Painting The World Red

Imperial drama: “The Remnants of an Army, Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842” (1879) by Elizabeth Butler

It is rather brave of Tate Britain to put on an exhibition examining the artistic relationship between Britain and its empire. An openly celebratory show would, of course, be beyond the realms of contemporary acceptability and it is inconceivable that a national gallery could ever stage such a provocative project. Indeed, as the Tate’s curator Alison Smith has said of Artist and Empire: “The real challenge was selecting the material to make a wonderful show without being celebratory of empire.” A shame, but with that stricture in mind she has chosen some 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures and artefacts through which to lay out the case that British art was as transformed by our dominions as was British trade.

 It is appropriate too that Tate Britain is holding the show (which runs until April 10), since it was built on the site of a prison for felons awaiting transportation to Australia and named after Henry Tate of Tate & Lyle, a man who made his fortune from colonial sugar (though, as the Tate is twitchily quick to point out, he had no links to slavery). The empire is a subject of extraordinary richness, not least because its story offered artists and public in search of dramatic set-pieces an irresistible choice.

One picture stands as an example of the complications of the subject matter as a whole. Elizabeth Butler completed The Remnants of an Army, Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842 — a painting of the first Afghan war — in 1879, during the second. It shows a solitary figure on horseback, the heavily wounded William Brydon, assistant surgeon in the British Army that had occupied Kabul. By the time Brydon reached Jellalabad he was half dead, part of his head sliced away by harrying tribesmen. He was asked by the British commander where the rest of the garrison was. “I am the Army,” he replied, the sole survivor of nearly 17,000 soldiers and civilians who had retreated from Kabul.

Lady Butler was a critic of British policy and painted the picture as an image of the human cost of imperial folly. The Victorian public, however, saw the painting as the opposite: an image of British heroism, survival and endurance. In the 1950s the Tate, which owned the picture (the only one, then and now, by Butler, the most popular military painter of the 19th century, in its collection)  loaned it to the Somerset Military Museum. It has taken 50 years and the sloughing off of some of its colonial guilt for the painting to return to Millbank. The fact that yet another Afghan war remains unresolved gives the picture a new layer of meaning.

If Butler’s image is equivocal, so are many of the other exhibits, though to different degrees. Alongside straightforward images of the empire’s martyrs — Benjamin West’s tableau of an expiring General Wolfe at Quebec (1770) and George Joy’s General Gordon nervelessly facing death at the spear-tip of the Mahdi army (1893) — is Augustus John’s handsome 1919 portrait of Lawrence of Arabia in Arab costume. The unspoken theme of the picture is that the unintended consequences of Lawrence assisting the Arabs to win independence from the Ottoman empire are, like the themes of Butler’s painting, still being played out.

Not that this is an exhibition of conquest and hubris. Paintings such as George Lambert and Samuel Scott’s 1731 painting of Bombay harbour and John Montresor’s 1766 Plan of the City of New York are pictorial records of newly-won territories but also expressions of wonder at distant lands. Just such excitement underlies George Stubbs’s lovely painting of 1764-5, Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians. The cheetah was a gift to George III from the Governor General of Madras. Stubbs depicted her with her attendants letting her loose on a stag; in reality the stag, one of the Duke of Cumberland’s in Windsor Great Park, ended up chasing her. The humbled cheetah was sent to the menagerie at the Tower of London where she was known as “Miss Jenny” and became a tourist favourite. Characteristically, Stubbs’s focus was as much on the two Indians whom he saw as every bit as exotic as the animal.

There was interest too in the indigenous art of the colonies, not all of which had an anthropological bent. The East India Company, for example, was a sponsor of Mughal artists, encouraging them to adopt what became known as “Company style” that mixed traditional Indian miniaturism with Western watercolour technique and perspective. The resulting pictures were produced in their thousands for the British market.

If all of this makes for a rich and thought-provoking exhibition it is a pity the Tate succumbed to a modish instinct and included various contemporary artists whose work “reflects” on the legacy of empire. Reflections on empire are commonplace: most of the other exhibits are not.

There is a very welcome exhibition (until January 24) at the Hepworth Wakefield of the British sculptor and wood engraver Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983).

Hermes trained alongside Henry Moore and her future husband, Blair Hughes-Stanton, and was a leading figure of the mid-century revival of wood engraving. Her intricate and sinuous work, a mixture of the mystical and the natural, illustrated numerous books produced by private fine-art presses such as the Golden Cockerel Press and Gregynog Press. As well as stand-alone sculptures — in stone, wood and bronze — she also produced forms that were used as car mascots and door knockers.

Hermes has rather slipped from view — that she worked on a small scale didn’t help — but with her examination of natural forms she deserves to be seen as part of the mid-20th-century efflorescence of British art that also produced the likes of Moore, Hepworth, Ravilious and Bawden. She was more than a period piece and the 90 works in the exhibition reveal a distinctive artist of broad range and high skill.

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