Artist and Empire: Tate Britain exhibition review

If you are visiting London, don’t miss the chance to see new Tate Britain exhibition, exploring the influence of colonialism during several centuries. Artist and Empire offers a glimpse in every aspect of British imperialism, stretching back for centuries, reflecting in a thousand of forms.
In the beginning, of course, there is an age of Elizabethan explorers – murky, uncertain dawn of colonial era. Before strongholds and garrisons, before sturdy trade routes and colonial administration – only daring expeditions, based on half-guesses and hopes. You can see magnificent portraits of these early voyagers and first maps, trying to make sense of the expanding world. These maps are as colourful, as they are naïve.
These voyagers dreamt of spices and gold, but they also brought back exotic fruits and unheard-of plants, tying British science with exploration for several centuries. After all, even monumental book of Francis Bacon featured a sailing ship on its frontispiece…
Second room of the exhibition is dedicated to these discoveries, facilitated by colonial adventures. It all started with private studies, with amateur collections, with curious artworks and exotic animals brought home as gifts. But these collections grew and expanded, and by the time of the first loss – the American colonies – they were easier to find in museums, than in private homes of gentlemen collectors. Magnificent mansion, where Lady Montagu used to host her soirees in feather-decorated rooms, now housed the British Museum. Not that the access to this new temple of knowledge was entirely democratic – tickets could be obtained only by application…
By this time I was reassured by the evidence of scientific discoveries and art influences, and even began to think “May be, this whole Empire thing was not so evil, after all!”. However, it all came at a price. Even if this price was not paid by the conquerors. After all, these enlightened gentlemen collectors sweetened their tea by sugar, grown on slave-powered plantations…

'The Secret of England's Greatness', Thomas Jones Barker, 1863.

‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’, Thomas Jones Barker, 1863.

By the end of the Georgian era, the abolition of slavery was hard-won. However, the dark side of the British Empire did not dissipate with it. For every Empire has a dark side (sometimes with a capital D and a capital S). And next section was dedicated precisely to that dark side – or, rather, to the attempts to whitewash it.
Oh, magnificent Victorian painting. Red coats, red blood, pale young soldiers, snow-white maidens, awaiting to be rescued. And, of course, savages. This portrayal does not depend on any particular situation. The painting can depict ambassadorial negotiations or even a staggering British defeat at the hands of well-prepared local army. It doesn’t matter – the locals are invariably savages, half-naked and wild. Some dignity (with a heavy dose of exoticization) is allowed only to local potentates, who decided to help British forces. What a surprise.
On one painting, Queen Victoria is presenting an unnamed African prince with a Bible, proclaiming it to be the secret of England’s greatness. This majestic picture looks especially ironic, surrounded by all the battle scenes. On the opposite wall, a personification of Britannia is impaling Indian tiger with a sword – retribution for a recent rebellion…
In contrast, next room looks quite peaceful. No blood or redcoats here – only elegant portraits of Europeans, embellished with Oriental memorabilia. After all, the fascination with enigmatic East influenced fashion as well as the foreign policy.

"Retribution", Edward Armitage, 1858.

“Retribution”, Edward Armitage, 1858.

The last section of the exhibition gives us the opportunity to see, how the native people of those “enigmatic” countries see the world themselves. Needless to say, it is quite different from sanitized portrayals of “Oriental princesses”, “noble savages” and “Polynesian Venuses” from the room before. I was forever enthralled by the carved wooden head of the Goddess of Transmutation, for example…
Risking to sound like a guidebook, I strongly recommend you to visit the Artist and Empire exhibition. In will be hosted by Tate Britain until 10 April, so you have some time. The museum is opened every day from 10 a.m. to 18 p.m. – so, even if you are only visiting London for a weekend, the timetable will not impede you!
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, Ian Mortimer.
Georgian London: Into the Streets, Lucy Inglis.
London In The Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing, Jerry White.



  1. Keep on working, great job!

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