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Associate Lecturer (Teaching) in History of Art
Dept of History of Art
Faculty of S&HS
Ben Pollitt is an Associate Lecturer in History of Art. His research centres on British art, empire and the affective economies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Pacific exploration. He is currently working on his book: ‘The Last of Cook: John Webber’s Atlas and the Object of Sympathy,’ while also embarking on a new research project that explores the cross-cultural affordances of early representations of Australian bird species.
Ben is interested in how European contact with the cultures of the Pacific lent shape to sympathy as a social and visual construct in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing particularly on the work of artists who accompanied voyages of scientific exploration. The book that he is currently writing focusses on the work of John Webber (1751¬¬–93), the artist who joined James Cook’s third voyage (1776–80). It asks how the print set, or atlas, that was produced to illustrate the voyage account articulates notions of sympathy at a critical moment in its history, elevated to something approaching a guiding moral sense by David Hume and Adam Smith, while at the same time derided as the so-called ‘principle of caprice’ by Jeremy Bentham. What impact did European encounters with Pacific cultures have in defining this critical moment in sympathy’s history and, in turn, how did understandings of sympathy and its limits shape European visions of the Pacific?
His current research project investigates the representation of bird species from the Australasian realm by European artists (c. 1650–1820). Art historical engagement with these images has tended to centre on the individuals who commissioned them, British and European natural historians, thus reinforcing the traditional role of the imperial ‘expert’ in identifying and defining heritage. Foregrounding the interests of these figures, scholars have contended that these works increasingly advance the values of empirical investigation in opposition to an earlier mytho-poetic representation of the natural world. This project aims to unwind this narrative, first, by giving serious consideration to First Peoples’ perspectives of and presence within the colonial archives it explores and, second, by challenging the conceptual division between the initial mythical view of Terra Australis and the later empirical one that apparently displaced it. In its resurfacing of the mytho-poetic in early Australian bird images, the project offers alternatives, not only to the view of Australia as a site destined to be conquered by European reason, science, and naturalistic representation, but also to that which would present it as a place of unendurable exile. Finally, the project aims to critique the potential utopian vision these works invoke in relation to the extraction of resources that shaped their material construction and the various forms of labour that went into their making.
‘The Sympathetic Cannibal: A New Look at Georgian Portraiture,’ RES (forthcoming 2024)
‘Sympathy, Magnetism and Immoderate Laughter: the Feather in Cook’s Last Voyage,’ Art Bulletin 101, no 4 (Dec 2019): 70–94
‘The Cost of Sympathy: Towards a Visual Economics of John Webber’s Atlas,’ Object: Graduate Research and Reviews in the History of Art and Visual Culture 19 (2017): 55–76
‘European Rivers and Lowland Scenes c 1824–39,’ in Tate’s online catalogue J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours
‘The Blue Beyond: Naiza Khan’s Manora and The Left-to-Die-Boat,’ Third Text, ‘Decolonising Colour’ (February 2021)
‘James Cook and Adam Smith,’ British Library Untold Lives Blog (2018)
‘James Cook and Benjamin Franklin,’ British Library Untold Lives Blog (2018)
‘Review of “Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past”,’ Tate Britain, London, 25 November 2015–10 April 2016,’ Object: Graduate Research and Reviews in the History of Art and Visual Culture 18 (2016): 75
‘Decolonial Imaginaire’ Forum, Third Text
Teaching and Supervision
Ben teaches the undergraduate modules:
Postcoloniality, Colonialism and Art in the British Empire
Ben is an Associate Lecture at University College London. He received his PhD from UCL in 2020, following which he taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art. He was a Paul Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow and a Caird Research Fellow. Ben returned to join the History of Art department at UCL in 2024.