Artist and Empire

In London so I went to see the exhibition at Tate Britain about artists and the British Empire.  The progress and decline of the Empire has been an interest of mine since boyhood.  Rather, I should say that the growth of the British Empire was what I was taught about in school in London in the 60s.  In fact, the glories of British history in relation to the Empire were still being taught when the decline was well under way at that stage.

In any case, the exhibition was fascinating as it demonstrated the way Britain used art to construct an image of itself as a benign ruler of the world while being influenced by the artistic traditions of the countries it conquered.  This two way street meant that the exotic entered Britain while the British flag went to far flung places.

It is probably due to my British education that most of the significant events portrayed by the artworks here were known to me: General Wolfe dying in Quebec as we defeated the French?  I knew about that; the British bravely fighting off the Zulus?  Yes; the British East India Company bringing civilisation to India?  Of course; The death of brave General Gordon in Sudan?  That too!

There were stories that did not fit the great narrative I learned in London all those years ago.  The story of Duleep Singh I only came across much later in life. How he was taken away from his mother as a young boy and brought up in the arms of the British in England, practically a prisoner, was not a story of bravery and derring- do.  It is fascinating to learn, too, that there is little evidence that General Gordon faced his killers with stoicism at the top of steps but this is the image that resonated when I was a boy and it comes from the famous painting by George William Joy.  The Victorians knew how to sell an image.

This exhibition not only sent me back to the classrooms of my youth but made me reflect on the way the years since changed my view on this history.

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