Empire is a bit of a dirty word and something we don’t really like to think too much about. But in the last ten years historians have increasingly turned their attention to reconsidering the Empire and its meaning in an attempt to understand what Britishness means in the twenty-first century. In effect the British Empire began in the sixteenth-century and fell into decline after the First World War as countries won their independence. Our modern perception is that Empire meant slavery, subjugation and looting of other countries but as with most historical events it is never as simple as it looks, and while it existed for more than 350 years, it also led to cultural exchange, technological advancement and engagement with the world that benefited both Britain and its conquered territories. Tate Britain’s big winter exhibition Artist and Empire tells this story through painting, sculpture and map-making, and while it doesn’t decide whether Empire was ultimately good or bad, it has brought together one of the most fascinating collections about this defining era in British history.
Thematically arranged, it begins with cartography, because the first thing you need to do when you conquer somewhere is make a map of your new territory, and this initial room contains some fascinating examples of early scientific exploration from as long ago as the sixteenth century accompanied by enormous portraits of explorers including a fine centrepiece of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins painted in the 1600s. There are also examples of original maps made within Britain including siege plans for Enniskillen Castle by an English soldier called John Thomas, which may explain where this love of capturing and subduing lands came from. From the start it’s clear that this show will take a multi-country perspective and pieces depicting Ireland, America, Africa, Australia and India sit side by side as astonishing examples of the Britain’s reach at any given time and the millions of people it affected.
Eddie Izzard would tell you that claiming ownership of somewhere also requires that you stick a flag in it – “no flag, no country” – so the exhibition also brings you right up to the twentieth-century with some handmade Asafo Flags from West Africa designed by the Fante a Ghanaian people showing collaboration between local culture and the British invaders with some incorporating elements of the Union flag. As they hang from the ceiling they seem to entirely represent the contradictory thoughts about Empire, hinting both at tales of repression, occupation and acquisition, as well as the development of local alliances that led, for a time at least, to mutual systems of government.
One of the major consequences of the Empire was its scientific output and the second room considers its effect on the collections of natural history, art and literature. From exploratory voyages which recorded new species of animal and plant life to the development of the ‘Grand Tour’ for aristocratic young men around Europe, the engagement with the effects of Empire was considerable. This room includes beautifully detailed botanical drawings such as those by Lady Anna Maria Jones who collected and drew Indian plants while stationed there with her husband in the late 1700s. This is brilliantly balanced by related bird drawings by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din who was commissioned by Lady Jones among others to add to her collection, and this is another fascinating aspect of this exhibition, it’s not just the British perspective on foreign lands but the increased appetite for locally produced works of art and cultural objects.
The interest in new species is an opportunity to show Stubb’s superb painting of A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants which became part of the Duke of Cumberland’s menagerie and took part in stag hunts at Windsor. There’s also the Stubbs Dingo, as well as John Lewin’s Tasmanian Tiger, placed alongside discussion of Joseph Banks who voyaged with Captain Cook. The trafficking of goods and animals (as well of people) back to Britain was part of a cultural influx at home too, meaning it wasn’t just the people who travelled around the Empire who experienced its effects, signalling a huge shift in the movement of goods around the world.
No study of Empire is complete without mention of the military campaigns that effected the subjugation of other lands, and the next room considers the grandiose, and often misleading, statements about the heroism of the army. From virtual nonsense including Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe which falsely imagines the great leader succumbing on the battlefield surrounded by his men and a Native American, to George William Joy’s depiction of the death of General Gordon, military heroes are given a saint-like composure, likening their demise to religious imagery of sacrifice – essentially rewriting history and the nature of conflict to suit the iconography of the Empire.
In the following rooms, the merging of British and local cultures becomes more apparent as several portraits show the exchange of costume, with famous faces such as T. E. Lawrence in tribal wear and John Foote in beautiful India muslins painted by Joshua Reynolds. But this influence worked both ways as British style portraits and customs were adopted. We can see this in Simon de Passe’s portrait of Pocahontas in European dress. Ethnographic studies of different cultures also became increasingly popular and many of the pictures in the final rooms document the nature of tribal life including portraits of Maori chiefs, the King of Matabeleland and leather goods from Nigeria. This again implies the dual nature of Empire, both as a scientific and cultural exploration of the rest of the world leading to the exchange of knowledge and experience for all involved, but still with the knowledge of Britain as an invading force detailing the wonders of its new territories.
As you leave this exhibition, which took me about two hours to see everything properly, it’s difficult to form any certain conclusions on the experience of Empire. The Tate has been very careful not to take a clear line on this and while it had terrible consequences for many, this is a fascinating and revealing walk through its history. Somewhat unintentionally, by placing so many pieces from around the world next to one another so that you move from the Caribbean to Australia from South Africa to North America in a few steps, you can’t help but be a little bit awed that Britain managed to keep control of all of that simultaneously and for so long. The rights and wrongs aside, the very fact of its existence is overwhelming. As much about scientific exploration as it was about subjugation, the concept of Empire is one that will continue to trouble us, and as this fascinating exhibition makes clear, the British Empire was far from black and white, it was full of people, cultures and colours that tell us so much about being British in the twenty-first century.
Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain until 10 April. Tickets are £16 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1