Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past @ Tate Britain

In six rooms the curators of this exhibition have gathered a jumble sale, a hodge-podge, a gallimaufry of maps and flags, oil paintings and watercolours, photographs and sculptures, swords and spears from all over the vast territorial range of the British Empire, dating from the 1500s to the post-colonial art of the present day. These objects, quite obviously, can only represent a tiny fraction, a miniscule sampling of the vast, overwhelming multitude of artefacts and stories which remain or could be told about the largest empire in history.

Thematic arrangement or jumble sale

On the one hand, it probably makes sense to try and arrange such a vast subject into themes or topics; and so the exhibition is organised into six rooms each with a distinctive theme, with a room each of maps, of portraits, of history paintings and so on, giving each piece at least a conceptual context.

The drawback of this approach is its randomness – so you get a portrait of Laurence of Arabia (1918) next to a Van Dyck of a Stuart explorer (1635) next to some Indian miniatures from a prince’s court during the Raj (1860). The leaps in time and space and context and meaning between different objects are breath-taking.

Another drawback is that the wall labels explaining each object have only two or three paragraphs to do so and in which to cover sometimes large topics; they risk being rather superficial. Thus we learn that the Empire involved some violence. There were acts of suppression. It involved ‘unequal power relationships’. Hmm.

(Given that the creation and running of the Empire was such a massive event in world history and that, as the commentary points out, the repercussions of the Empire are still with us in many places, maybe there should be a Museum of the British Empire, a really big museum, dedicated to telling the story of the central administration, along with galleries for each subject country or colony, galleries which could explore in detail the histories of trade and barter and war and invasion and resistance and administration and rebellion and independence for each of the 50 or so countries the Empire once ruled.)

There is a chronological underpinning of sorts to the exhibition, with the first room – the map room – containing some of the earliest objects and the last room clearly set apart for post-colonial and contemporary art by artists from former colonies. But otherwise, you have to be quite alert to bits of Empire popping up in scattered places.

For example, did you think the British colonisation of Ireland was a complex and important story? In the first room there’s a primitive map of Enniskellen from Elizabethan times, in the last room a contemporary art work showing a map of Ulster overshadowed by the Troubles. And that’s your lot on Ireland. Not much to get your teeth into. Next it’s native statues from Sierra Leone, an 18th century portrait of Joseph Banks, 19th century wood carvings of Queen Victoria, a 1937 photo of John Buchan in Red Indian head-dress, a chess set from India. And so on.

The Empire in art

The curators claim the exhibition ‘looks at the British Empire through the prism of art and explores some of the ways in which Empire has shaped practices and themes in British art from the early colonial period to the present day.’ In an obvious way, everything here – maps, flags, portrait painting, sculpture, history paintings – references Imperial subject matter – battles, rulers, land. But to say the Empire shaped practices and themes in British art is a more ambitious claim. The portrait, the landscape, animal paintings, history paintings, watercolours of plants or ancient ruins – surely all these existed in other European countries too, including those which never had an Empire.

What the British emphatically did do, and uniquely well, was trade -trade and expand, sometimes by war, sometimes by negotiation, buying land, acquiring land, conquering land, replacing corrupt local rulers with British law or just defeating them in countless ‘small wars’, introducing accurate maps and renaming places, carrying out censuses, introducing new crops, new landholding patterns and then – after the Industrial Revolution – bringing in steam trains, telegraph cables, metal warships to bind it all together.

Of this – the administrative, trading and commercial, the deal-making and buying and selling, the technological and engineering underpinnings of Empire, what amounted in fact to the main engines and sinews of Empire – there was little or nothing. I missed depictions of the economic, technological and military might which made the British Empire so unstoppable for centuries. After the map room, the exhibition features a few pictures of plants and animals, a few spears and native carvings – but overwhelmingly it consists of pictures of people and their stories.

British indifference to Empire

One of the most interesting things about the British Empire was the way it was largely ignored in the country which supposedly ran it. The English syllabus I studied at university included Dryden and Pope, Dr Johnson and Fielding, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Which of them was the cheerleader for Imperialism? Which of them even mentioned the British Empire? There are occasional references to the snobbish, nouveau riches nabobs who come back from India and offensively flaunt their wealth (in Thackeray). Mr Micawber goes off to Australia at the end of David Copperfield (1850); Magwitch returns from Australia in Great Expectations (1861). But for the most part the Empire is a distant place where people go to and sometimes return from or just not mentioned at all.

It’s only at the very end of the nineteenth century, in the age of Kipling and the boys’ own adventures of Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard, from the 1880s onwards, that a really triumphalist Imperial Jingoism asserts itself in British culture and that its remote and exotic locations start to feature in fiction and the broader culture. And this had barely got going before it was called into question by the national humiliation of the Boer War (1899-1902). There was another decade of pomp and circumstance, and then the Great War shipwrecked the whole thing. Then you have the troubled inter-war years, with increasingly shrill hard-core Unionists and Imperialists on one side, pitched against outraged liberals and socialists who support the growing independence movements. The cataclysmic second war when the Dominions rally round Britain while she stands alone against Hitler and bankrupts herself in the process. Then, between 1945 and 1965, a flood of independences and ‘liberations’.

The truly Imperial Moment was a very short period in British history. A few weeks ago I systematically visited every room in Tate Britain, looking at every painting and sculpture. I can’t remember a single work ‘about’ the British Empire. There must have been a few history paintings touching on imperial battles, but what’s really remarkable about the British Empire is its absence from British culture.

For most of our history it was an offshore enterprise, a bit like North Sea oil, employing a small number of people very intensively, bringing massive profits to a small number of companies. You might have read about it when something went wrong (some military setback or other), but most people here just got in with their lives. That’s what the literature records (Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Hardy, James) – a sublime indifference.

Anti-imperialism

The curators refer a few times to the notion that the Empire is still viewed by the British people as a wonderful achievement. Their stated aim is to probe and question this supposed attitude of patriotic pride. But I would have thought it’s the opposite. My children were taught from infant school all about the horrors of slavery, they know more about Nelson Mandela than Admiral Nelson, they are quick to jump on any suggestion of sexism or racism, which they have been fully trained to recognise and denounce. I’d have thought the commonest view was embarrassment shading into shame about the Empire.

In any case, Britain had a long history of internal criticism of Empire throughout its history. The 18th century economist Adam Smith thought it was a bad thing. Victorian free traders like Cobden thought it would ruin the home country. Gladstone dedicated his life to opposing Imperial adventurism (and its wily advocate, his opponent, the slippery Disraeli). Some of the most stinging critiques of Empire were published immediately after the Boer War. Conditions in the concentration camps created during that stupid struggle were widely publicised at the time (surely a rampaging feminist movie could be made from the heroic campaigns of Emily Hobhouse to publicise their evils?). The nakedness of the greed, the futility of the fighting undertaken to enrich a handful of Rand millionaires, was well publicised at the time. By the 1930s George Orwell was writing of his disgust at the Empire, Evelyn Waugh was taking the mickey.

I’d have thought most educated people are very well aware of the shameful aspects of Empire, the brutality of British rule in India, our wicked involvement in the slave trade. Who hasn’t seen Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi with its depiction of the Amritsar Massacre? That was released in 1982. 34 years ago. To claim that any Briton anywhere has an uncritically patriotic pride in the British Empire is to set up a straw man.

Individual stories

Once you realise the exhibition isn’t attempting a coherent narrative, or a sustained analysis, of the British Empire it becomes easier to enjoy it for what it is – a potpourri, a salmagundi, a miscellany and medley of objects large and small, old and new, each with its own ‘Oooh gosh’ story behind it. These are the very spears Joseph Banks collected in 1763! Those bronze heads were looted from Benin City in 1898!

Watching the elderly, grey-haired (and 100% white) visitors shuffling from one interesting artefact to another reminded me of The Antiques Roadshow. I couldn’t help smiling at the incongruity between the curators’ use of post-modern critical language – where art works are always ‘questioning’ and ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’ colonial ‘practice’ – and the chatty, antiquarian enthusiasm of the elderly visitors with their walking sticks and glasses, their taste for intriguing objects and historical gossip. And I was happy to be part of that oohing and aahing audience, too.

The rooms

Room one: Mapping and marking

A room full of maps, with some flags hanging from the ceiling, five flags created by Fante artists from the former Gold Coast. How many flags do you think were used during the entire British Empire? A million? Five seems a small selection. The big map of the world hanging on the wall with the Empire marked in pink wasn’t nearly as impressive as I thought it would be. If anything it emphasised how America, South America, a lot of Africa, all Russia and China weren’t in the Empire.

There were two splendid paintings:

  • Triple portrait of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins Note the globe: Drake was only the second man to sail round the planet (presumably with some other sailors involved). What lads they look! Drake was a pirate, remembered in South America as a crook and privateer, and was second-in-command of the fleet which held off the Spanish Armada. Hawkins is fingered as one of the Elizabethans who began to dabble in the slave trade. The slave trade was a bad thing, children. And so Hawkins was a Bad Man.
  • Sir John Everett Millais The North-West Passage (1874) In my old age I’ve given up fighting a taste for cheesy Victorian narrative paintings. If it’s OK to enjoy realistic Victorian novels, why not enjoy their realistic paintings? If you’ve cared for old family members this has added poignancy.

Room two: Trophies of Empire

My recent tour of the British Museum, especially room one, devoted to housing and explaining a selection of 18th century collections, showed me the huge importance of collecting, of the urge to collect and compare and contrast artefacts, which became fashionable in the 18th century and formed the basis of our Western knowledge in a huge range of subjects, from archaeology to botany. The existence of the Empire, of course, enabled the collecting of all kinds of artefacts from all around the globe, especially flowers and plants.

  • Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians The two paintings in this room by George Stubbs seemed dire to me. Portrait of a Large Dog (The Dingo) They’re here to demonstrate the impulse to record, log and record the fauna of new exotic destinations (India, Australia).
  • Best painting was the imposing portrait of the great naturalist Joseph Banks by Benjamin West. Banks was a founder and one of the earliest directors of Kew Gardens. He accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages of exploration. To his left are a Maori paddle and quarterstaff and almost identicial examples are hung either side of the painting, creating an impressive and haunting effect.
  • Talking of Kew, there’s an oil painting of an Indian temple by the prolific Victorian artist Marianne North. At Kew an entire gallery is dedicated to her hundreds of detailed pictures of exotic flora.
  • There were some wonderful botanic prints by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din, one of the many ‘native’ inhabitants taught and trained by the schools the British set up.
  • My favourite works in the British Museum are the ‘bronzes of Benin’, extraordinary works of art which were looted after our troops seized Benin City at the end of the 19th century. Obviously they should be returned to their country of origin (like the Elgin marbles and lots else). On show here are Head of an Oba and Head of a Queen Mother. In one way these were quite the most perfect, complete, finished and powerful exhibits in the show.
  • These and some of the other ‘primitive’ sculptures by native artists struck me as vastly more exciting, compelling, vibrant and alive than something like the dull and dreary Tomb and distant view of the Rajmahal hills by William Hodges.
  • The poster for the whole show is one of the three oil portraits by Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda painted for Queen Victorian, namely Bakshiram (1886).

Room three: Imperial heroics

A room of big oil paintings depicting heroic moments from Imperial history. The commentary makes the interesting point that Imperial history paintings tended to select moments of solo heroism or martyrdom or depict our chaps facing overwhelming odds – glossing over the many times we and our machine guns massacred the natives. This explains:

On the other hand, there were a lot of military disasters in the history of the Empire. We did get massacred at Isandlwana (1,300 killed), in the retreat from Kabul (nearly 17,000 killed or captured). In fact the history of the Empire is coloured by the cult of Heroic Failure which makes England such an odd country. The conquest of Canada from the French always focuses on the death of Colonel Wolfe at the climax of the Battle for Quebec (1775). We beat the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and as a result dominated the world’s oceans for a century but, once again, depictions all tend to focus on the death of Admiral Lord Nelson, killed by a French sniper. This assemblage of martyr paintings was thought provoking.

Not particularly related to any of this was the chess set carved from ivory and depicting one side as the army of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, the other side dressed as the army of the East India Company, created in 1795.

Room four: Power dressing

Imperial portraits focusing on the ‘cross-dressing’ ie the keenness with which some of the chaps liked to dress up in native outfits. Illustrating, or bringing to mind, the tension between the sympathetic colonisers and those who felt we must keep our distance, maintain our difference, at all costs. Big theme, little room.

  • William Feilding, 1st Earl of Denbigh by Anthony van Dyck c.1635–6
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1919) by Augustus John
  • Sir John Buchan, Governor General of Canada by Yousuf Karsh. Pleasing to learn that Buchan had been given the native American head-dress by Indians for his support of First Nation cultural traditions. In fact the head-dress which features in the photo is also on display nearby, crafted by a Kainaiwa artist and presented to Buchan by a Kainaiwa chief apparently named Shot-on-both-sides. From the earliest to the final periods, there were plenty of colonists sympathetic to ‘native’ cultures.

Room five: Face to face

The rationale of this room seems to be an exploration of more informal works: it features journals and diaries with impressive amateur illustrations, wooden carvings by ‘natives’ and so on – but still includes walls of oil paintings. God, but Johann Zoffany painted a lot of stiff, awkward paintings in the 18th century! I liked:

Room six: Out of Empire

After the Second World War artists from the ‘colonies’ came to London to study and pursue careers. In these final two rooms there was the same kind of mish-mash of styles and approaches as can be seen in the main galleries upstairs, in the rooms representing the 1940s and 50s, except done by artists from the decolonising Empire.

I was struck by a bronze bust, Head of a Girl by Benedict Enwonwu, a so-so pastiche of a traditional western-style bust, because it was so much less interesting than the fabulous Benin busts from a hundred years previously. Something had been lost in the transition from ‘traditional’ style to the attempt to copy Western models.

Just because an artist comes from a former colonial country and may have many stories of repression to tell, doesn’t automatically – alas – give them some kind of ‘authenticity’, doesn’t mean their art is any good. It may shed light on aspect of the colonial experience, on the humiliation and suffering of the colonised, on their personal feelings – but doesn’t guarantee these feelings are effectively converted into an art work. For example:

  • Midonz by Ronald Moody (1937)
  • Hills of Gold by Avinash Chandra (1964)
  • Three figures I by Isabel Rawsthorne (1961)

I usually like mocking and satirical works but I found the big photos by Hew Locke somehow cheap and unfunny. They failed, for me, to engage with the ideas or history they mock.

I liked Eve by Eric Gill (1928) as I like all Gill’s work, but I don’t know why it was in this room. It was all a bit so-so; maybe the only piece I could say I liked was:

The irrelevance of anti-imperialism

Central to room six is Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire, (1972-74) a landmark work in its day, apparently – a see-through bookshelf in the middle of the room containing a variety of candles, some of which look very phallic, some of which are chained together. Probably it refers to slavery and is meant to make me feel guilty about something which ended 150 years before I was born, but the chains reminded me of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In the earnest 1970s righteous Marxism was a viable worldview, and angst about slavery or imperial humiliations, about exploitation of the workers and native peoples, seemed pressing and important, because various forms of armed struggle against lingering colonialism and wars to overthrow capitalism were actually raging around the globe. There was apartheid in South Africa, civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia, to take just a part of just one continent.

Now all that has gone. The doctrines of neo-liberal capitalism have completely conquered the world. The main political parties in most Western countries have become indistinguishable front men for big business and international banks, and their populations are restive and frustrated but ultimately accept it. Only in the Academy, in university humanities courses and in the Arts, do Marxism and various other ‘radical’ -isms continue to have a ghostly, unreal afterlife, detached from the actual world most people inhabit.

The curators of this exhibition believe it is time we started a debate about the real legacy of the British Empire and faced the facts about its darker side, apparently ignorant that its darker side has been well-publicised by politicians, writers and polemicists for over a hundred years (even in the very obvious level of pop culture, I remember the TV series Roots from 1977 or the movie Gandhi from 1982. A generation ago.)

But watching my teenage kids makes me realise that in our post-colonial, post-modern era, dominated by likes, shares and selfies on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, everything is just a gag. Cats who look like Hitler has more followers than the Prime Minister. My kids know more about Miley Cyrus than the Indian Mutiny. Their lives will be about trying to get jobs in a world with 8 billion inhabitants, trying to find somewhere to live in a city of 10 million, and coping with the slowly spreading impacts of global warming.

So when their old Dad tries to interest them in the iniquity of British rule in India 150 years ago or shock them with facts about the slave trade 250 years ago, they just yawn and say, ‘Yeah Dad, we learned all about that at school,’ and turn back to their X-boxes. And who’s to say they’re wrong to be getting on with their lives in the here and now, unhindered by the pomps and atrocities of the past.

This is a very thought-provoking exhibition, in more ways, I think, than the curators intended.

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