Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


M. Antonella Pelizzari

Committee Members

Tim Barringer

Katherine Manthorne

Judy Sund

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Modern Art and Architecture | Photography


South Asia, Empire, Factory, Landscape, World's Fair


Nineteenth-century colonial photographs of workers on tea plantations in India and Sri Lanka – with women in saris gently plucking leaves from lush bushes and men in sarongs operating heavy industrial machinery – are powerful symbols of a chain of production within the British Empire. My dissertation questions how these images of labor support a sense of nation-building that is defined by a new lucrative commodity: British-grown tea. Labor is at the center of my study, which aims to challenge the clear-cut division in current scholarship between representations of workers in industrialized England, and those in rural South Asia. I investigate how a new phase of commercial photography represented this new product, and how these images contributed to make industry in the colonies more visible at home.

Tea was an expensive novelty when it was first introduced to England from China in the mid- seventeenth century but quickly became the country’s national beverage. In the 1880s tea grown in British colonies began to outsell Chinese-grown tea. Concurrently, advances in technology made photographs inexpensive to print, leading to a vast increase in distribution of these images through multiple channels. They illustrated travel literature, were displayed at international exhibitions, and were collected by tourists in private albums. Through a visual analysis of the compositional strategies in these pictures, alongside study of their distribution, I seek to demonstrate how photographs of tea production helped to construct a new vision of the British Empire in which notions of primitivism coalesced with modern industry.

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