Prof. Explores Dark Side of Nabobs

“Eastern adventurers” were seen as a threat

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Christina Smylitipolous

You might have seen – even bought – Nabob coffee. If you’re old enough, you might recognize the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.” But do you know what a nabob is?

Art history professor Christina Smylitopoulos knows. “It originally was a name for a Muslim official or leader, but it became a derogatory term used for British men who traveled to India in the hope of making a fortune and then returned to Britain fabulously wealthy and ready to climb into elite spheres of power and influence,” she explains.

Their new-found wealth, it seems, didn’t always make them popular. Smylitopoulos’s doctoral dissertation, which won the Arts Insights Dissertation Award for the best dissertation of 2011 in the humanities from McGill University, examined the way the nabobs were criticized in British graphic satire during the time the British Empire was being formed.

Along the way to writing that dissertation, she gained experience in many aspects of art and art history. Born and raised in Victoria, B.C., Smylitopoulos first attended Camosun College, but a single course in art history got her hooked and she transferred to the University of Victoria.

After graduation, she learned about a master’s program at the University of York in England studying “the long 18th century” from the 1680s to the 1830s. This period included events leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William III’s ascension initiated both Protestant and Whig dominance. It also included the reform movements that began in the 1830s, when major shifts in economy, industry and modes of thought resulted in what is known as the modern period. Other students in the program came from backgrounds in history, philosophy and literature; she was the only one with an interest in art.

After earning her master’s, Smylitopoulos started a graduate internship in Los Angeles with the J. Paul Getty Foundation where she helped oversee the funding of research programs. “It was a rare opportunity to support art history research,” she says. “Plus, it gave me great insight into grant writing and how projects get supported and completed.”

From there it was back to Canada to work in the University of Victoria’s McPherson Library, where she was gifts-in-kind co-ordinator. Smylitopoulos enjoyed meeting donors but was also intrigued to learn how collections are managed so that they are useful to students and researchers. She left that position to enroll at McGill to work on her PhD, working with 18th- and 19th-century European art expert Richard Taws and writing about nabobs.

“Nabobs allegedly returned from India with great wealth and were, among other things, accused of flooding the market with too much ill-gotten money, thereby pushing what the aristocracy felt were the rightful rulers out of their places in society,” she says. “The reality didn’t quite match up with the public impression, though – most British men who travelled to India did not return with vast fortunes, and many actually died there. But there were enough who did to create some anxiety about changes in the political status quo from ‘eastern adventurers.’”

As a result, the nabob was frequently cast as the villain in popular literature, and often shown as drunk and lazy. “My argument was that there were important moral issues underlying the ridicule of the nabobs in British graphic satire, including whether Britain had the right to rule India.”

After graduation, Smylitopoulos joined the Yale Center for British Arts as a postdoctoral research associate. While there, among other responsibilities, she mounted an exhibition co-curated by Eleanor Hughes called “While These Visions Did Appear: Shakespeare on Canvas.” This was a display of paintings from the centre’s permanent collection illustrating the comedic aspects of Shakespeare’s plays.

Her now four-year-old son, Max, is excited to be back in Canada, which he is convinced is a magical place filled with swimming pools. He’s now attending swimming lessons at U of G’s pool.

Now that she’s joined U of G’s School of Fine Arts and Music, Smylitopoulos will be researching the transition from stand-alone graphic satire to the illustrated comic book of the early 19th century, which combined text and images.

“Scholars, librarians and dealers have suggested that these early publications have little merit, but I think that’s because they are focusing on the text,” she says. “But the production method of these books often began with the image, with poetry or text added afterwards, and the pictures are much more critical of politics and society than people think.”

Of course, it can be hard to see the humour in these works. Smylitopoulos says, “I think part of my job is to recuperate the function of humour, even when evidence of racism, misogyny and judgments about the working classes can make finding the humour difficult. The challenge is to acknowledge the prejudice, but still be able to see what audiences would have found funny.”

Ultimately, she believes, both graphic and written satire say a lot about the human need to talk about the social issues that matter to them. “The funnier it is, often the more serious the issue,” she says.