“When London is in Ruins”: Gustave Doré’s The New Zealander (1872)

Famous for depicting worlds beyond our own — his illustrations of The Divine Comedy are inseparable from how we now view Dante’s epic — the French artist Gustave Doré (1832–1883) set himself a new task in 1869: to document the scenes of everyday London life. Collaborating with the British journalist Blanchard Jerrold (1826–1884), Doré spent countless days and nights drifting across the capital, protected by plain-clothes police, while visiting opium dens, squalid lodging houses, and dim pubs. After four years, the pair published London: A Pilgrimage, complete with 180 wood engravings by Doré.

Critics were not kind in their reviews of the volume, because many felt it was itself not a kind review of London: depicting extremes instead of medians, working in the tradition of William Hogarth’s city scenes, but draining them of moral and satirical content. Critiques aside, there is a more curious history to uncover here. In the final plate, Doré slips into a metaphysical mode, depicting London in a ruinous style that looks more like John Martin’s illustrations of Pandemonium than a lively city on the Thames. London Bridge has fallen down and, in the midst of this unreal city, a veiled figure sits lit by moonlight, aside the derelict “Commercial Wharf” — where sedge has begun to rewild the urban environment — sketching the remains of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which looks like it has been snapped in half. Its title? “The New Zealander”.

This image frames the entire series. Writing in his preface, Jerrold quotes Wordsworth and lapses nostalgic: the pilgrimage was conceived “in the happier days of France, when war seemed nearly as far off from Paris as the New Zealander appears to be still from the ruins of London bridge”. Who was this New Zealander? Largely forgotten today, he was so omnipresent in the 1860s as to be labeled cliché. An 1865 issue of Punch magazine, for example — explored by both David Skilton and David Runciman — proposed banning the use of “certain persons, objects and things, part of the stock-in-trade of sundry literary chapman”. At the head of this list we find “Macaulay’s New Zealander”: “The retirement of this veteran is indispensable. He can no longer be suffered to impede the traffic over London Bridge. Much wanted at the present time in his own country. May return when London is in ruins.”

The trope is often traced back to the British statesman and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859), for whom the vision of a fallen London in some near future served as a cautionary bit of rhetoric repurposed toward various ends. In an 1829 review of Essays on Government by James Mill, for example, Macaulay describes a vision akin to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “Is it possible that, in two or three hundred years, a few lean and half-naked fishermen may divide with owls and foxes the ruins of the greatest European cities—may wash their nets amidst the relics of her gigantic docks, and build their huts out of the capitals of her stately cathedrals?” In 1840, he narrowed these cities to London during a review of Leopold von Ranke on papal history, contrasting the New Zealander with the endurance of Catholicism amidst cataclysm: unlike London’s iconic Anglican cathedral, the Catholic church “may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's".

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Although Doré was likely referencing this version of the New Zealander, the allegorical figure did not necessarily originate with Macaulay. The New Zealand based Cornish missionary William Colenso, presenting a paper at the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute in 1882, found an equivalent image in “works, without doubt, [that] Macaulay must have seen and even read”. Horace Walpole, for instance, in a published 1744 letter, suggests a time when “some curious traveller from Lima, will visit England, and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul’s, like the Editions of Baalbec and Palmyra”. (Colenso notes that Macaulay wrote “a slashingly trenchant” review of Walpole’s letters.) Other predecessors include Volney, Henry Kirke White, Percy Shelley, and — demonstrating the depth of Colenso’s sleuthing — “the able preface to the English 4th edition of La Billardiere’s celebrated Voyage”, which predicts that “New Zealand may produce her Lockes, her Newtons, and her Montesquieus. . . [and send] navigators, philosophers, and antiquaries, to contemplate the ruins of ancient London”. Others think the origin might come from Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” (1825), a work about London even less popular than Doré and Jerrold’s Pilgrimage, which envisioned the capital flattened by the Napoleonic wars.

Controversial in origin, the image becomes even more complex when trying to fix an interpretation, as its meaning permutates beyond Macaulay. Consider Winston Churchill, who, commenting on ancient civilizational ruins in India, wondered if “the traveler shall some day inspect, with unconcerned composure, the few scraps of stone and iron, which may indicate the British occupation of India.” Part of the New Zealander’s enduring pleasure, then, comes from a kind of Ozymandian irony, fully present in the Churchill — “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Yet wait long enough and, sure enough, despair will decay into something like bathos.

More curious, perhaps, is the New Zealander’s journey from colony to metropole, which plays on the tradition of educated and moneyed Europeans capping their studies with a Grand Tour to see the ruins of classical civilization. It also predicts, in a sense, the anxieties of “reverse colonization” that fester in the British imagination across the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, prominent in alien invasion narratives and employed for dramatic effect by Louise Bennett Coverley, for instance, in her 1966 poem “Colonization in Reverse”. The science fiction novel most indebted to Macaulay’s idea is William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880), written in an epistolary style from Tapuaeharuru, Taupo, N.Z. in 1942, looking back at the fall of London to pollution and vice. In Sensitive Negotiations: Indigenous Diplomacy and British Romantic Poetry (2021), Nikki Hessell further complicates questions of fiction and history, by tracking how an extract from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) was published by Rēweti Tūhorouta Kōhere as a bilingual text in 1926, designed to introduce anglophone literature to Māori readers, and perhaps inspired the kind of travel envisioned by the statesman. Against the critical tradition that perceives Macaulay’s New Zealander to be a settler returning to a collapsed imperial center, Hessel notes that, in the 1840s, the term would have invoked a Māori pilgrim. “Macaulay’s Māori was mobile, traversing not only the geographic space between England and Aotearoa New Zealand and the temporal space between the flourishing empire and its inevitable fall, but also the cultural space between Indigenous and European art forms.”

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