Transcript of Livingstone exhibition audio tour

Curator David McClay recorded this audio tour to guide us round the David Livingstone exhibition.


I'm David McClay, the curator of the 'Picturing Africa' exhibition. So this year, 2013, sees the bi-centennial of the birth of David Livingstone. That great national hero famed for his missionary endeavours in Africa, his wonderful discoveries and, of course, the famous books he wrote, which were lavishly illustrated and part of their great popularity.

These illustrations were the results not just of the efforts of David Livingstone, but of artists like Thomas Baines, photographers like John Kirk, and the publisher John Murray. And this exhibition, 'Picturing Africa: Illustrating Livingstone's travels', tells that story.

An essential for any book, particularly for a book of travels is an illustration of the author. David Livingstone, however, being modest, didn't want a portrait, but his publisher John Murray insisted. In the exhibition, we have the original oil painting and the engraving which it was made from to illustrate his books.

However, David Livingstone was far from happy with the portrait. He complained to Mrs Murray: 'I don't much like it, it makes me look a great deal too stern', to which she replied: 'I have seen your face look very much like that Dr Livingstone'. Livingstone also complained to Mr Murray, his publisher, writing that all his friends cried out against it, saying it would pass for anyone from Captain Cook to Guy Fawkes. However, Murray insisted, and the portrait was illustrated in tens of thousands of copies of Livingstone's books.

Whilst David Livingstone was a man of many talents, artistic ones were not amongst them. As we can see from his little diaries which have his scribbled notes as well as his little doodles, which are quite crude. But fortunately his Zambezi expedition did have an artist of both great talent and proficiency. And here we have in the exhibition 12 watercolours by Thomas Baines.
Thomas Baines was both an accomplished artist and a great documentary recorder of the Livingstone expedition, and here we can see, particularly in the riverscape, his undoubted talent in representing the landscape, people and animals.

David Livingstone's Zambezi expedition, as well as having artists, had two photographers — Charles Livingstone, David's brother, and John Kirk.

John Kirk's photography was far more successful, as we can see. Although his process required a long exposure, it meant he couldn't photograph animals. He couldn’t photograph people, but he could, very successfully, photograph boats, landscapes, trees, huts, and we have many examples of his successful photography here. And if you compare his raw photographs with the finished engravings and illustrations from Livingstone’s books you can see how the two supported each other.

Livingstone, with literary manuscript in hand, returned to London with his photographs in hand, with his drawings, and he went to the greatest travel publisher of the age, John Murray III. It was he who had to put up with Livingstone's demanding ways. 'I reject in total every piece of red ink on my manuscript, the artist is a buffoon. I wish the artist had been married to a pig-faced lady and the divorce courts abolished!'

Letter after letter, Livingstone demanded that his text and his illustrations should be exactly as he wanted them.

Just as well that he did. This was the success of the Livingstone books. They were written in his own style and not the general style of the day. And here we can see the woodblock illustrations and the proof pages — the many complicated stages which each of the 45 or 50 illustrations per book had to go through. Hard work but work that had a wonderful, beautiful end.

And what success the book had! Look here just at the first year's accounts. Livingstone, used to just £150 wages as a missionary, received a staggering amount of £5,342 as his share in the work. All that hard work in getting the text and illustrations right was worth it. And not only that. They were able to take the money from the success of 'Missionary travels' to fund the next expedition along the Zambezi.

Welcome to Africa, Livingstone's Africa. Before us in this map we can see the main routes in which he travelled — 30,000 miles in all and the main events and locations which he was associated with. In the display cases we can explore some of these incidents, some of these places in a little more detail. For example, the famous lion attack.

Perhaps the most famous of all the incidents of Livingstone's life, his survival of a lion attack became iconic both in text but particularly in images, especially when Livingstone became a popular topic for children's books. Children, you see, when forced to read about missionaries and men of admirable character would often get bored, but not when there was an exciting lion attack to promote the work. It was often used for cover illustrations. And indeed we can see here it was used in chocolate cards, Esso cards and stamina trousers, well after Livingstone's own death.

Following his dismissal from the expedition, Thomas Baines made his own way to Victoria falls and there he extensively sketched and recorded that great natural phenomenon and tried to capture it in illustrations. And my goodness he was successful — perhaps the most beautiful pictures of the day of Victoria Falls that have been created. Beautiful hand-painted illustrations — even blown up here in the exhibition to 11 feet high the detail is dazzling.

Baines complained about the many difficulties in capturing such natural beauty as well as the practical difficulties. From tsetse flies annoying you at the vital moment to having to suffer from wet shoes, wet trousers and even more importantly, wet paper.

Perhaps the success of Livingstone's books alone were enough to make these images iconic, but they were to have a second and third and fourth life.

These wonderful illustrations were also to appear in newspapers.
The great breakthrough of the Victorian period was cheap, affordable, illustrated newspapers like 'The Graphic' and 'The Illustrated London News', and Livingstone was a great subject for them. This was particularly because great illustrations were ready-made to be reproduced and not just in the tens of thousands which his book appeared, but in hundreds of thousands.

A quarter of a million or more copies of 'The Graphic' and 'The Illustrated London News' appearing with his pictures driving the numbers close to a million of each of these images.

But it didn't end there. Magic lantern shows — the great Victorian entertainment — reproduced these images again and again to an even wider audience. But it didn't even end there, because in the early 20th century his magic lantern shows started to fade and the silver screen burst into life, and Livingstone films became a regular feature.

The first and arguably the greatest was 'Livingstone'. Produced in 1925 at great expense and shot on location for almost a year with Livingstone's own books and illustrations as a guide to how the film should be shot. Although a commercial failure, it enlivened people again to the image of Livingstone and Livingstone's Africa.

Perhaps the most controversial area of Livingstone's travels and the illustrations which they helped produce was to do with slavery — that brutal and inhuman trade for which he fought so hard against.

We can see from his letter here the idea of a drawing, of a slaver, a slave stick and a slave. This, through the various stages of the drawings and the woodblocks eventually became beautiful illustrations in his books, but ones that also had the power to shock. They really raised people's awareness of the brutality of the slave trade.

One of the most controversial incidents in Livingstone's life was the death of his wife and her burial in Africa. The illustration that was created for his book of the grave was a very carefully constructed piece of propaganda. We can see the sources that were used. A photograph taken by John Kirk on the day of the funeral, sketches made shortly after both of the house nearby and of the tree and the grave.

With the watercolour sketches we can see the difficulties the artist and the author struggled with in terms of accuracy — but they didn't want to be accurate. They didn't want to show the grave — the lonely grave with no civilisation nearby. So the house was transported half a mile closer to the grave to make it look more civilised. And it was this image that became iconic and indeed helped sanctify both Mary Livingstone and the grave.

Indeed, magic lantern slides and commercially available little photographs of the grave circulated around at that time, and we have some of those commercially available photographs of the grave here. Quite poignantly, these were owned by David and Mary Livingstone's daughter Agnes and she's written on them 'mama's grave in Africa'.

The grave became such a popular place and site that when the tree and the grave marker were removed the wood was used to make into relics. We have a box here made from wood of the grave [marker] of Mary Livingstone. It was a sacred site, which contrasts strongly with David Livingstone's national entombment in Westminster Abbey, as we can see from the newspaper illustration, in full pomp and ceremony. Quite a contrast to that of his wife.

Perhaps the most important illustrations in Livingstone's books were the maps. These allowed people to walk in the steps of Livingstone to make sense of all the illustrations in the book.

Here we have four of the original maps drawn by Livingstone on location. Folded up in his pocket, here displayed unfolded so you can see the detail and what detail. Every inch is covered with scribbled writing and little symbols and marks. He recorded not just geographical information but details of which tribes were to be trusted and, more importantly, which ones were not … where various animals were, which places might have potential for cotton. In these details, people could walk in the footsteps of Livingstone.

Near the end of his life, in much pain, Livingstone continued to write in his journals all that he had seen, including slave massacres and other disheartening activities. As his paper ran out, ever resourceful, Livingstone resorted to tearing pages out of books and then using old newspaper to write his journals. And even when ink ran dry he managed to make his own using berry juice and twigs.

And here we have those last pages brought back to form the basis of his posthumous book, his last journals. And one of the images to illustrate that book was a page from the journal itself. With such poor writing paper and such poor ink, it had faded even by the time it had first returned to Britain.

But now 125 years later that text has been resurrected thanks to a partnership project involving the National Library of Scotland — using different technical lights allows the text to be seen again as never before, so we can once again read Livingstone's final words.

These images created over 150 years ago are still popular today. Since Livingstone's death his illustrations have continued to be used and re-used sometimes for marketing and advertising. Here we have him in children's comics and jigsaws, as well as stamps and, more inappropriately whisky, tobacco and French chocolate.


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