University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Visual Sources: Edward Armitage’s Retribution (1858)

Rozene Smith, a second year history student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on how historians can use Retribution (1858) to reflect on representations of the British Empire for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit.  The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Jessica Moody, Lecturer in Modern History and Heritage at Portsmouth.

Studying a “Museum of Empire” unearths a reality of the British Empire as a cornucopia of peoples and cultures, and an ‘archive’ equally monumental and multifarious.[1] W. J. T. Mitchell championed the ‘pictorial turn’ and the resurgent ubiquity of images in what became an increasingly visual-oriented culture.[2] The work in question is that of Edward Armitage, student of l’École des Beaux-Arts under historical artist Paul Delaroche, who upon returning to London in 1843 upheld French rationales of academic art.[3] His Retribution invokes public enmity concerning the massacre of British women and children at Bibighar in Cawnpore during the 1857 Indian Mutiny, a catalyst for an equally cruel and indiscriminate British vengeance.[4] Public opinion often advocated the ‘spirit of righteous revenge’ that Armitage’s Retribution intends to embody.[5] Despite this artistic partiality, historians are yet impeded in acknowledging the value of visual sources, particularly in appraisal of their subjectivity and how their utilisation may further comprehension of the past.[6] This analysis proposes advantages that this source presents to the historical community, through analysis of content and purpose both as a non-commercial attempt at restoring Armitage’s career and as public propaganda;[7] iconological substance and the “Othering” and “special vulnerability” to be found within;[8] and the benefits presented to historical investigation by the implementation of visual sources.[9] Ultimately, the hesitant approach to visual sources and their analysis necessitates a comprehensive knowledge of related materials and a consistent criticism of context and personal agenda, if the source is ever to be employed as a thoroughfare for historical exploration.

Retribution, 1858 (oil on canvas) by Armitage, Edward (1817-96); Courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / Bridgeman Images Best wishes Adrian Gibbs Bridgeman Images

Images, in Peter Burke’s view, are extensions of the context of their production, and can thus be used to elucidate social constructs and the political and economic power of art as a market commodity.[10] Contrasting with the Crimean War, few commissioned artists were present in India during the 1857 Rebellion.[11] Many took to the subject nonetheless, drawing inspiration from the demands for retaliation that dominated contemporary newspaper reports.[12] Armitage was a primary exponent of public art in Britain. His Retribution, one of the most remarkable ‘public’ artworks of the revolt, was an allegory of this commonly justified revenge, its symbolic nature placing distance between itself and historical analysis of accuracy or authenticity.[13] The Daily News described the painting as more suitable for the public space than a domestic setting, with its large, prominent figures, raw colours, and simplified forms.[14] Indeed, Retribution was originally a conceptual fresco for the new Leeds town hall and was donated shortly after its completion in 1858.[15] The painting served two purposes: to re-establish Armitage’s reputation as an artist of national subjects, and to propagate public anger and legitimise the atrocities committed by the British following the Bibighar Massacre.

Iconology is often employed in understanding artistic symbolism, due to its emphasis on ‘underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, period, class, or religious or philosophical persuasion’.[16] Images offer indispensable evidence for historians by unearthing cultural associations as historical evidence.[17] In her study of Retribution, Alison Smith wrote that the Bengal Tiger, a symbol of the bloodthirsty Sepoy, is on the verge of defeat by a furiously focused Britannia.[18] The allegorical nature of the piece avoids graphic detail: the dead woman protecting her infant is not mauled, and the child crouched fearfully behind them appears entirely safe.[19] The cross emblazoned on Britannia’s sword invokes Christian might, and detritus on the ground is the only other embodiment of the ‘carnage of war’.[20] Images of vulnerable white women in the hands of Sepoy rebels resonated in public imagination, birthing a powerful trope in imperial iconography: the sanctity of white womanhood and threat of interracial rape and violence.[21] Such crude stereotypes yet serve their purpose in highlighting distinctions by which the British could ‘Other’ the Sepoy.[22] Yet, the dangers of assuming, as iconologist thought often does, that images express the ‘spirit of the age’ are often stressed, notably by Ernst Gombrich in his criticisms of Arnold Hauser and Erwin Panofsky.[23] Furthermore, Sarah Barber argued, the idea that art can capture the Zeitgeist is a fundamentally Eurocentric approach given Europe’s monopoly on popular art.[24] It is ultimately unwise to assume cultural homogeneity of an age from artwork, but it can provide more nuanced analyses of contemporary engendering of female vulnerability, and global perceptions of the British Empire, in its might, superiority, and anxieties over its subjects.

The utility of visual images has been much debated since the arrival of Mitchell’s ‘pictorial turn’.[25] He espoused the longstanding dominance of literature’s subsidence to visual cultures, highlighting necessities among historians to rethink all issues of visual sources.[26] Peter Claus suggested that to use visual sources appropriately, historical provenance and context must be established beyond doubt for them to enhance historical understanding and,[27] as Francis Haskell posed, the ‘historical imagination’, which both creates and reflects historical reality.[28] There is yet opposition to the use of visual sources: Burke argued that our perception of art is a “painted opinion”, a collection of rhetorical devices intended to coerce, incite or indoctrinate.[29] One could surmise that visual sources may be used in historical study, to either underline pre-established arguments with more conventional historical sources or as evidence open to historical analysis.[30] While art remains an intellectual product and thus cannot be considered objective, and it is true that our analysis techniques are primitive in comparison with those we bring to bear on textual evidence, images can shed new light on historical episodes when wielded skilfully.

The implementation of visual sources as historical evidence relies on historians’ treatment of the source.[31] Although the painting was foremost an avenue for Armitage’s professional resurgence, it inadvertently offers an exemplary propagandist product, epitomising public outrage toward the Bibighar Massacre.[32] However unwise to presume the mid-nineteenth century zeitgeist from Armitage’s Retribution alone, one can obtain an intimate understanding of the “Othering” and special vulnerability afforded to British women occurrent in this era, through the iconology of art.[33] Retribution is a product of imagination, however, and cannot be deemed truly objective—some Pyrrhonism must be maintained.[34] Similarly, historians’ techniques for analysing visual sources are underdeveloped against those of more traditional sources.[35] Ultimately, the historian must immerse themselves in surrounding material, and remain always critical of context and artists’ personal agenda—only then can the source be used to inform historical argument together with conventional historical sources or viewed as evidence open to analysis.[36] A torrent of imperialist art punctuated nineteenth century British society that today allows democratic equality previously disfigured by racial hierarchy and imperial domination.[37] The validity of visual content as historical evidence aside, Retribution could pave the way for new contexts of appreciation and, potentially, reparation.


Rozene Smith is a second-year History student at the University of Portsmouth who aims to specialise in historical international relations and their present-day applications to global politics.


(We would like to pay special thanks to Leeds Art Gallery and Bridgeman images for supplying a high res version of the artwork for this blog post).



[1] Alison Smith, “Introduction: The Museum of Empire,” in Artist and Empire ed. Alison Smith, David Blaney Brown and Carol Jacobi. (London: Tate Enterprises, 2016), 10.

[2]  Neil Curtis, “’As if’: Situating the Pictorial Turn,” in The Pictorial Turn, ed. Neil Curtis. (Oxford: Routledge, 2010), 3.

[3] Leeds Art Gallery Online. “Retribution.” http://www.leedsartgallery.co.uk/gallery/listings/l0009.php, last accessed 5th February 2017.

[4] Robert Johnson, British Imperialism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 34.

[5] Alison Smith, “Imperial Heroics,” in Artist and Empire ed. Alison Smith, David Blaney Brown and Carol Jacobi. (London: Tate Enterprises, 2016), 105.

[6] Peter Claus and John Marriott, History: An Introduction to theory, method and Practice (Essex: Pearson Education, 2012), 263.

[7] Joan W. M. Hichberger, Images of the Army: The Military in British Art, 1815-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), 62.

[8] Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), 34.

[9] Claus and Marriott, History, 265.

[10] Burke, Eyewitnessing, 12.

[11] Hichberger, Images of the Army, 62

[12] Peter Harrington, British Artists and War: The Face of Battle in Paintings and Prints, 1700–1914

(London: Greenhill books, 1993), 144.

[13] Smith, “Imperial Heroics”, 105.

[14] Smith, “Imperial Heroics”, 105.

[15] Hichberger, Images of the Army, 63.

[16] Sol Cohen, “An Innocent Eye: The “Pictorial Turn,” Film Studies, and History,” History of Education Quarterly 43, no. 2 (2003): 258.

[17] Claus and Marriott, History, 275.

[18] Smith, “Imperial Heroics”, 105.

[19] Smith, “Imperial Heroics”, 105.

[20] Smith, “Imperial Heroics”, 105.

[21] Gautam Chakravarty, The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2005), 127.

[22] Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism In Britain and France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 64.

[23] Ernst Hans Gombrich, The preference for the primitive: episodes in the history of Western taste and art (London: Phaidon Press, 2002), 155.

[24] Sarah Barber, “Introduction,” in History Beyond the Text: A Students Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources ed. Sarah Barber and Corinna M. Peniston-Bird. (Oxford: Routledge: 2009), 17.

[25] Curtis, “’As if’: Situating the Pictorial Turn”, 3.

[26] W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995), 11.

[27] Claus and Marriott, History, 275.

[28] Francis Haskell, History and its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past (London: Yale University Press, 1995), 26.  

[29] Burke, Eyewitnessing, 122.

[30] Claus and Marriott, History, 262.

[31] Claus and Marriott, History, 275.

[32] Hichberger, Images of the Army, 62.

[33] Sarah Barber, “Introduction,” 17.

[34] Haskell, History and its Images, 26.

[35] Curtis, “’As if’: Situating the Pictorial Turn,” 3.

[36] Jonathan Willis and Laura Sangha, Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources (Oxford: Routledge, 2016), 265.

[37] Smith, “Introduction: The Museum of Empire,” 10.

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