Violence, victors and victims: how to look at the art of the British empire
There can be few more contentious subjects than the empire, and few artistic legacies more explosive. Now, Tate Britain is to hold the first major British exhibition of masterworks from the colonial period – and the results are revealing
Elizabeth Butler’s Remnants of an Army (1879). Images courtesy of Tate Photograph: Tate
Friday 20 November 2015
One wet autumn night in 1951, the travel writer Peter Fleming – the elder and, at that point, more famous brother of Ian – was leaving the theatre when he heard a woman ask her companion to dinner to meet “a friend back from Rangoon”.
This fleeting snatch of conversation prompted Fleming to write a celebrated essay about how isolated and provincial postwar, post-imperial Britain had suddenly become. Twenty years earlier, he realised, half his friends and contemporaries would have been working in such cities across the British empire. Now, he wrote, “a man who has just come back from Rangoon is a rare and potentially interesting phenomenon. The contraction of our empire on one hand, and our incomes on the other, have reduced very considerably our knowledge – as a nation – of the world.” Gone were the days when “remote, romantic place names became domesticated in English households, and grandmothers headed for Asia in the Autumn … [Now] our horizons have shrunk … The British at the moment are more out of touch with the rest of the world than they have been for several generations.”
This introversion, and the growing confusion and embarrassment it began to generate about the recent colonial past, had a dramatic effect on the arts in postwar Britain, and particularly on attitudes towards the country’s substantial holdings of imperial art. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, images of empire came to be regarded with something between a deep ambivalence and a profound distaste: paintings with Indian, African or Caribbean imperial themes seemed at best fuddy-duddy and passe, at worst mawkishly jingoistic.
As the 1950s progressed some public collections were sent abroad to former colonies, where people then appeared much more interested in such pictures than the British now were: so it was, for example, that John Glover’s pioneering paintings of Tasmania and its doomed indigenous culture ended up in Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart. Most were simply taken off the walls and put into storage. A few were packed off to languish in the provinces: The Remnants of an Army (1879) Elizabeth Butler’s famous image of William Brydon – supposedly the sole survivor of the disastrous 1842 retreat from Kabul – had been one of the most iconic paintings of the Victorian Empire and one of the Tate’s most instantly recognisable images. It was sent on a long loan to a regimental museum in Somerset.
This month, The Remnants of an Army returned to Tate for the first time in half a century. When I went to see it last week, it had been stripped of its frame and was being painstakingly restored under the arc lights of the Tate’s conservation studio: the unfaded area, which had been covered by the frame, showed that the sky had originally been a pellucid Prussian blue, rather than the faded grey of the exposed portions, and I watched the conservators as they attempted to restore to their former glow the bright Jalalabad skies. Nearby, also being touched up and nursed back to health after more than half a century of neglect, were similar images of the age of empire: William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck (1842) and John Everett Millais’s once-famous ode to stiff-upper-lip sea dog spirit, The North-West Passage (1874).
The occasion for this reassessment of Tate Britain’s vast but until now almost invisible holdings of imperial art is the mounting of an important, brave and well-judged show about this supremely touchy subject, which opens on Wednesday: Artist and Empire – Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. Astonishingly, it is the first major show on British soil to attempt to give a sample of the art of the British empire since that empire imploded in the decade after 1945.
The Last Stand of the 44th at Gundamuck, by William Barnes Wollen (1842)
It is not hard to see why it has taken so long for an exhibition like this to be mounted. The traditional British response to embarrassment has typically been to pretend something isn’t happening, and it is difficult to think of a subject that is surrounded by a more formidable minefield of potential awkwardness than the art of imperialism.
On the one hand, there is a real danger of Michael Gove-ish bouts of imperial nostalgia. After all, it is only 14 years since the undead cadaver of western colonialism emerged shuddering from its shallow grave, with British troops once again being sent to spill their blood, and that of others, in Kandahar, Baghdad and Basra, cheered on in the press by neocon court historians such as Bernard Lewis and – albeit more ambiguously – Niall Ferguson.
To this day, it is still possible to find historian Andrew Roberts telling the readers of the Daily Mail how lucky Indians were to have been colonised by the British. This was his response to the news that a group of Bollywood celebrities were suing the crown for the return of the Koh-i-Noor: “Those involved in this ludicrous case should recognise that the British Crown Jewels is precisely the right place for the Koh-i-Noor diamond to reside, in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”
On the other hand, there is the opposite, liberal, tendency to recoil from all memory of empire and to simply ignore and forget it. The result of this is wilful obliviousness in Britain about the darker side of its imperial past. As Paul Gilroy rightly puts it in the excellent accompanying catalogue, Britain’s “inability to come to terms with the disputed legacies of empire has been corrosive. Locally, it has contributed to a deep and abiding ignorance. Knowledge of the empire’s actual history is unevenly distributed across the globe. Descendants of the victims of past injustice are often more familiar with the bloody annals of colonial government than British subjects, safely insulated at home from any exposure to the violent details of conquest and expropriation.” That was certainly the case with The Last Stand of the 44th: in 2000, soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment – the lineal successors of the 44th – reported that coloured postcards of the image were selling well in Afghan markets, as if in celebration of a recent rather than a distant British defeat.
Imperialism also brought about some important moments of fusion with the art of other cultures
Nor is this lack of interest in the empire a new phenomenon. As Alison Smith, one of the curators, explains: “If the aesthetic of the British empire was not always celebratory, this was partly due to an abiding sense of embarrassment or distaste with which many Britons even then regarded their overseas affairs. The historian and statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay complained of this habit in his essay on Lord Clive. It [still] informs the scepticism and amnesia that has led to empire being scarcely visible within public art collections.”
Today it is almost impossible to find major collections in Britain that illustrate the British historical movement that, arguably, more than any other, swayed the destinies of the modern world. Instead, the greatest collection of paintings of the Raj is to be found not in London but in the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. The collection, which reflects the enthusiasms of Lord Curzon, the viceroy, includes the largest single group of landscapes by Thomas and William Daniell to have survived anywhere: some 33 oils including the uncle and nephew’s three greatest masterpieces, as well as six first-rate works by Johann Zoffany, two superb pieces by William Hodges, a little-known George Stubbs and a pair of fine Allan Ramsays.
The collection is, however, in a sorry state. Hungry white ants have been allowed to burrow happily both into canvases and frames; bat colonies have been tolerated behind portraits of walrus-like viceroys with fantastic topiaries of facial hair. A huge Warren Hastings has been ripped from top to bottom. Worst of all is the effect of the hundreds of dive-bombing pigeons that have been allowed to set up home in the dome. General Sir James Outram has received a direct hit on his clipped moustache; His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) has had no fewer than 13 pigeon encounters, but the primary target has been Lord Louis Mountbatten with 39 droppings.
Common Crane by Zayn al-Din. Photograph: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Yet for all its failings, there is nothing to compare with the Victoria Memorial in Britain: there are a few pictures of colonial figures in the Nehru gallery at the V&A; a few more in the National Army Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The nearest equivalent, London’s Imperial Institute, established in the aftermath of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, and incorporating the collections of the East India Company’s old India Museum among other collections, never became a permanent establishment. Eventually reincarnated, via London’s Commonwealth Institute, as the British empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, it finally closed in 2008, a victim, writes Smith, of “post-imperial angst” requiring “more healing of time”.
But as Europe once again finds itself caught up in conflicts in its former colonies, this is simply not good enough. Just as Germans have not shied away from the Holocaust and the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis, so the British need to know about their empire, to face up to what the country did, and the reasons why so many people, in so many different parts of the world, actively resent, dislike and distrust them. While there are things the imperial British did that can be celebrated, these have to be weighed against a long succession of what today would be regarded as war crimes, stretching from Virginia to New Zealand. We must never be allowed to forget that whatever its achievements, the British empire, like every empire before or since, was both gained and maintained by military might, and built over the graves of those it conquered and colonised.
For though we like to ignore it, and prefer to think of ourselves as paragons of peace, and global champions of freedom and “British values”, the country’s imperial history tells a quite different story. Britain, far more than Germany, has a long record of attacking and invading other countries, and of wiping out the peoples of four continents as part of our “civilising mission”. The indigenous people of Tasmania, for example, were massacred by English hunting parties who were given licences to exterminate this “inferior race” who the colonial authorities said should be “hunted down like wild beasts and destroyed”; many were caught in traps, before being tortured or burned alive. The same fate befell the Caribs of the Caribbean, the Guanches of the Canary Islands, as well as tribe after tribe of Native Americans, from the Apache to the Iroquois, so that 90% of the Native American population was destroyed in a single century in a seamless process that began under British direction and was completed by the rogue colonists Britain had planted there. Meanwhile, under mostly British supervision, slave traders forcibly abducted 15 million Africans and killed as many more.
When I was researching my book on the 1857 Great Uprising – still anachronistically known in the UK as “the Indian Mutiny” – I was horrified to discover the scale of the war crimes our ancestors committed while supressing the rebellion: tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were slaughtered in British reprisals; in one mohalla (neighbourhood) of Delhi alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 unarmed citizens were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded a young officer, Edward Vibart.
It was literally murder … I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful … Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that heart that can look on with indifference.
By 1858, Delhi, a sophisticated city of half a million people, was left an empty ruin, as were Kanpur (“Cawnpore”) and Lucknow. Similar excesses were inflicted on many other cities from Kandahar and Kabul –both laid waste by the British “Army of Retribution” in 1842 – to Mandalay and Rangoon, burned down a few years later. Yet most people in the UK remain completely unaware of these aspects of their imperial history, and many leave school without touching upon it at any point in their formal education. In our school textbooks, it is only the Germans who imagine racial hierarchies and commit racially inspired genocides.
The British empire was gained by military might and built over the graves of those it conquered and colonised
For all these reasons, Artist and Empire really matters. As Gilroy writes in the catalogue, the British empire:
was long a matter of national pride and a source of prestige as well as a litany of exploitation, famine, cruelty and slaughter … Britain’s acquisition of an empire transformed the world. The aftershocks from both the administration and the undoing of that unique, planetary enterprise are still reverberating. The history and geography, zoology, philosophy and economy of the imperial system are too vast to be easily recoverable and too fragmented to be compiled into a unified inventory for final assessment. At the same time, Britain’s yearning for a clean, progressive national history anchored in unchanging values has intensified.
The Tate show takes a considered and thoughtful middle path through this minefield, showcasing the great art that emerged from Britain’s imperial encounters, highlighting the degree to which the empire changed the history of our planet, while acknowledging the racism inherent in many of the artworks, in the massacres, invasions and atrocities they recorded and sometimes celebrate. It looks full in the face at the whole contentious memory of what Britain’s empire meant to both conquerors and conquered, colonised and colonisers. So alongside images of imperial triumphs and heroics, such as Francis Hayman’s Lord Clive Meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, and loss, such as Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe, we are also presented with Agostino Brunias’s tragic image Sir William Young Conducting a Treaty with the Black Caribs on the Island of St Vincent (c1773) shortly before the British broke the treaty and wiped out the Carib tribes for ever.
All of which leads us to ask, what exactly was the artistic legacy of empire? In literature, the record is decidedly patchy. The empire may have been central to postcolonial letters – imagine the postwar novel without VS Naipaul or Salman Rushdie – but has an oddly slight footprint before 1947. Indeed, it is one of the great surprises of the British empire that it produced so little truly great literature. While Russia’s colonial history in central Asia inspired some of that country’s finest writing, including Tolstoy’s Cossacks and what is generally regarded as his greatest short story, “Hadji Murat”, India was never central to British literature during the period when it was most important to Britain’s economy and imperial geopolitics.
Indeed, the 350 years of contact and exchange between Britain and India, between the founding of the East India Company in 1599 and the end of the Raj in 1947, resulted in a few fine diaries and journals – notably from Thomas Hickey, Fanny Parkes and Aldous Huxley; some good letter writing – for example, Sir William Jones, Emily Eden and Robert Byron; a string of door-stopping monumental histories such as John Kaye and George Malleson’s six-volume History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857–8; and at least two great novels: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and EM Forster’s A Passage to India.
A detail from North-West Passage (1874) by John Everett Millais
It is a respectable but still surprisingly thin body of work: the odd truth is that the empire is notable in its absence from British poems, plays or novels of the colonial period. There is The Tempest; the plantations in the background of Mansfield Park, and Indian and other colonial characters who flit across the pages of Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre and The Moonstone; yet there is almost no mention of south Asia in the works of, say, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy or DH Lawrence. Whatever the economic and political importance of India to Britain, the attention of British writers, like that of the British public, was usually much more insular and inward-looking.
However, as this exhibition triumphantly demonstrates, the same is not true of the visual arts. Many of the greatest British painterly talents were patronised by the institutions and personnel of empire, and this Tate show contains some of the masterworks of British painting: the hyper-realism of Stubbs’s Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants; Thomas Hickey’s gorgeous Three Princesses of Mysore and his wonderful image of the red-coated scholar-soldier Colonel Colin Mackenzie; the camp humour of Zoffany’s Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match; Thomas Daniell’s magnificent image Sir Charles Warre Malet, Concluding a Treaty in 1790 in Durbar with the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire; and Augustus John’s fine portrait of TE Lawrence in Arab dress. These are works that not only record some of the most crucial turning points of British imperial history, but also rank among the country’s most significant contributions to the history of art.
Imperialism also brought about some important moments of fusion with the art of other cultures. Some of the most beautiful paintings in this show are two pages from the Impey Album, commissioned in Calcutta in the late 18th century by a British judge called Sir Elijah Impey. Impey was unusual in taking a serious interest in the subcontinent to which he had been posted, and he grew greatly to respect both its inhabitants and their culture. His house became a meeting place for the more cultured elements of Calcutta society, where law, history, Sanskrit and Persian literature, and Indian painting were all animatedly and enthusiastically discussed. He and his wife even began to collect a menagerie of rare Indian animals, and at some stage in the late 1770s the Impeys decided to take the unprecedented step of getting a group of Indian artists to paint their private zoo. It was the first recorded commission of Indian artists by British patrons, and remains one of the most successful.
The three artists Impey summoned to his fine classical house in Middleton Street were all from Patna, 200 miles up the Ganges. The most prolific was a Muslim, Shaykh Zayn al-Din, while his two colleagues, Bhawani Das and Ram Das, were both Hindus. All three artists had clearly been trained in the old Mughal techniques of miniature painting, but in their work for the Impeys, using English watercolours on English paper and taking English botanical still lives as their models, an extraordinary fusion of English and Indian artistic impulses took place, which resulted in an entirely new type of painting, known today as the Company School.
Nowhere are the merits of company painting better illustrated than in Zayn al-Din’s inspired portrait of a crane. At first glance, it could pass for a skilful English natural history painting. Only gradually does its hybrid origins become manifest. The brilliance and simplicity of the colours, the meticulous attention to detail, the way the picture seems to glow, all these point unmistakably towards Zayn al-Din’s Mughal training. An idiosyncratic approach to perspective also hints at this background: the foreshortening as the crane curves its neck is wonderful, yet somehow unsettling, oddly flat with only a hint of outline shading to give it depth – the same technique used by the great Mughal artist Mansur on the best animal portraits he painted for the emperor Jahangir.
Yet no artist working in a typical Mughal atelier would have placed his bird against a white background detached from a landscape. Equally, no English artist would have managed the brilliantly bright colours used by Impey’s artists: the tentative washes of a memsahib’s watercolour are a world away. The two traditions have met head on, and from that blinding impact an inspirational new creation has taken place. These pictures alone justify a visit to Tate.
Artist and Empire is an important start in the uphill task of evaluating the complex and ambivalent legacy of the British empire. It is full of wonderful masterworks; but as important is its balance and sensitivity for how to handle this most explosive subject, as the British belatedly begin to face the scale of their global legacy, good and bad.
• Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain, London SW1, from 25 November. tate.org.uk.