Artist & Empire: Looking At the Past

A Sannyasi, A Religious Mendicant (1882) by John Griffiths, watercolour and graphite on paper, 483 X 343 mm, Tate

The word ‘empire’ is a controversial one, in fact highly provocative, stirring up a hornet’s nest of emotions that haunt Britain today. They include embarrassment, shame, and even amnesia. Feelings engendered among those whom the British Empire conquered cover a spectrum from melancholia and blame, inferiority and anger, which have gradually morphed into more subtle, and often humorous, biting back, as witnessed by their contemporary art. These themes are explored in Artist & Empire.

Post-Imperial Angst

This corrosive legacy of post-Imperial angst, or resentment, is examined through the prism of art in a highly relevant and thought-provoking exhibition titled Artist & Empire. We see jingoistic work by British artists, which reinforced the Empire, and ‘curiosities’, as artefacts collected from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and North America were called. The show moves on to changes depicted by those colonised – 20th and 21st century creative reactions from Commonwealth and Diasporic descendants of people whose societies were so radically altered.

Paul Gilroy, Director of Tate Britain, where Artist & Empire is currently on show at Tate London, points out that locally, in Britain, the inability of so many of its citizens to come to terms with the imperial past has contributed to a deep ignorance and unease about the subject, perhaps corroborated by the fact that the grand, echoing halls were virtually empty the day this author visited.

Facing Britain’s Imperial Past

The exhibition is appropriately subtitled ‘Facing Britain’s Imperial Past’. Historically, of course, Empire was a source of national pride and prestige, promoted by artists like George Stubbs, Anthony Van Dyck and Lady Butler. However, as Gilroy comments: ‘descendants of the victims of past injustice… a litany of exploitation, famine, cruelty and slaughter… are often more familiar with the bloody annals of colonial government than British subjects.’

Of course the most emotive issue is slavery, though Alison Smith, Lead Curator, succinctly points out that it is ‘a subject that is impossible to illustrate visually because, with few exceptions, it was simply not represented – the brute realities of the slave trade being shameful even to its perpetrators.’ An exception is Nicholas Pocock’s pen and ink wash depiction of A View of the Jason Privateer.

Smith writes: ‘What will no doubt strike the contemporary viewer as disturbing about the image is that, despite the delicacy of draughtsmanship and subtlety of execution, the activity represented is totally devoid of feeling or censure, the trading of people appearing as no different from transactions involving other goods.’ Only 340 out of 600 Africans survived on one of the Jason’s voyages to Jamaica in 1748.

Tragic in another way is an etching of Rachel Pringle of Barbados by Thomas Rowlandson, a rare portrait of an African Caribbean subject. Pringle was the daughter of a slave who was freed, and owned a hotel, which prospered as a brothel. Depicted as vast and voraciously vulgar, Pringle squats in her gold jewellery, staring directly at the viewer, in contrast to a younger woman standing behind her with physical assets on display, looking resolutely above the head of a potential client. In Pringle’s will were 38 enslaved adults and children, only five of whom were bequeathed their freedom, the rest given to white friends including the man to whom Rachel herself had been originally sold – Thomas Pringle. Contorted indeed are the legacies of Empire.

Artist & Empire’s survey from the 16th century to today is a panoply of visual material much of which was collected by a telling mixture of interest groups. Historian John Darwin describes the Empire as ‘a private-enterprise’ one, rather than a vast state monolith. These entrepreneurs commissioned, looted or just amassed ‘souvenirs’. They were merchants, military personnel, East India Company officials, imperial administrators and missionaries, to name just a few of the interest groups of Empire.

First Section of the Exhibition: Mapping

The first section of Artist & Empire, Mapping, introduces us to art as a form of cultural imperialism. Mapping, charting and surveying oceans, coasts, land and knowledge of trade resources were essential tools of Empire. At its height, maps defined and celebrated Britain’s global reach, having erased indigenous ownership and imposed new names and borders.

Born in 1980, Andrew Gilbert paints his own take on Imperial Federation: Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886 created in that year by Walter Crane, epitomising the ideology of Empire. In Gilbert’s comical but disturbing version, red-coated soldiers stand guard in stiletto-heeled boots with pointed noses like birds and adorned with tea bags.

The Mapping section shows how art was used as propaganda in patriotic images. ‘With its theme of manly endeavour and stiff upper-lip sentiment, The North-West Passage (by John Everett Millais) was one of the defining images of British imperial heroism,’ writes Alison Smith. The Passage refers to the attempt to find a trade route to Asia over the north coast of Canada.

With clenched fists, a weather-beaten old mariner stares fiercely at us. In 1874, when this encapsulation of adventure and perseverance was painted, a critic imagined the old man saying: ‘It can be done and England ought to do it.’ Reading to him from a logbook, his gentle, dutiful daughter epitomises another ideal of imperial self-sacrifice, of those who kept the home fires burning. From the mid-19th century photography contributed to pink triumphalism on the world map.

Trophies in Artist & Empire

From Mapping in Artist & Empire, we move into Trophies of Empire, in which encounters between cultures begin to be explored, exemplified by the East India Company’s patronage of Mughal painting during a period of cultural assimilation. In fact the sons and daughters of Empire continued to respect elite Indian society and its art; whereas African sculpture spirited away from the continent represented everything connoted by the phrase ‘darkest Africa’.

They also found indigenous Australian culture alien and ‘primitive’, disregarding Aboriginal art. In Britain, both were exhibited as ethnographic objects, rather than art. In 1906, Charles Frederick Goldie painted Maoris in a highly academic style and with considerable respect. His portraits were regarded as documentation of a noble people. The Maori community has praised them for their accurate and sympathetic likenesses, deserving to be called taonga, or treasures.

The section entitled Imperial Heroics shows history painting commemorating a remarkable or heroic occasion, often with a good pinch of poetic licence. These ‘High Art’ paintings were carefully staged to win support for the Empire from British viewers, playing a seminal role in shaping perceptions of events overseas. Images of vulnerable white women in the hands of ‘natives’ resonated most in public imagination.

Joseph Noel Paton’s In Memoriam actually provoked controversy for this genre of history painting, mourning the death of British women and children in 1857 at Cawnpore. The drama of dishevelled sepoys bristling with arms breaking into a cell containing terrified scantily clad white females conjured up fantasies of rape and slaughter. However, when the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, it was described by the Athenaeum as ‘cruel and in woefully bad taste.’

An Allegory of Empire

Thomas James-Barker, a military painter, created a telling allegory of Empire titled The Secret of England’s Greatness (Queen Victoria Presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor). It is actually an imaginary scene but involving real historical figures, except for an unnamed and splendid African prince who bows humbly to receive a Bible from the Queen.

Echoing history painting, grand portraiture promoted Empire by immortalising its principal actors, which included some of the colonised elite who colluded with the British. They sat or mostly stood for large, often full-length portraits, dressed to the nines to impress and project power, as the title for this section reveals – Power Dressing. In most colonised cultures, apart from the Indian, the European tradition of portraiture was unknown, and in essence did not become popular until photography popularised – and democratised – the genre.

Although trans-cultural cross-dressing appears in many imperial portraits, and indeed some white Indophiles demonstrated their empathy with their host country by wearing Indian costume, it is not necessarily a sign that they had ‘gone native’. They may have been advancing their own status and opportunities by, for example, wearing Indian court costume.

Some colonised people adopted, or modified Western clothing, as it suited them, sometimes as a sign of high personal status. One of the most famous of the cross-dressers of the early 20th century was Colonel TE Lawrence, sensitively painted by Augustus John in 1919. Lawrence’s reputation owed much to his well-circulated image in Arab dress, establishing his identity as ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ It is hardly conspiracy theory to suppose that there was political motivation behind this ‘power dressing’.

Face to Face – Raj Portraiture in Artist & Empire

The next section, Face to Face, extends portraiture beyond the European convention of high-status commissioned likenesses. Established travelling artists like Johan Zoffany painted Indian subjects whose elite culture the British had always found accessible. They also shared a figurative aesthetic tradition. Zoffany and contemporaries depicted grand scenes of social interaction, entertainments like cock fights, diplomatic collaboration and intimate British family scenes. Indigenous artists began not only to reciprocate the Western gaze, but also painted their own people, as in The Houseboy by Mancheershaw Pithawalla, a poignant image of a clearly intelligent boy.

Pithawalla was a student of John Griffiths, whose exceptional portrait of A Sannyasi- A Religious Mendicant, deep in sombre thought, empathises with the man and honours Hindu faith. Although one can detect shades of Aubrey Beardsley in Gaganendranath Tagore’s satirical cartoons, he rejected the European academic realism that was favoured by the urban Indian elite of Calcutta (now Kolkata).

His use of caricature was a more popular and cosmopolitan art form, satirising not only colonials, but aspects of Bengali life which included the caste system, corrupt priests and above all – the Westernised bhadralok, or ‘gentleman class’ who had abandoned their own culture to ingratiate themselves with the colonial elite. His 1917 cartoon of a grossly bulging babu (Bengali gentleman) in European evening dress smoking a cigar, is titled My Love of my Country Is as Big as I Am. T

agore and his relatives, who were stalwarts of the local intellectual and artistic scene, played a leading role in promoting the cause of Indian independence. But John Webber’s painting of the Polynesian Poedua, the daughter of Orio, semi-naked and very beautiful, sustained the predominating view of an unspoilt paradise peopled by seductive women, and ‘noble savages’, as perpetuated by a late 19th-century photograph of A Man from Malaita in Fiji, which is tinged with melancholy nostalgia, another kind of awareness of the ‘winds of change.’

Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire

By the turn of the 19th century, a British art curriculum was disseminated in schools and colleges throughout the Empire. The last sections of Art & Empire, Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire, show how, gradually, that European influence was discarded. The shackles rusted away, but it was a long, arduous process encompassing an international love-affair with Modernism, Abstract Expressionism and so on.

In the 1960s, Ben Enwonwu was the first African artist to study in Britain, but the Director of the Slade remarked that he should be put on the next plane back to Nigeria, so slavishly was he imbibing Western style. Of course earlier on Picasso and friends had famously been inspired by traditional African sculpture.

Also in the Sixties, a group of Nigerian art students at Zaria University rejected the British curriculum and launched a modern African art movement called ‘Natural Synthesis.’ Yusef Grillo, whose work did encompass Modernism, said: ‘The Contemporary Nigerian artist must accept those influences that are vital to him. It does not matter whether these are drawn from Yoruba sculpture or Picasso paintings’.

After the Second World War, during the 1950s and 60s, artists from all over the Commonwealth had international careers. Although they took on board equally global art movements, they retained their own difference and visibility. But they felt marginalised, not included in modern mainstream exhibition space. Eventually, in 1989, The Other Story hit the Hayward Gallery (in London) and headlines, an exhibition that turned out to be one of the most controversial for many years.

What ‘other story’ the art cognoscenti asked? What had been hidden beneath the polite façade of the arts establishment? The English art critic, the late Brian Sewell, kicked off a sensational debate on TV and in the press by saying that The Other Story had not been told because it was not worthy of being told. He asserted that the work of the 24 Asian, African and African-Caribbean artists was inferior to ‘white’ art. ‘Why have (they) failed to achieve critical notice and establish a London market?’ demanded Sewell. ‘To that the answer is short – they are not good enough. They borrow all and contribute nothing.’ The Empire had struck back!

Now, in the 21st century, a perceived preoccupation with cultural identity no longer ‘colours’ the work shown in the last section of Art & Empire. The Singh twins, British-born Sikhs, who are the daughters of Indian migrants, have deliberately chosen a medium and technique that provides a highly accessible language for bringing the past into dialogue with the present.

They use posters, gouache in collages embellished with gold dust. Inspired by Persian and Mughal miniature traditions, in EnTWINed (2009) and other large-scale works, they explore the impact of imperialism on modern-day Britain. They confront issues like the impact of Asian immigration and the ways in which multi-culturalism has encouraged a new understanding of British identity and patriotism.


Artist & Empire, until 10 April at Tate Britain, Millbank, London. An article discussing the Islamic world themes in this exhibition will appear in the March 2016 issue.

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