“Southeast Asia in Ruins” by Sarah Tiffin

HC Cornelius,
"View of the ruins of a Bramin temple at Brambanang" HC Cornelius, "View of the ruins of a Bramin temple at Brambanang"

If you were to visit the British Museum and take a quick look at HC Cornelius’s View of the ruins of a Bramin temple at Brambanang, you might surmise that it is an exquisite piece of landscape art, depicting a typical rural scene in early 19th-century Java.

If so, you might be wrong. Sarah Tiffin’s Southeast Asia in Ruins sets out to demonstrate that these images are in fact gross misrepresentations of reality. Moreover, it aims to peel away the surface level of European images and depictions of the region’s dilapidated religious monuments to reveal their deeper significance, specifically in relation to the “twin aspirations of progress and power”.

This is a wide ranging study that subjects to intense scrutiny the colonial art from the Malayan archipelago (particularly Java) and Burma that features candi (a Hindu or Buddhist ruin), pagodas, temples and other ancient monuments. It looks at not only what is represented but how it is represented, the key aim being to:


Expose the cultural codes embedded within the ruin landscapes, revealing them as subtle communicators of the functions and working of social, economic and political power… played out  against the backdrop of British Imperial ambitions in Southeast Asia in the late 18th and early 19th century.


The influence of Edward W. Said’s Orientalism, his famous critique of Western attitudes towards “The East”, filters into every nook and cranny of Southeast Asia in Ruins. The author uses the Orientalism theory as a framework with which to analyse the production and interpretation of the art created by Western visitors to Southeast Asia to argue that their romantic and exotic portraits of Asia was reflective of a form of imperial power, Western superiority and racism.

The central argument becomes more compelling as the book progresses and the evidence piles up chapter by chapter. The only chink I could find was the heavy reliance on the art and plates in Raffles’s The History of Java—perhaps inevitable given the book’s size and popularity.

Tiffin dives deep into the nature and causes of the perceived societal and cultural decline in Southeast Asia, which the Europeans, in part, blamed on the influence of religion and Oriental political despotism. She also explains how the themes of romantic decline and absence were pushed to a receptive audience of well-heeled Britons, attracted to the picturesque ideal at a time when understanding art was increasingly seen a “barometer of civilisation”.


Tempered by the aspirations, tastes and opinions of their makers, those who commissioned them, and their various audiences, the images were shaped by well-established modes of representation and patterns of interpretation that had been formulated half a world away from the candi, wats and pagodas they depicted. The British depicted the candi on their terms, for a British audience, with the implication that only they could understand Java’s unique cultural inheritance.


Not only were the artworks inauthentic in their depiction of the region, they were subtly designed to promote the imperial project and the idea that only the cultured English (not the indolent local populations or, as Raffles would have it, the gin-soaked Dutch) could understand and interpret the ancient art of the region.

We know from official colonial correspondence that Raffles felt it was a huge mistake for Britain to hand Java, with all its economic potential, back to the Dutch after victory over France in the Napoleonic Wars, so this is not a huge surprise. Furthermore, Tiffin states:


The region’s decline was seen as axiomatic but progress was possible under the right conditions.


The conditions implied by the images made by the colonial powers were the benign and progressive rule of the culturally more advanced and technologically more sophisticated Europeans. Much of the art in The History of Java is interpreted as saying that the region could be “liberated from its moribund state and placed on the path to progress” by British rule.


Southeast Asia in Ruins: Art and Empire in the Early 19th Century, Sarah Tiffin (NUS Press, 2016)
Southeast Asia in Ruins: Art and Empire in the Early 19th Century, Sarah Tiffin (NUS Press, 2016)

Aside from the political-cultural angle, the story of how these artworks came to be is itself a fascinating read. Many of the initial drawings were technical in nature, often drawn by army officers trained to craft geographical drawings at military school in Europe. Once back home, local artists redrew them, added color and shade to reflect current local themes such as the picturesque aesthetic idea of beauty and the preoccupations of progress and order.  The “before” and “after” drawings of, for example, the temple of Borobudur in are powerful in arguing this point.

There is no shortage of reasons to admire this book. The prose style sometimes features long complex sentences that give it an academic bent, but it is never stiff or dry.


Images clarify and name, delineate territory, mark difference, deliver moral lessons of great moment, and render the tropical landscape entirely knowable in the comfortably familiar language of the British picturesque.


The material has clearly been deeply researched: there are almost 90 pages of notes referencing art, poetry, books, publications, including numerous primary sources. And, as usual, the NUS has done a splendid job on presentation.


Academics analysing this period will find Southeast Asia in Ruins a rewarding addition to studies in this area: as Tiffin argues, “The rich vein of British images of Southeast Asia has been little tapped.” Lovers of the history of colonial Asia will find its reinterpretation of historical texts fascinating and art history experts, or those well versed in the language of art criticism, will also find much of value.

The general reader with an interest in the period and subject matter, meanwhile, newly armed with a method of decoding the visual language of art, may never look at a landscape portrait of a candi in quite the same way again.

Stephen Joyce is a marketing consultant and copywriter who moved to Asia from Scotland in early 2010. He has lived in Hong Kong and Singapore and is now in the UK.