A vast array of objects and work from across Britain tells the often-difficult story of the empire and its legacy.
The first room in this mesmerising exhibition about how artists represented the British Empire and how empire shaped – and continues to shape – British art is painted a tasteful duck egg blue. Really, though, it ought to be done out in expansionist red or pink, like the colours denoting the British empire that creep across the maps on the walls: the colours of blood, or rage or, perhaps, crimson-faced shame.
‘Artist and Empire’ covers a period when Britannia ruled not just the waves but vast swathes of the known world, naming the bits of the unknown world it laid claim to as it opened up new trade routes and, ahem, diplomatic channels. You’ll see the first map to feature the word ‘Australia’, drawn by Matthew Flinders in 1804. However, the story begins much earlier than that with artist-soldier John Thomas’s ‘The Siege of Enniskillen Castle’ – a sort of map/picture/piece of propaganda from 1593 depicting a gory episode from ‘England’s first colony’. Endearingly naive in execution, it carries a clear message for rebellious natives – resist the British Crown at your peril.
With a brick-shithouse Britannia about to plunge her avenging sword into a ‘mutinous’ Indian tiger, Edward Armitage’s ‘Retribution’ (1858) is a case of different century, different continent, same propaganda. Crucial at the time in eliciting support back home, the painting now seems as preposterous as Benjamin West’s ‘The Death of General James Wolfe’ (1779). Having captured Quebec from the French, our hero lies fatally wounded on the Plains of Abraham, surrounded by a token assembly of mourners – including a Scot, an Irishman and a Native American in deep, respectful contemplation. West’s quasi-religious scene made it into the national consciousness via reproductions on tea trays and pottery. George William Joy’s ‘The Death of General Gordon, Khartoum, 26th January, 1885’ (1893) even inspired a waxwork tableau at Madame Tussauds. Long before rolling news, people queue to see the moment when a British officer stepped out of his chamber in Khartoum to be slaughtered by jihadists.
With tons of treasure (and plunder) and without too much by way of curatorial handwringing, the show impresses on us just how much empire still influences our lives today. And, while covering a vast period, it manages to shed light on surprising subtleties of exchange and influence. That it fizzles out with responses to empire by contemporary artists is perhaps a fitting ending to the story. But it’s also proof that the best art doesn’t necessarily emerge from the best of intentions. Hew Locke’s collages of colonial-era statues embellished with pound shop tat and a serious, searching self-portrait by Sonia Boyce, exploring her British identity and West-Indian heritage, are worthy inclusions. But, for staggering, open-mouthed enjoyment, they can’t compete with the cocksure art that precedes them.
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Only one artist makes a contemporary response to the exhibition. All other contemporary works were existing and used rather unimaginatively in this exhibition. There's a reason why the contemporary art can't compete with the historical. That's because the contemporary work was an afterthought by curators only used to working with dead artists, and as such those recent works were mostly squeezed into the last tiny room. The show could have been powerful in conveying ideas about lived experience now or the impact of colonialism as played out in the world today. But it failed quite dramatically to do so.