The end of the eighteenth and early decades of the nineteenth centuries saw British audiences gain wider access to images of and information about Southeast Asia than ever before. This dissertation takes as its focus the body of British images created during this period which depict Southeast Asia's many ruined candis, wats, and pagodas. Ruins were a favourite leitmotif in British art at this time, fuelled by the contemporary taste for the picturesque, a tradition of antiquarian enquiry, the newly developing science of archaeology, and the increased possibilities for travel (frequently in the wake of imperial expansion). It is not surprising, then, that interest was taken in the remains of the Buddhist and Hindu monuments scattered across Southeast Asia. As we shall find, the crumbling candis, pagodas and wats of the region elicited aesthetic and emotional responses that accorded with contemporary British tastes for an indulgence in pleasingly melancholic and philosophical reflections on the course of empire.
This dissertation explores the way in which British artists, both amateur and professional, encoded the twin aspirations of progress and power in their images of the region's architectural remains. The images and related commentaries on the ruins are examined within the context of British economic, political, aesthetic and moral philosophies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and the period's enthusiasm for ruin appreciation and interpretation. In doing so, we shall assess the manner in which the images reflected and endorsed British perceptions of the state of progress in Southeast Asia and British ambitions for political and economic expansion within the region. By providing a means by which the British carne to "know" Southeast Asia, and heavily imbued with preconceived notions regarding the region and its peoples, the ruin images participated in the construction of a Southeast Asia according to British understandings of the term and thereby in the shaping of and the validation of the exercise of British power far from home.