The Cost of Sympathy: Towards a Visual Economics of John Webber’s ‘Atlas’

Ben Pollitt

Abstract


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This paper examines John Webber’s illustrations for A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784) in relation to contemporary discussions around moral sentiment, specifically theories of sympathy. Adam Smith’s concept of ‘the impartial spectator’ is fundamental to my argument, which explores the visual mechanics of sympathy in Webber’s work. The focus of discussion draws on the sequence of engravings produced after Webber’s images, which were published as a separate ‘Atlas,’ the fourth of the four volumes that made up the official account. As a self-contained account of the voyage, the ‘Atlas’ forms its own coherent narrative cycle, one which employs many techniques to engage an eighteenth-century viewer’s sympathies on the visual level. If, according to Smith, we can only relate to others sympathetically through the mediation of ‘the impartial spectator,’ a contained centre within the self, which observes and regulates it, then the question this paper seeks to address is how Webber’s representational practices as exhibited in the ‘Atlas’ serve to construct visually the existence of this self-regulating self, externalizing what is essentially an internal process? And if and where this fails to be the case, then what pressures do the works place on Smith’s understanding of sympathy?


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