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Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee water colours

Reference Code: GBR/0115/RCS/RCMS 195

Scope and Contents

A series of watercolours commissioned from the Rhodesian artist Mrs Gilbert Stephenson to be used in colouring lantern slides to illustrate the fifth handbook, A.J. Sargent, 'South Africa: seven lectures (London, 1914). Stephenson had been recommended by the British South Africa Company.


  • Creation: 1913 - 1914

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Biographical / Historical

The Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee: In 1902 a Visual Instruction Committee was set up by the Secretary of State for the Colonies at the suggestion of Professor Michael Sadler. Its purpose was to produce lectures illustrated with lantern slides on the United Kingdom for use in the overseas Empire. The Earl of Meath, founder of Empire Day, was the Chairman and the members included Sir Charles Lucas of the Colonial Office and Halford Mackinder, nominated by the newly-formed Victoria League, who was responsible for the first set of lectures. Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) was at that time Reader in Geography at Oxford University and later became Professor of Geography in the University of London. From 1903-1908 he was Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science and in his later career he was a Member of Parliament, Chairman of a number of Royal Commissions and public committees and a writer and speaker on the political aspects of geography.

It was on his initiative that the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee embarked on a much more ambitious scheme, the provision of lecture materials about the Empire for use in British schools. They approved the idea, but the first priority was the raising of funds, since the Colonial Office provided very little material support. A committee under the patronage of the Princess of Wales was set up and collected nearly £4000. In 1907 it was possible to appoint an artist and photographer to obtain the necessary illustrations in the course of Empire-wide tours. The plan was that the entire scheme would need some 1800 slides, elected from an average of 3 originals each, and an artist and photographer working 180 days a year might take 3 years to complete the work. Priority was to be given to Canada, India and South Africa, with Australia and New Zealand, the West Indies, East and West Africa, the Mediterranean and ocean routes as further areas.

Alfred Hugh Fisher and his work: On 29 July 1907 A. Hugh Fisher was chosen out of 10 applicants. He had been born in London in 1867 and educated at the City of London and University College schools. After 9 years in a City office he relinquished business for art and studied at Lambeth, South Kensington and Paris under Laurens and Constant. His appointment was up to 3 years from 1 September at a salary of £25 a month, plus travelling and subsistence allowance and the Committee reserved to themselves absolute control over the work produced by him during his engagement. He would work under the direction of Mackinder, who was to be paid a salary of £300 for his general oversight of the project, in addition to fees for preparing lectures. As Fisher was an artist and not a photographer, he was trained in photographic techniques by the two senior employees of Emery Walker of Sussex House, at a fee of 5 guineas for 10 lessons. The original aim was to send Fisher to Ceylon and India, then through East Asia to Canada, returning to the United Kingdom in May 1908, with a subsequent journey on the reverse route returning via the Mediterranean; this would enable him to photograph India and Canada at different seasons. However, it was later decided to cover the whole of India in one visit, and Canada the following year. Mackinder issued detailed instructions to Fisher in October. His itinerary included several stops of two or three days in one place since it was thought that he would be able to absorb the atmosphere better than at too rapid a movement from place to place, and he was given authority to purchase photographs for important areas he could not visit. He was to have the educational rather than the pictorial aspect in mind and was to present both the 'native characteristics of the country' and the 'super-added characteristics due to British rule.' He was advised to give a feeling of movement where possible by having people engaged in some activity in the foreground rather than static views of buildings etc. The negatives were to be sent to Newman and Guardia, who would develop them and prepare one print each; the list of photographs taken and the paintings were to be sent direct to Mackinder. Fisher's journey to Ceylon, India and Burma was originally intended to include Somaliland, Cyprus, Malta and Gibraltar, but he was instructed to omit the last two in order to arrive back in London in time for a projected showing of slides in the presence of the Princess of Wales. This did not in fact take place. Fisher resumed his travels on 24 July 1908 and went to Canada, in which he followed a rather complicated route before sailing from Vancouver on 28 October to visit Wei-hai-wei, Hong Kong, part of the Chinese mainland, Singapore and North Borneo. March 1909 found him back in Canada where he saw something of the end of the winter. During the summer of 1909 the Princess of Wales attended a meeting on the project at Caxton Hall. £150 was spent on renewing and improving Fisher's equipment and he spent six weeks in the U.K. trying out the apparatus and taking photographs of British scenes for use in lectures for Canada and South Africa (Albums 16, 21-22). At this time too he married Lillias Wyman. His final tour was via Gibraltar and Malta to New Zealand, the Pacific and Australia, but money was running out; he was instructed to omit Papua and in 1910 he was informed that no more money was available for expenses and he could not be offered a further engagement. Fisher produced vivid and interesting descriptions of his journeys but did not produce any more travel books. His later writings appear to have been chiefly poetry. Mrs Fisher died in 1930 and Hugh Fisher died 2 July 1945.

The lecture scheme: Though Mackinder had undertaken to write the text books, these were held up by his slow progress, probably partly owing to his many commitments and partly through lack of funds. In 1910 some donations were obtained from the Rhodes Trust and city companies. The India volume appeared in 1910, but subsequent volumes on Canada (1914), Australia (1913), the Sea route to the East, and South Africa were written by A.J. Sargent. Fisher himself had obtained additional photographs of places he was unable to cover. After the end of his engagement the Committee corresponded with official and unofficial bodies and individuals to augment its photograph collection, particularly for those areas Fisher had not visited at all - South Africa, tropical Africa and the Caribbean. Sir Algernon Aspinall agreed to write the West Indies lectures (published 1914) and provided specific lists of subjects for which he required photographs. Material was gathered for Tropical Africa and A. Wyatt Tilby agreed to write this seventh volume, but it does not seem to have been published.

The whole enterprise was an ambitious and imaginative one, but the lecture books, with their accompanying set of slides, were expensive and do not seem to have been widely purchased.


.01 cubic metre(s) (1 archival folder containing 37 watercolours) : art work

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2017-02-24 12:56:48+00:00
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