Colourful sketches and first impressions of South America

National Art Library
August 22, 2019

As our weather in the UK has its ups and downs over the summer months, we perhaps turn our attention elsewhere and start to dream of a life where more balmy temperatures could be experienced year-round. The Southern hemisphere can now be reached in a matter of hours by plane. With previous generations of travellers it was, of course, a different story. Here, at the NAL, we have a fascinating selection of materials relating to pioneering early European travellers from the late 15th century onwards. These publications are often tainted with the knowledge that colonisation was the chief concern of most early European voyages. We can, however, discover first-hand reactions to the long journeys, the tropical climes, habitats and different cultures; and some are more sensitive and nuanced than you might expect.  We’ll take South America as a point of focus below.

Firstly, let’s look at what is largely regarded as the first modern atlas, ‘Theatrum orbis terrarum’. The maps and text were collated from the most accurate cartography and information available in 1571. We can see America and the extent to which it had been charted by this time. The shape of South America (as it is now defined) particularly was to undergo future refinement to achieve the shape we know today!

Abraham Ortelius. Theatrum orbis terrarum. Antverpiae: auctoris aere & cura impressum absolutumque apud Aegid. Coppenium Diesth, 1571. NAL pressmark: RC.S.13


The vast majority of the material in the NAL collection relates to the only area that was colonised by the British in South America, British Guiana. This area is now known as the independent nation of Guyana (since 1966). We’ll begin, however, with a French 18th century publication relating to French Guiana. The 10 plates and 20 maps provide an insight into the wildlife, culture and customs that were of interest to the colonising power. For instance, depicted in the plates are: weapons; animals like armadillos, porcupines and lizards; and the set-up of an indigo plantation.

Description geographique de la Guiane. Paris: Didot, 1763. Plate X. NAL pressmark: A.96


Exotic plants were of course a source of interest, and a commodity after European colonisation of South America. Due to Britain’s limited influence in South America, the variety that is referenced in the book below from 1804-05, is of course limited. Examples of two South American flowers sit alongside many specimens from South Africa and India.

Smith, James Edward. Exotic Botany. Consisting of Coloured Figures, and Scientific Descriptions, of Such New, Beautiful, or Rare Plants as are Worthy of Cultivation in the Gardens of Britain. With Remarks on their Qualities, History, and Requisite Modes of Treatment. London: Printed by R. Taylor and Co., 1804-05. NAL pressmark: A.85


One interesting botanical discovery at the beginning of the 19th century was the banana. The Cavendish banana, which now account for almost half of bananas produced worldwide, was introduced to Britain in 1834 from Maurititus. They were not the first examples of bananas in the United Kingdom, however, and we can see below a plate depicting plantain and bananas growing on the north eastern coast of South America, published in 1813. The numerous steel engravings by the author, Captain J. G. Stedman, show the degree of interest and wonder shown in the area visited. It is not uncommon for officers on a ship to wish to be the first to record new discoveries in the form of illustrations during this era.

Stedman, J. G. Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America; from the Year 1772, to 1777… London: J.Johnson, & T. Payne, 1806-13. NAL pressmark: 202.C.30-31


Again, a Lieutenant J. Shillibeer records his impressions in the form of on the spot etchings which have been reproduced for the published narrative. One is beautifully rendered in sepia ink to reflect the colours of the region; others fold out to reveal panoramic views of ports, cities, and towns. Whilst evidently amazed by the beauty of the area, the Briton in question maligns the administration of the Portuguese colony of Brazil: ‘On the one hand, he [the traveller] may contemplate the Palace of a voluptuous prince, surrounded by courtiers and wallowing in luxury, on the other, slavery in its most refined and horrible state.

Shillibeer, J. A Narrative of the Briton’s Voyage, to Pitcairn’s Island: Including an Interesting Sketch of the Present State of the Brazils and of Spanish South America. London: Printed for Law and Whittaker, 1817.


Shillibeer (as above)

Concern is shown closer to home for the aboriginal people of Guiana. In his own heavy-handed way, the Victorian writer below encourages the protection of the aboriginal people and their customs and practices, stating: ‘The Aborigines of Guiana, who form the chief subject of the following pages, are of no political importance… Yet among those feeble tribes are found remnants of races who were formidable opponents to the discovers of the New World and for more than two centuries drew the attention of learned or adventurous Europeans[…] The writer’s long intercourse with them enables him to give benefit – to those especially who believe that it is more blessed to save than to destroy’. 

Brett, W. H. The Indian Tribes of Guiana: Their Condition and Habits; with Researches into their Past History, Superstitions, Legends, Antiquities, Languages, &c. London: Bell and Daldy, 1868.


In the last book featured below, we are given first-hand sketches of sights seen by those writing the accounts, and working in the area, this time by the engineer Franz Keller. Keller, along with his father, was commissioned by the Minister of Public Works at Rio de Janeiro to explore the Madeira river and project a railroad along its banks. This commission followed the recent opening of the Amazon River to the flags of all nations.

The numerous wood-engravings include surrounds of initials and tail-pieces, popular during the 19th century. The author also gives his opinion that by formatting his observations into chapters he has saved the reader from ‘the dry form originally assumed by them of a diary’.

Keller, Franz. The Amazon and Madeira Rivers: Sketches and Descriptions from the Note-Book of an Explorer. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.
Keller (as above)


Many more pieces of illustrated travel literature can be found in the NAL’s collections… this is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Please do come and visit us on the 2nd floor of the V&A and register as a member to begin your artistic voyage of discovery in whichever direction you choose…

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