At first the idea of an exhibition of art relating to the British Empire sounds deeply off-putting. Is it a collection of images celebrating imperial conquest? While it does contain such paintings, Artist and Empire is doing something more complex and more interesting.
Its opening room concentrates on the justification for empire. It contains many maps, while the second has studies of plants, people and landscapes.
The images remind the visitor that to catalogue things was to claim ownership of them. The explorers were seen as discovering territory, no matter how many people already lived there.
Thomas Rowlandson’s satirical cartoon from 1788, Sir Joseph Banks About to Eat an Alligator, wittily shows the act of cataloguing combined with consumption.
And ownership extended directly to people. Nicholas Pocock’s A View of the Jason Privateer (1760), shows an efficient trading vessel. You have to look at the smaller images below to see it was carrying slaves, and even here it doesn’t explain that they suffered on the crossing.
From the height of the British Empire is a room of “history” paintings.
The earlier pictures favour scenes of negotiation, but by the middle of the 19th century glorious battle predominates, with the British almost always fighting against the odds.
George William Joy’s imperial classic The Death of General Gordon shows the general alone confronting the Sudanese rebels. No equivalent image was painted of the subsequent battle of Omdurman where the British mowed down thousands of Sudanese rebels with machine guns.
The more you know about the history the more the choice of imperial subjects stands out.
As the exhibition’s commentary points out the actual confrontation presented in Allan Stewart’s To The Memory of Brave Men: The Last Stand of Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani, 4 December 1893, was not a heroic action. It was a shambolic miscalculation by racist and overconfident invaders who underestimated the abilities of the Zulu army and were defeated.
Perhaps the most pernicious piece is Edward Armitage’s Retribution, which shows Britannia fighting a tiger representing rebels in India. At the tiger’s feet lie the bodies of a white mother and baby. Britain is never shown as the primary aggressor.
The heroic images are countered by early news photography. Felice A Beato’s shots of dead Chinese people during the gunboat diplomacy of the Second Opium War — when the British demanded the free market right to sell opium — are harrowing.
In the centre of the room is a new installation by Scottish artist Andrew Gilbert, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July 1879. It is titled like an imperial painting, but presents the British soldiers as the defeated foreigners.
In many ways the most interesting art is that by subjects of empire looking at the colonialists. Indian artists show the arrival of the East India Company. Some Kamba sculptors from Kenya made carvings of European occupiers.
The exhibition finishes with a room of postcolonial art, from both Britain and its former colonies. But the exhibition works better as a social commentary than a series of engaging artistic works. It is that distancing that gives the exhibition its strength and makes it worth visiting.