T.J. McNamara: An empire built in brushstrokes

By T.J. McNamara

A Tate Britain exhibition expresses the modern embarrassment over colonialism
William Hodges' Cascade Cove, Dusky Sound.
William Hodges' Cascade Cove, Dusky Sound.

An intriguing feature of the large exhibition Artist and Empire (Facing Britan's Imperial Past) at the Tate Britain is that it is not a celebration of the glories of the British Empire. It is a collection of images of peoples who were important to the expansion of colonisation but, until recently, left out of the grand stories about colonisation and military triumph.

The exhibition catches the modern sense of embarrassment about past celebrations of the glories, especially the military triumphs over people who came under British rule. It is more a collection of artefacts that illustrate the culture of those peoples. It covers four centuries, drawing on maps and illustrations that range from a drawing of the 16th century siege of an Irish castle to recent examples of the tradition of bronze heads done in West Africa, as well as some splendid paintings from Britain itself.

The Antipodes plays its part in the show. There is the chart made by Matthew Flinders on his circumnavigation of the continent, where the country is first named Australia instead of New Holland.

A portrait by Benjamin West shows Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook to New Zealand in the Endeavour. He wears a kakahu (Maori cloak) and stands beside a taiaha and canoe paddle. A similar taiaha is in the exhibition along with a fine tekoteko, or gable figure, both lent by Trinity College, Cambridge.

The European obsession with Maori moko is exemplified by the conspicuous presence of two fine portraits by Charles Goldie of distinguished elderly Maori with deeply incised facial tattoo. Their mana is outstanding among these many portrayals of indigenous peoples.

The only painting that strikes a curiously odd note is a huge canvas by Edward Armitage done in 1858. Called Retribution, it shows the energetic figure of Britannia, wild-eyed and heavy-breasted, thrusting an immense sword through an Indian tiger with a European woman and child dead at its feet. It makes the tragic subject of the Indian Mutiny almost ludicrous. It was intended for the Town Hall in Leeds but is now tucked away in the city's Art Gallery.

Most of the material in this remarkable exhibition is timeless and relevant but this work reveals how simplistic attitudes to "old, unhappy, far-off things" are seen in much more complex ways in our 21st century.

The Death of General Gordon  by George W Joy.
The Death of General Gordon by George W Joy.
The North-West Passage by Sir John Millais.
The North-West Passage by Sir John Millais.

To a certain - now thinning - generation of New Zealanders, there are some images fixed in the memory from the simply illustrated textbooks on history and Empire used in primary schools before they were swept away by changes to the curriculum and the advent of social studies.

Colourful and wonderfully detailed miniatures by Indian artists in the exhibition did not feature in our books but the work of William Hodges, who painted many Indian landscapes, did.

Hodges accompanied Cook on his second voyage and worked up his sketches as oil paintings when he got back to England.

There is a fine, dramatic painting of a waterfall in Dusky Sound in the show. It shows a Maori whose image was used several times in other paintings by Hodges.

The oft-reproduced painting by Sir John Millais that was the essence of naval endeavour and the Nelson tradition was prominent among the "old-fashionied" images. It is called The North-West Passage and shows an old, weather-beaten, sea-captain certainly almost blind, who contemplates a vision of his past endeavours to find the undiscovered sea route between the northern Atlantic and Pacific through the Arctic Ocean.

His fists are clenched with resolution; a map of Arctic Canada is on the table alongside other charts and engraving of a painting of Nelson in heroic pose hangs above his head. Flags, logbooks and a telescope complete the naval references.

He is being read to by his daughter whose hat is on the table. She represents the women who must stay at home and provide consolation and support.

This superbly painted, memorable image was reproduced everywhere in the Empire as an image of determination; now it has the moving sadness of failure andof limitation.

There is an emphasis on defeats as well as triumph. "Last Stand" paintings are prominent; so is the famous work Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler, who specialised in battle paintings. It shows the only survivor of the 19th century British retreat from Kabul in Afghanistan reaching safety on a staggering, exhausted horse. Shades of the present?

Another defeat and death memorably captured in a painting endlessly reproduced was The Death of General Gordon. This was when Gordon was British Governor of the Sudan at Khartoum. He stands in heroic pose, with calm disdain and an empty revolver, at the top of the stairs leading to the Council Chamber.

He directed the defence of Khartoum but the besiegers had finally broken in and he is about to be speared by followers of the Sudanese leader, the Mahdi.

The painting, by George William Joy, led the way toward making Gordon both hero and saint. After his death, a British army was sent to take revenge on The Mahdi. It was led by General Kitchener who defeated the Sudanese army and killed their leader " hence we now have Kitchener St and Khartoum Place in Auckland, named in commemoration.

- Weekend magazine

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 21 Oct 2016 10:15:28 Processing Time: 619ms