Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Colonial Past – Tate Britain – Review

indexThe North-West Passage 1874 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Colonial Past – Tate Britain – by Pat Levy

Having been on the receiving end of Britain’s imperial ambitions for eight hundred years or so, Irish visitors might expect their island to be better represented in this collection of artworks created or collected by the empire’s subjects and perpetrators. Perhaps a few murals from the north or depictions of the odd massacre or famine, a portrait or two of some bigwig or a sentimental scene of honest English soldiers taking leave of their loved ones before setting off to grab a bit more Irish soil. But the British net was flung wide – the sun never sets and all that, and there is only so much room in the Linbury Galleries.

indexJohn Thomas – The Siege of Enniskillen Castle 1593 – © The British Library Board


To its credit, the first room of the exhibition has an Irish reference, albeit one to an event which took place three hundred years after England first invaded Ireland. It is a watercolour depiction of the 1593 siege of Enniskillen Castle following the rebellion earlier that year of Hugh McGuire. The sketch’s purpose was a functional one, rather than an artistic one, a map showing the stages of the battle, the only rebel figures being heads on poles at the bottom left of the painting. This is a map with attitude, showing what happens when English might is brought against ungrateful subjects. The room is filled with other, later maps of British conquests but it is dominated by the huge sentimental Millais painting, The North West Passage (Image above – from 1874), a father and daughter with the burden of empire on their shoulders, planning a journey to find a new trade route into Asia. Placed here in this exhibition, the image of a domestic scene, the fragility and values of home life are put into an ironic context by viewers’ understanding of the British Empire.


indexEastward Ho (1857) by Henry Nelson O’Neill

The following rooms display other aspects of empire. Room 2, Trophies of Empire, shows how British painting styles interacted with those of the conquered countries: there are beautiful paintings by the Persian artist Shaikh Zain-ud-Din of flora and fauna, set beside looted Benin carved heads and Maori tools. Room 3, Imperial Heroics, casts the figures of empire in noble roles, dying in battle, making peace with smiling but subdued locals. There is even a very conflicted and tiny William Blake painting depicting Nelson as a Christ-like figure, directing the leviathan of war as it strangles and mutilates figures of Europe while a black figure lies beaten on the ground. At least someone at the time saw the complexities of empire. Two paintings, Eastward Ho (1857) and Home Again (1858) by Henry Nelson O’Neill, show troops setting off to support the East India Company in Bengal against widespread rebellion. The despatch of British soldiers was widely approved of after stories of rape and murder came back from India and the painting shows honourable men setting out to save their countrymen and women, egged on by fond family members. Eastward Ho was very popular at the time but Home Again less so as reports of British atrocities and losses came back from the war.


indexPortrait of Captain Thomas Lee 1594 Marcus Gheeraerts II 1561 or 2-1636

The following rooms are portraits of figures from Britain’s colonial past. Lawrence of Arabia is here looking remarkably like Peter O’Toole, while Ireland gets another look in in the form of Captain Thomas Lee (1594) painted in Elizabethan dress but with the bare legs of an Irish foot soldier, its message being that he can be both a friend to Hugh O’Neill and a loyal servant of the English monarch.

The final room, Out of Empire, offers a muted take on the way the empire is seen now. Judy Watson’s three etchings, Our bones and skin and hair in your collection  (1995, 1997),  are more pointed in their titles than in the works themselves while Hew Locke’s two photographs of statues erected to figures from the empire – encrusted with cheap trinkets and cowrie shells, the paraphernalia of acquisition – give a whisper of what we ought all to be yelling by the end of the exhibition. A timid reference to the Troubles appears in this room in Rita Donagh’s Shadow of Six Counties (1980).


indexThe Singh Twins – EnTWINed 2009 – © Singh Twins (

This is a worthy collection of materials, perhaps more telling in what it leaves out than what it includes. Some of the works such as the Asafo flags in the first room or John Griffiths’ A Sannyasi- a Religious Mendicant (1882) are just beautiful in themselves while the way in which the art of the colonial power influenced and was influenced by the indigenous art forms of the conquered countries is fascinating. Besides the few modern comments included in this exhibition – the Singh Twins EnTWINed (2009) looking more like an album cover the Beatles never made than much of a comment on colonialism – Blake’s rather dilapidated  painting of Nelson, stuck in a dark corner of the gallery is the only angry voice to be heard.

Tate Britain – 25 November 2015 – 10 April 2016 – Open daily 10.00–18.00
Adult £16.00 (without donation £14.50)
Concession £14.00 (without donation £12.70)
Under 12s  free

Tickets can be booked 8 hours or more in advance online, and at least 24 hours in advance by telephone +44 (0)20 7887 8888

Tate Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

A Sannyasi - A Religious Mendicant exhibited 1882 John Griffiths 1838-1918 Presented by Miss Griffiths 1919

A Sannyasi – A Religious Mendicant exhibited 1882 John Griffiths 1838-1918 Presented by Miss Griffiths 1919

Categories: Art, Header

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.