An Empire in the Imagination: Construction of the British Empire within the Metropolitan Gaze

“The red parts of the globe were proudly pointed out to us and we were told what an important day [the Empire Day] was.”

– Elsie Elizabeth Goodhead, The West End Story


As a population in the metropole, what did “the empire” meant to the British society? Major scholarship on this question has come to a consensus that Britain, particularly in the later Victorian era and continuing into the First World War, did not have a homogenous culture as often suggested by the literary canon. The varying cultures that Britain had to offer were largely shaped by its regional diversity, division between the urban and the rural, religion and gender. Yet, despite the variety, evidence from the era specified indicates that a certain image of the empire was highly idealised. More importantly, the ideal pointed to the Victorians’ need for unity and harmony between the metropole and the colonies.  This conception of empire-metropole relations are highly visible from records concerning the grandiose presence of the empire in the metropole, such as Empire Day celebrations and the architecture of the Imperial Institute, to the more subtle and well-blended elements of Victorian life that included political language and the press. While many of these public life components can be dissected to infer what those in the metropole thought of the empire, they also reveal the values that British society prescribed to this period time. The picture of the ideal empire in the metropolitan gaze pointed to the Victorians’ need for unity and harmony between the metropole and the colonies. In other words, their need for cohesion demonstrates a system of world order they sought to achieve – a universe that was fixed, orderly and complementary.

A united and harmonious idea of the empire did not abruptly emerge during the later half of the 19th century. Early imagined forms of the empire were, due to the limitations of the media then, heavily influenced by paintings. Painters such as William Hodges and Georges Angas, before the second half of the 19th century, were particularly concerned with representing homogenised visions of the empire on canvas. Known to be producing works that were considered to be part of the Picturesque, these painters were participating in an artistic reactionary movement against the Romantics.  The main focus in the Picturesque paintings were mostly locations that were considered “highly exotic” – such as India and and the Middle East – and, to a lesser extent, Africa and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the white settler colonies were completely neglected. The Picturesque, while bearing in mind the local differences of the colonies , was concerned with the “creation of sameness” to, rather than the distinction from, the metropolitan territories. For example, Hodges and Angas both integrated local flowers in their paintings, but often depicted them within the backdrop of landscapes that would be familiar (i.e. temperate) to the audience. This representation of a picturesque and homogenised empire continued well into the late 19th century and even into early 20th century with the advent of mass and popular media – even taking on an experiential format in certain cases.

“Tahiti Revisited” by William Hodges. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich.

Extravagant Festivities and Ostentatious Architecture

Empire Day and the Imperial Institute were two notable manifestations of the imperial ideal. Such ideas cannot be discussed without one of the most extravagant celebrations of the later Victorian period. Introduced in 1904, Empire Day quickly became a “significant feature of the national calendar,” whose popularity lasted through the interwar years and functioned as an event that can be used to explore colony-metropole relations. Conceptualized by Reginald Brabazon, 12th Earl of Meath, Empire Day was aimed towards achieving a “sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among young empire citizens.” Meath had the urge to create such sentiments following the Second Boer War, and was keen in addressing issues regarding maintenance and defence of the empire. Studies on accounts by working class children in public schools suggest that Empire Day was one of the celebrations highly anticipated in schools. Along with special ceremonies conducted to commemorate that day, an alternative curriculum was integrated into the timetable – which included a “morning lesson” on the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and its civilizing mission. An extra emphasis too was placed on the empire story which incorporated war myths and heroes, and the vast extent of the British Empire. The popularity of the celebrations among working-class children is an indicator that Empire Day was one the few empire-related events in British public life that transcended different social classes. And this social transcendence was achieved with the strong presence of festivities outside of schools and other public efforts.

Meath made the effort to integrate Empire Day not only amongst children but also within the general British public. Apart from allowing the public to attend the assemblies in schools, local extravagant celebrations were held in towns and cities. These celebrations were frequently accompanied with the decoration of public buildings and public spaces, such as Trafalgar Square, with the Union Jack and its colours. Public organisations, such as the National Service League, were instrumental in augmenting the intensity of local festivities – the northeastern town of Hartlepool had a reputation for holding one of the most grandiose local celebrations within the country as there was a strong growing presence of the League in that region. In addition, support from newspapers such as The Times and The Daily Mail were crucial in amplifying public enthusiasm for the special day. Despite Meath’s elaborate efforts, the hype for Empire Day drastically declined with the onset of the First World War. Edwardian values and morals were “shattered” by the total war and mass deaths, contributing to a “crisis of hegemony” in Britain. The once national and patriotic celebration became closely associated with the remembrance of the dead. As a public celebration, Empire Day represented the nature and strength of popular imperial nationalism prior to 1914 and the “gradual fragmentation and decline of imperial consciousness” during the interwar period. Similarly, this decline and fragmentation were reflected in the case of the Imperial Institute – another public component of Victorian imperial consciousness that was highly anticipated but was unfortunately short-lived.

Source: Toronto Public Library

Much like Empire Day, the Imperial Institute was another façade of British public life that had an important role in shaping Victorian consciousness of the empire. Although bearing a much shorter lifespan of nearly three decades, it was considered to be one of the most important buildings in late 19th century England – representing a bold and zealous physical manifestation which displayed “the processes and practices of the entire British empire.” The Imperial Institute, built in May 1883, was an emblematic monument which sought to draw the connection between Victorian Britain and her empire. It had an ambitious goal in educating the public about the commercial, industrial and social developments of the empire, much like the Great Exhibition of 1851 from which it drew its inspiration. Despite its claims, the motive behind the Institute went beyond one that was educational. Founded during a growing period of economic, political and social uncertainties in the 1870s and 1880s, the government attempted to reassert the nation’s bright future with the establishment of the Institute. In addition, it strived to subtly convince the public that an imperial union would secure Britain while defeating her foreign competitors. Hence, the Institute was seen as the ideal physical demonstration which reflected the merger of a new set of imperialist policies which emerged out of 1870s and the imperial federation debates of the mid to late 1880s.

As a location which displayed exhibitions from around the globe, organizers of the Institute paid careful attention to the layout of the exhibitions as means of communicating their political agenda. The exhibition on Britain occupied the northern central portions of the building while her colonies assumed their respective positions to the metropole (i.e. British Africa and Australasia to the south, British India to the east, etc.) Apart from being geographically accurate, the spatial layout demonstrated the centrality of Britain and her role as the “unifying force” within the empire. Elements such as an exhibition’s layout may appear to be a trivial element of interior architecture but it demonstrated an expectation of the imperial ideal. The Prince of Wales’ committee, in a report written in 1886, testified:

“An Imperial Institute .. . would be an emblem of the Unity of the Empire, embracing as it does all parts of the Queen’s dominions, and tending to promote that closer union between them which has become more and more desired. It would exhibit the vast area, the varied resources, and the marvellous growth, during Her Majesty’s reign, of the British empire. It would unite in a single representative act the whole of her people.”

T. H. Huxley supported this sentiment by suggesting that there was a need for English people to be “alive to the organisation and discipline of global knowledge.” In other words, the Institute was the ”brain” to the empire’s “body” – affirming that empire relations was “at the heart of late Victorian concerns.”

Exterior of the Imperial Institute. The Queens Tower, the central tower of the Institute, is the only surviving component of the building and is now a part of Imperial College. Source: London Remembers.

Both the Empire Day and the Imperial Institute reflect a fragment of large-scale projects that were created during the later Victorian and Edwardian era. They had highly ambitious and specific objectives in creating an awareness of the empire to the public through education and other accessible methods. However, they had a covert political and social agenda, whereby they wished to establish a system of global order that incorporated both the metropole and the colonies. Historians of Victorian political thought have often pointed out that their conceptions of world order were based upon binaries: the dark and the light, the civilized and the uncivilized, the East and the West.  This conception is reflected in components such as the layout of the exhibitions at the Imperial Institute and the special lessons on colonies held in schools on Empire Day. They often, ironically, highlighted the lack of culture and civilization in those colonies, despite the attempt to unify those “undeveloped” places with the metropole. This trend of political and social motive was not only explicitly permeated in Victorian public life via festivals and architecture, they were also implicitly ingrained within the political language and other forms of propaganda which gained momentum towards the latter part of the new imperialism.

Imperial Language and Mass Propaganda

Both subtle components, such as political language and mass propaganda (which included advertisements, lectures, plays and many other quantifiable formats) played an important role in shaping the general consciousness of the empire. Although they were not specified events or tangible monuments, they continued to be a part of the Victorian ethos which hoped for unity and harmony between the metropole and the empire, as previously exemplified with Empire Day and the Imperial Institute. Prior to the 20th century, terms such as “empire” and “imperialism” in Britain were continuously being shaped according to the political climate of the country. Apart from governmental agencies who had the official role and say in defining what “empire” and “imperialism” meant, lobby groups too were concerned with the construction of a national political agenda surrounding the empire, and popular examples of such groups could be identified as undertaking positions across the entire political spectrum. On one end, they included right-leaning pressure groups like the Imperial South African Association and the Navy League. On the other end, leftist groups comprised the National Liberal Federation, the Increased Armaments Protest Committee, the Committee of Indian National Congress and the Fabian Society. The existence of various lobby groups and their use of language should always be understood in their appropriate political contexts, despite the efforts of modern scholarship to establish concrete definitions of both “empire” and “imperial”. Of the many political happenings that surrounded the Victorian and Edwardian period, the Boer War was one of the most influential events which shifted the British public’s awareness of the empire, inspiring a re-evaluation and re-examination of imperial expansion.

Britain’s participation in the Boer War greatly affected how language was used to express ideas relating to the empire. The ISAA expressed the Conservative vision of empire, that is to promote the interests of British supremacy in South Africa and the interests of British subjects in the region, by justifying the government’s decision to go to war in the Transvaal in December 1899. In describing the Uitlanders, words such as “fellow countrymen,” “our own people,” and “plight of the British people” were used. In the eyes of the ISAA, their vision of “empire” was one of settler colonies – i.e. British communities transplanted abroad, whereby it was rather the similarities than the differences that stood out more. However, the language typical of the ISAA lost its status as the lingua franca of imperial discussion following the Boer War, as it became much more difficult to separate patriotism from imperialism. Imperial propaganda produced by the ISAA failed to account for the poor performance of the British army in South Africa. For example, questions regarding the high financial and labour expenses (250 million pounds and 400,000 men) were left unanswered. The decline of the ISAA left an opportunity for radical leftist societies, such as the Fabian Society with their 1900 manifesto Fabianism and the Empire, to break the conservative monopoly of imperial propaganda.  However, the influence of special pressure groups as mentioned above declined collectively as mass media became one of the dominant forms of propaganda at the turn of the century.

An 1892 advertisement from the Illustrated London News marketing Lipton’s Teas (Appendix A) – which it proclaimed the brand to be victorious over all [other manufacturers]” –  not only evoked languages of warfare and conquest. It explicitly indicated the nature of the empire’s role in creating and promoting a staple of Victorian lifestyle with the illustration of Ceylonese mahouts sitting on elephants while holding a banner of the brand’s proclamation, and safeguarding crates of Lipton tea leaves. The advertisement also continued the aforementioned tradition of binaries in imperial thought with the tagline “from the tea gardens to the tea pot”: demonstrating the producer-consumer, agricultural-industrial and primitive-sophisticated relationship between the empire and the metropole. Creatively arranged, the background of the image featured the natural landscape of Ceylon, while the middleground exhibited the hard working tea plantation labourers and, finally, the foreground shone a spotlight on the aforementioned mahouts and South Asian warriors. This arrangement did not only rely on the typical rule of thirds that is common in visual media but it also implies that a form of progression exists in empire-metropole relations. The component that appeared to be nearest to the Victorian audience is the one that appears to be the most civilized and cultured. The mahouts and warriors are properly and fully clothed, accompanied by their majestic elephants and horses. Contrastingly, the natural landscape in the background (an element that is untouched by the colonists) clearly appeared to be the furthest from the audience, and hence from civilization too.

Similarly, this idea of linear progression was not only exclusive to marketing materials, it can also be see in the Great Exhibition which relied on the demonstration of progress as part of its empire narrative. The guide to the Crystal Palace presented its exhibition as not only a showcase of “different industries of nations, but that of centuries” – therefore suggesting that all countries should be moving towards this process of development as defined by Britain and that foreign nations, including the colonies, are “behind.” Although such views may be seen as highly discriminatory, they were typical to the process of running an empire in the 19th century. Charles Maier defined empire as a “cartel of elites, which gave local hierarchies security in return for their recognition of the hierarchies at the center as supreme.” It thus becomes an institutional alternative for guaranteeing societal privilege and security, as opposed to hegemony. He continues to assert that the “imperial syndrome” is built upon the idea that one’s own state is exceptional, and that its excellence should not be called into question by others. Ironically, despite the efforts that form links between the metropole and the colonies, a “trust us, we’re different” mentality still prevails behind it. Yet, such notions can be argued to represent a view that can only be held by the elites as they were the majority in-charged of managing the colonies. Hence, where can a representative view of what the general public really thought of the empire be found?


As Paula Krebs has demonstrated in Gender, Race, and the Writing of the Empire: Public Discourses and the Boer War, the problem with conceptualizing “public opinion” and its relation to the empire is that it can be both manufactured and authentic at the same time. “The public” is a fin de siècle product of a system which “ends up constructing the … subject it [thought it was] acknowledging.” It is important to acknowledge that “public opinion” was never meant to be an accurate representation of what the general public really thought, but rather of those (men who were of upper-middle class or higher) whose opinion was a concern to public policy. With the 1870 Elementary Education Act coming into effect, the press in the latter half of the 19th century had been seen as an important influence on public opinion while acting as mouthpieces for the government (The Times) and the opposition (The Daily Mail). Such a revolution in the public intellectual sphere brought about a new phase in publishing known as New Journalism, which was created as a result of the Siege of Mafeking in 1899. In a broader sense, John Mackenzie asserts that while there was an “imperial world view” established among the public as a result of cultural propaganda in the early 20th century, it is also equally important to look at particular components of the world view individually. The Boer War, as mentioned above, was one of the many influences on the British political climate that shaped the ideological construction of the empire.


In his examination of Britain and her imperial culture, Richard Price asserts that mainstream study of new imperial history often fails to interrogate the relationship between the representation of empire in British society and the experience of the empire itself. In other words, to what extent was the empire in Britain “real”? It is insufficient to view the construction and the representation of the empire in the metropole as the sole connection between Britain and her empire. There have been multiple opposing views presented by historians about what people in the metropole really thought of the empire. On one hand, the aforementioned study suggests that the need for unity and harmony between both the metropole and the colonies exemplifies a strong engagement between the two. On the other hand, imperial historian Bernard Porter insisted that 80% of the British population in the 19th century did not know about the empire. Such antithetical positions, apparently, can be resolved by understanding the competing definitions of identity in Britain during the era. For Porter, the identity of Britain relied heavily on the social group which made up the core of the nation’s society – the working class. Although his argument was founded upon the fact that imperial awareness catered to the middle and upper classes (who were supposedly the managers of the colonies), it would be wrong to conclude that basic conceptions of the empire or, at the very least, established depictions which required little or no intellectual processes – such as the Lipton Teas advertisement – were not an influence on the general public.

There can only be too many artefacts, documents or monuments which may be examined to conclude what the metropole really thought of the British empire. But what one can certainly infer from this evidence, collectively, is the overarching sense of links and connections that occupied the empire. As Maier has demonstrated, the study of British history and her colonies are mutually constituted. Interconnectedness, according to him, has been one of the compelling elements which makes the study of empires worthwhile. However, a further examination of what has been theorized as “imperial circuits” (the link between not only Britain and her colonies but also that between colonies) can be conducted to supplement the study of metropole-colonies relations. Such histoires croisées are important for understanding the social ethos of the time period. Victorians felt that it was necessary to manage the complex interweb of “imperial circuits” and the sheer size of their empire. Points and links of unification between the bifurcated metropole and colonies were part of their coping mechanisms to manage the gap between the two – and this further demonstrates one of the many social morals that were distinct to the Victorian era. As Porter descriptively summarised, British society was held together by a “principle of complementarity, rather than community or commonality.” And it was with this complementarity that the Victorians sought to achieve a sense of unity and harmony between the metropole and the colonies.


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Batey, Mavis. “The Picturesque: An Overview.” Garden History, vol. 22, no. 2, (Winter 1994): 121-132. Accessed March 29, 2016,

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Porter, Bernard. “‘Empire, What Empire?’ Or, Why 80% of Early – and Mid-Victorians Were Deliberately Kept in Ignorance of It.” Victorian Studies, vol. 46, no. 2 (Winter 2004): 256-263. Accessed February 24, 2016, doi:10.1353/vic.2004.0101.

Price, Richard. “One Big Thing: Britain, Its Empire, and Their Imperial Culture.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 45, no. 3 (July 2006): 602-627. Accessed 23rd February 2016.

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