dominions are the brothers and sisters and the Colonies are the children.[9] Through the act of Empire buying, the grocer, mother, child and colonial subjects form a nuclear family characterized by “a visual language of care, interdependence and a common humanity,” yet one in which all races remain in their rightful place (Kothari, “Trade,” 57).

Adrian Allinson, “Colonial Progress Brings Home Prosperity” Poster Set
Fig. 6. Adrian Allinson, “Colonial Progress Brings Home Prosperity” Poster Set, Empire Marketing Board, 1930. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

The visual perpetuation of colonial discourse in EMB posters is at best troubling and at worst offensive, such as in Adrian Allinson’s “Colonial Progress Brings Home Prosperity” (fig. 6). These racist depictions have been critiqued in Kothari (2014), Horton (2010), and Constantine (1987). What has escaped recognition so far, however, is the extent to which the imperialist “civilizing mission” also shaped the EMB’s relations with domestic audiences, and, in turn, influenced the Board’s aesthetic choices.[10] This domestic “civilizing mission” was rarely referred to in these terms; as Frances Borzello notes, the nineteenth-century “missionary belief in art’s power to refine” was replaced in the twentieth century “with a missionary belief in art’s power to educate.”[11] Although the language changed, the impulse remained the same: both the public’s taste and values needed to be improved. According to Tallents, “the E. M. B.’s job was to sell the idea of Empire and, in so doing, to replace in men’s minds some false portraits. It had to avoid and correct any picture of the Empire as a jingo concern” (“Publicity,” 1). The language of “correction” is significant: members of the Poster Section committee such as Tallents, Frank Pick of the London Underground, and the advertising mogul Sir William Crawford sought to correct what they deemed to be outmoded political, moral or aesthetic ideas. For Crawford, the “real power of advertising is not to sell goods, but to form habits of thinking.” As early as November 1916, Pick argued that the ideal advertisement was “not of a fancy or patent commodity but of right living and right doing.”[12] Posters could be used, in the words of a 1932 Commercial Art & Industry article, “to educate the people, to improve their minds, to clear their outlook, and to bring to them a realization of all the great and manifold, cheap and easily obtainable comforts of our civilization.”[13] Like nineteenth-century religious missionaries before them, modern institutions like the EMB implicitly sought to “improve” and “correct” the British public’s inferior taste and behavior, this time through the medium of art and design.

Mobilizing Modernism

Given their instructional aims, the EMB commissioned artists and designers from across the contemporary art spectrum, from the “comparatively abstract” to the “comparatively naturalistic,” in order to educate “the people” about different types of contemporary art and design.[14] Styles ranged from J. Kerr Lawson’s muted biblical allegory “Service of Empire” to Guy Kortright’s art deco fashion illustration-inflected “Summer’s Oranges from South Africa,” to the heightened palette and simplified, geometric forms of Edgar Ainsworth’s “Buy From the Empire’s Gardens” (figs. 7–9).

J. Kerr Lawson, “Service of Empire” Poster Set
Fig. 7. J. Kerr Lawson, “Service of Empire” Poster Set, Empire Marketing Board, 1932. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery. 
Guy Kortright, “Summer Oranges from South Africa” Poster Set
Fig. 8. Guy Kortright, “Summer's Oranges from South Africa” Poster Set, Empire Marketing Board, 1928. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.
Edgar Ainsworth, “The Market Garden of the Tropics” Poster Set
Fig. 9. Edgar Ainsworth, “Buy From the Empire's Gardens” Poster Set, Empire Marketing Board, 1931. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

Modernism was an important part of this aesthetic spectrum, albeit used sparingly: Pick reflected that if “if all posters were Kauffer posters, the attractiveness of them would be lessened.”’[15] In an unpublished 1927 talk, Pick argued that posters could have an energizing and indeed transformative effect: they could make the “eye see things anew,” if only “for the moment.”[16] Modernist posters possessed a particular capacity to Make [the Empire] New: used appropriately, avant-garde art and design could help Tallents’s mission to “present the Empire as a forward-looking conception” (“Prelude,” 4). The poster series that best fulfilled this brief was Clive Gardiner’s 1928 “Empire Buying Makes Busy Factories” set, described by The Times as the “triumph of the series” (“Empire Posters, 11) (fig. 10).

Clive Gardiner, “Empire Buying Makes Busy Factories” Poster Set
Fig. 10. Clive Gardiner, “Empire Buying Makes Busy Factories” Poster Set, Empire Marketing Board, 1928. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

Despite criticisms that EMB posters were above the public’s heads, Gardiner’s set was, according to The Times, “enormously successful with the hard-headed men in the electrical engineering industry. It was said that they ‘lapped it up’” (Constantine, Buy and Build, 16; “Empire Posters,” 11). Putting the patronizing language to one side, it’s not hard to see why the posters were so popular. They are visceral images: the lack of perspective brings the explosive heat of the blast furnace forward; the rhythmic repetition of drills and pulleys and wheels evoke the cacophonous din of the motor workshop. Buck argues that Gardiner’s “portrayal of indistinguishable, robotic figures” “render[s] workers anonymous and less visible,” but in images like Motor Manufacturing I see something more heroic: a celebration, not a critique, of the modern factory worker (“Imagining Imperial Modernity,” 951) (fig. 11). For Tallents, one of the EMB’s central aims was to give workers “remote from the public eye . . . a sense that their work is at last being understood and justly valued and with that sense a new dignity and a new energy” (“Prelude,” 7). Abstract and fractured but still legible, Gardiner’s designs make the electrical and motor industries—and the role that they play in the British Empire—appear exciting and important. In doing so, they introduced a working-class audience to a type of art they might otherwise never have encountered.

Clive Gardiner, Motor Manufacturing
Fig. 11. Clive Gardiner, Motor Manufacturing, Empire Marketing Board, 1928. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

I could cite other examples of how the EMB utilized modernist design, such as in poster sets by H. S. Williamson or Rosemary and Clifford Ellis, whose contemporary twist on traditional English scenes introduced the public to a new way of seeing and thinking, not only about Britain’s role in the empire, but also about contemporary art and its place in life. To conclude, though, I’d like to think more broadly about the ways in which modern institutions mobilized modernist art and design to enact behavioral change. At the EMB and other interwar institutions, those commissioning modernist artists and designers had interlinked aims: to present an image of a modern and efficient organization (in this case, the British Empire; in McCluskey’s essay, the GPO), and to bring the public in line with their own tastes, values and habits. The implicit assumption was that if one improved the public’s taste, other improvements would follow: they would become more empathetic, more patriotic, more civilized.

Foucault’s portmanteau “governmentality” has been glossed by Bal Sokhi-Bulley as the “conduct of conducts,” meaning “the regulation (conduct) of behaviors (conducts).” We see these efforts to regulate behavior at the EMB and other modern institutions. What the EMB as a case study offers, though, is the opportunity to link governmentality with colonial discourse, using the “civilizing mission” as a through line with which to cut across “colonial” and “domestic” contexts. It reveals the extent to which modern institutions, whether state-funded or not, whether advertising empire products or not, were motivated by a “mission” with its roots in the othering and subsequent correction of members of “inferior” races and classes. By drawing parallels between colonialism and cultural paternalism, I do not want to negate the violence enacted upon victims of imperial oppression. Rather, I want to suggest that the racist and classist assumptions underpinning colonial discourse also underpinned modern institutions and the works they commissioned. What still needs to be fully teased out is the role that modernism played in this correctional process: why were modernist works deemed to be the high-watermark of cultural production?

In interrogating this question, we enter into a different discussion around modernism’s institutionalization. In their recent dialogue, “The Trouble with Modernism,” Michael Shallcross and Luke Seaber argue that the “New Modernist Studies” perversely “reaffirm, and even exacerbate, the underlying disciplinary presumption that has held firm since the New Critical era: that modernist literature is the self-evident aesthetic gold standard of early twentieth-century culture, against which everything else should be measured.” Examining the ways in which colonialist organizations like the EMB mobilized modernism as an aesthetic to aspire to allows us to excavate modernism’s institutionalization back further, and in doing so to shine a different light on its contemporary hegemony in Anglo-American higher education institutions. To what extent is the critical and institutional value placed upon modernist artefacts still motivated by a belief either in modernism’s capacity to “civilize,” or as a mark of the “civilized”?


Research for this article was funded by a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. Many thanks also to Megan Faragher and Caroline Krzakowski, who worked tirelessly on this cluster, and to Michael McCluskey, Carlos Alonso Nugent, Rebecca Savage, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback and suggestions. I’d also like to thank David Bownes, John Peel, Simon Rendall, and Tessa Spencer Pryse for their assistance with images.

[1] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 67, 83.

[2] Stephen Tallents, “Prelude to Publicity,” Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Sir Stephen Tallents Papers, ICS79/32, 4.

[3] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry, 8, no. 4 (1982): 777–95, 790.

[4] Stephen Tallents, “The Empire Marketing Board: Part 1, General,” ICS, Tallents Papers, ICS79/14/5, 3.

[5] Stephen Tallents, “Publicity,” ICS, Tallents Papers, ICS79/33/1, 11.

[6] Rudyard Kipling used the phrase “White Man’s Burden” in his 1899 poem of the same name; Bhabha discusses both this term and the “Civilizing Mission” in Location, 83. “Imperialist philanthropy” is Edward Said’s term (see Culture and Imperialism [New York: Vintage, 1994], xxii). The Michael Mann quote is from “‘Torchbearers Upon the Path of Progress’: Britain’s Ideology of a ‘Moral and Material Progress’ in India,” in Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India, ed. Harald Fischer-Tiné and Michael Mann (London: Anthem, 2004), 1–28, 4.

[7] Leo Amery, quoted in David Meredith, “Imperial Images: The Empire Marketing Board, 1926–32,” History Today, 37, no. 1 (1987): 30–36, 35.

[8] Uma Kothari, “Trade, consumption and development alliances: the historical legacy of the Empire Marketing Board poster campaign,” Third World Quarterly, 35, no. 1 (2014): 43–64. See also Stephen Constantine, Buy and Build: The Advertising Posters of the Empire Marketing Board (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1986), especially 12–14, and Tim Buck, “Imagining Imperial Modernity in British Colonial West Africa: Gerald Spencer Pryse’s Work for the Empire Marketing Board,” Art History, 38, no. 5 (2015): 940–63.

[9] See Buck, “Imagining Imperial Modernity,” 944; Kothari, “Trade,” 51; and Melanie Horton, Empire Marketing Board Posters (London: Scala, 2010), n. p.

[10] The link between colonial discourse and domestic cultural paternalism has been acknowledged in imperial, social and cultural history: see Alison Twells, The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792–1850: The “Heathen” at Home and Overseas (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 6–7 and Mann, “Torchbearers,” 8.

[11] Frances Borzello, Civilising Caliban: The Misuse of Art 1875–1980 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), 127, 119.

[12] Sir William Crawford, “How to Succeed in Advertising” (1931), quoted in Malcolm V. Speakman, “Shell’s England: Corporate Patronage and English Art in the Shell Posters of the 1930s” (PhD diss., University of Manchester, 2014), 89. Frank Pick, “Art in Commerce and in Life” (1916), V&A Archive of Art and Design, AAD/1997/7/96, 24.

[13] W. E. D. Allen, “Posters and Sales,” Commercial Art & Industry, 8, no. 74 (1932): 226–27, 227.

[14] “Empire Posters. Marketing Board Designs. A Memorial Exhibition,” The Times, 20 March 1934, 10–11.

[15] Pick, quoted in Michael T. Saler, The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 100.

[16] Frank Pick, “Underground Posters,” London Transport Museum, Frank Pick Collection, PB17, 4, 3.