Britain can run but can’t hide from its imperial legacy

Almost 70 years after Indian independence, Britain is ambivalent about its imperial past. To some, the empire upon which the sun never set remains a source of pride; to others, it’s a saga of famine, cruelty, racism and neglect on a global scale. After visiting the Artist and Empire exhibition at London’s Tate Britain, Trevor Grundy believes that, love it or loathe it, no-one in the world can ignore the impact of empire’s legacy.


We are into a new age but still can’t get enough of the British Empire story. It is close on 60 years since Dean Acheson whipped up a storm by saying that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Since then, hunting for one has become a national sport, like fox-hunting without the fox.

On the eve of a stay or leave referendum on the EU (June 23), groups of little Englanders have plans on the drawing board for the creation of an Anglosphere—a cultural, economic and political union between various English-speaking countries that include Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and even the USA.

The glamour of this, Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce explain in an article published by the New Statesman (6-12 February 2015), is that if Britain does say goodbye to Europe, an Anglosphere would frame an account of how an independent UK would be able to prosper in a global economy dominated by the rise of Asia.

The title of this so far little known right-of-centre Tory document (published by the Conservative Free Enterprise Group) is Britannia Unchained. Cynics say Forward to the Past would have been more appropriate.

Like taxes or the common cold, arguments about the merits and de-merits of empire will never leave us.

Earlier this year, students at the universities of Oxford in England and Cape Town in South Africa held a series of demonstrations demanding that ‘racist’ statues of one of Britain’s best known and most successful imperial entrepreneurs, Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902), be pulled down because he is, to so many Commonwealth students in Britain, a symbol of oppression.

Thomas Barker (1769-1847): The Secret of England's Greatness c.1863 (oil paint on canvas)
Thomas Barker (1769-1847):  The Secret of England’s Greatness c.1863 (oil paint on canvas)

It’s easy to understand their anger while questioning their sometimes revolting tactics—covering one of the statues with human excrement. The big and most disturbing question is: if Rhodes falls, who and what will be next?

The well-respected Rachel Campbell-Johnson said in The Times of November 14, 2015: ‘Would the greater part of Liverpool, its grand stone facades a direct legacy of slavery, be demolished? Should the statue of slave-owner Christopher Codrington in the college of All Souls come next—followed by all the books in the library that he bequeathed? Should thousands of 19th century paintings be heaped up on bonfires?’

She might have continued and mentioned the burning of the books in Nazi Germany, the Bonfire of the Vanities, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the destruction of temples, statues and monuments in the Middle East by ISIS.

We cannot delete the past as if it was mere words on a computer screen. Far better to confront it openly, make it a matter of forward-looking debate.

This was the thinking behind the Tate Britain exhibition Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (November 25 2015-April 10 2016), the first major show in Britain to display such a wide variety of art produced mainly (but not always) during the 19th century.

On show was a cross-section of some of the most glorious paintings created during the glory days of European imperialism. Paintings, sketches, carvings, sculptures, poems, essays, books and diaries (especially): they are all symbols, some there to reveal, others (maybe most) to conceal.

‘Symbols,’ said Mary Robinson at her inauguration as President of Ireland on December 3, 1990, ‘determine the kind of stories we tell: and the stories we tell determine the kind of history we make and re-make.’

Rhodes Must Fall campaigners would have profited (one assumes) by having been at the exhibition in order to come to terms with what Paul Gilroy calls ‘disputed legacies’ that have become corrosive (Foreword to Artist and Empire, Tate Publishing, £24 paperback, £34 hardback, p.256).

Rudolf Swoboda (1859 - 1914): Bakshiram 1886 (oil paint on panel)
Rudolf Swoboda (1859 – 1914):  Bakshiram 1886 (oil paint on panel)

As if talking to students outside Oriel College, Oxford, this Professor of American and English Literature at King’s College, London writes: ‘The inability to come to terms with these disputed legacies 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. Today, many people still look with longing at the clarity and certainty of the old maps and may even hope for the restoration of the now-departed national greatness for which empire supplied the byword.’

Says Alison Smith, the lead curator of 19th century British art at Tate Britain: ‘The complicated multivalent story of empire still shapes us today. Through the imagination of contemporary artists, historical material is still alive.’ She adds: ‘This show does not set out to say whether empire was either a good or a bad thing. We are trying to be neutral, to let the objects speak for themselves, to tell their rich and often extremely complex and layered stories. All visitors will have their own idea about empire. This show provides an opportunity to reconsider them, to think about them more clearly and to look at their relevance today.’

To let the objects speak for themselves. That they do, vividly, wildly, convincingly and eloquently.

The exhibition showed us some of the great paintings that revealed so much about how the British at home were shown the ‘heroic’ sons of empire: George William Joy’s The Death of General Gordon; a magnificent August John portrait of T.E. Lawrence; Allan Stewarts’s The Last Stand of Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani; Edward Armitage’s unforgettable Retribution, that chillingly dramatic painting of a brutal and butch Britannia impaling a Bengal tiger, emblematic of India, after the Indian Mutiny; Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe and Francis Hyman’s Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757; the exquisite portrait of Bakshiram and a picture that would make any self-respecting Rhodes Must Fall campaigner reach for the nearest shovel—Thomas Jones Barker’s The Secret of England’s Greatness, which shows Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the audience chamber at Windsor to an African prince, on his knees, hand outstretched towards the Great White Queen, still the British Empire’s unchallenged poster girl.

Those are but a handful of the hundreds of works of art that were on show at Tate Britain.

Paul Gilroy reminds us that this worthwhile and stimulating exhibition will not be the final word on the abundant visual and material cultures of Britain’s empire. ‘Nevertheless,’ he writes, ‘it is a significant intervention aimed at promoting new conversations about this extraordinary archive. Art can foster and enrich the new assessments of these matters that are so urgently required. Innovative exercises of this kind will help to reconcile the tasks of remembering and working through Britain’s imperial past with the different labour of building its post-colonial future.’

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