David Livingstone exhibition

Iconic images of Africa revealed in major Livingstone exhibition

New exhibition celebrates David Livingstone's travels across Africa, 200 years after his birth. It also reveals that he hated the image of being attacked by a lion that helped to cement his reputation.

Some of the first images ever seen by western eyes of the wonders of Africa take centre stage at a major exhibition celebrating the achievements of the Scots explorer David Livingstone.

Livingstone is known the world over for his journeys in Africa, his missionary work and his campaigns against slavery. But what is less well known is that he was largely responsible for the images that allowed 19th century Britain to 'see' Africa for the first time.

Many of these images will feature in 'Picturing Africa: Illustrating Livingstone's travels' — the summer exhibition at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) which is taking place 200 years after the explorer's birth in Blantyre, Lanarkshire.

It uses original and, in some cases, rarely displayed sketches, paintings, photographs, maps, magic lantern slides and other materials to reveal what parts of Africa looked like to the first Europeans who gazed upon it. Such was the power of these original images that many have endured to this day.

Some of the star exhibits include Livingstone’s original field diaries with his own sketches and the compass and mapping materials he used to find his way across the unchartered 'dark continent'.

David McClay, the NLS curator who has put the exhibition together, said: 'You don't have to know much about Africa or be particularly interested in David Livingstone to get something from this exhibition. It's a window into another world of stunning landscapes, wild nature yet ever present danger.'

That danger is evident in the famous image of Livingstone being attacked by a lion, immortalised in a 2004 sculpture at the David Livingstone Centre at Blantyre. It was an image, however, that Livingstone was never happy with. As the exhibition reveals, he pleaded with his publisher John Murray to revise the original etching depicting this encounter that went on to cement Livingstone's reputation as a national hero.

He wrote to Murray: 'The lion encounter is absolutely abominable. I entreat you by all that's good to suppress it. Every one who knows what a lion is will die with laughing at it.'

The image however appeared in the book 'Missionary travels' and has been widely reproduced since then, becoming part of the Livingstone legend. David McClay said: 'He confessed to his father in a private letter that he was embarrassed by the incident and embarrassed by people talking about it. He felt he shouldn't have got himself involved in such a perilous incident. He wanted his story to be one of inspiration to other missionaries and being attacked by a lion wasn't the best recruitment tool.'

Murray had employed some of the best artists of the day to illustrate the book — demonstrating just how important he considered images to be in telling about Livingstone’s journeys in Africa.

These were then widely reproduced by newspapers of the day such as 'The Graphic' and 'The Illustrated London News' ensuring that they reached a much wider audience. They were also copied on to magic lantern slides which were used to entertain audiences around the country in geographical and missionary societies, working men's clubs and places of popular entertainment. To the Victorians they were as unique and special as the first pictures sent back from the moon were to the modern world.

'This opened Livingstone's work to a much bigger audience — not just people who could afford to buy expensive books. It helped to make him the star of the day. He had an image as a scientist, missionary and cartographer. His journeys were seen as a great patriotic and geographical feat at a time of expanding Empire and when Britain was achieving many things in many spheres,' said David McClay.

The exhibition also features some of the earliest photographs taken of Africa by John Kirk and original watercolours painted by Thomas Baines, the most important African artist of the 19th century. Both men accompanied Livingstone on his some of his expeditions.

'Picturing Africa: Illustrating Livingstone's travels opens on 14 June and runs until 3 November at George 1V Bridge, Edinburgh. Entry is free.


For further information, interviews and images, contact:

Bryan Christie, Media and External Relations, National Library of Scotland:
Tel: 0131 623 3738 or 07904 791002
Email: b.christie@nls.uk


See also related news story.


13 June 2013

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