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‘A Voyage in Art Through Colonial Times’

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George-Stubbs A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants 1765 -®Manchester Art Gallery

Tate Britain’s ‘Artist and the Empire—Facing Britain’s Imperial Past’ is a Voyage in Art through Colonial times!….writes Rajitha Saleem

George-Stubbs A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants 1765 -®Manchester Art Gallery
George-Stubbs A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants 1765 -®Manchester Art Gallery

Colonialism and the scars that Victorian British Empire left on the colonies is always a sensitive matter of discussion. And what better suited method of portraying those impressions left behind on both the sides of perpetration than Art–predominantly paintings and illustrations!

The power and influence of British Empire from 16th century to present day is showcased in the exhibition `Artist and the Empire—facing Britain’s Imperial Past’ which opened in Tate Britain on 25th November 2015. On the occasion of India’s 67th Republic Day, the exhibition takes one through those colonial times which is etched in every Indian’s mind.

It is evident from the exhibition that the Indian sub-continent occupied a very prominent place in British Empire’s visual culture over the last 400 years. The exhibition brings together around 200 extraordinary paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures and artefacts from across the British Isles, North America, the Caribbean, the Pacific, Asia and Africa.

Retribution by Edward Armitage, 1858, Leeds City Art Gallery
Retribution by Edward Armitage, 1858, Leeds City Art Gallery

The first section on Mapping and Making presents how artists drew the maps, and through these maps one could draw how the empire expanded through the various marine explorations and discovery voyages undertook by James Cook and Mathew Flinders. It is indeed interesting to find a 1785 map of Calcutta and Hoogly River by Mark Wood, where it is explained that the famous city was a gift by Queen Mary to her husband Philip II of Spain. The 1731 oil painting of Bombay harbour by George Lambert and Samuel Scott also explains how the financial capital of India is received as a dowry by King Charles II from his Portugal bride.

This section also has an impressive selection of reconstructed Asafo flags from the Caribbean, which were once destroyed by the colonial government.  Amongst the various maps which show the extent of the imperial federation, the Cable and Wireless Great Circle Map by Leslie MacDonald Gill shows a 360 degree view of the British empire with London at its centre, which was used by engineers to plot the direction of wireless beams.

The centre point of these maps is the Oil Paint on Canvas, `The North-West Passage ‘It might be done, and England should do it.’ by John Everett Millais which shows an elderly man with a map to chart a passage and his expression mirrors the sentiment of the empire at the time.

Rudolf Swoboda, Bakshiram (1886), Royal Collection Trust -®Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015
Rudolf Swoboda, Bakshiram (1886), Royal Collection Trust -®Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

As you advance to the second section of Trophies of Empire, it shows the vast array of artefact and art that was transferred between the British Empire and the people they ruled as a result of their transactions. Herein again we can see that the Indian Sub-continent is mentioned very often. The exhibits starting from the painting of the original east India Company’s office, which had to be named as Indian museum because of the oriental collections, to the life size portraits of Maharajas and Peshwas, it reflects the Indian subject throughout.

You can see life like portraits of Risaldar Jagat Singh and Risaldar Man Singh painted by Philip de Lazlo in 1916, and a similar portrait of a homeboy by Manchershaw Pittawala, pupil of John Griffith, and who incidentally became the first Indian artist to conduct a one man show in London. Thus the exhibition, in a way presents a history of the development of art in India through the colonial era.

There is the mention of Abavindranath Tagore (1876-1951), who was the first Indian artist to challenge the British Empire and who inspired the illusionist branch of art education. He tried to encourage the Mughal and Rajput school of pan Asian painting. Prominent among the paintings which showcase Colonial India are the `Sanyasi ‘by John Griffith and James Skinney’s durbar by Ghulam Ali (1817-1855). But the most appreciated amongst the paintings on colonial India is the oil paint on canvas, `A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants’ by George Stubbs, which shows how two Indians taking care of a dressed cheetah and a stag.  Stubbs painted this picture for Sir George Pigot, Governor General of Madras, who presented the female cheetah to George III in 1764. It tells us how Indians were reduced to labourers during the British rule. It is interesting to see George Stubbs’s paintings of New Zealand and other British occupied territories alongside his paintings on India, which shows the journeys this great artist undertook.

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt The North-West Passage 1874
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt The North-West Passage 1874

The Imperial Heroics room has historical paintings which commemorates a historical occasion or a social upheaval or anything that left a mark in the history of the empire.  But the pride of place in this room is occupied by a magnificent oil paint on canvas by Edward Armitage, `Retribution’.  The painting is an allegory of retribution in which a hefty Amazonian embodiment of Britannia or Justice is shown impaling a Bengal tiger, emblematic of India, with her sword. The bodies in the foreground refer to the massacre of women and children at Cawnpore during the 1857 Indian Rebellion, a version of the Sepoy mutiny not very much known amongst Indians. This along with the painting `In Memoriam,` by Joseph Noel Paton displays the horror the 1857 mutiny presented to British public.

There is a fair representation of South India too, with the portraits of three Mysore ladies, and a painting of exchange of two of Tipu’s sons by Marquis Cornwallis.

The room on Power Dressing has life size portraits of Madhav Rao Narayan, the Maratha Peshwa and sculptures of Princess Gowramma of Coorg and Maharaja Duleep Singh, youngest son of the founder of the Sikh empire. It traces the history of how large scale formal portraiture is introduced to Indian rulers by Governor General Warren Hastings and how they were lured to believe that having a large portrait is a sign of power and hegemony. On the other side, Thomas Jones Barker’s painting `The Secret of England’s Greatness’, which shows Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the audience chamber at Windsor to an African nobleman, tells us the different ways in which the Empire advances itself, religion playing a prominent role in it.  The exhibits also shows many English statesmen cross dressing in the fabrics of the territories they occupied.

A Sannyasi- A Religious Mendicant, John Griffith, exhibited 1882 Tate
A Sannyasi- A Religious Mendicant, John Griffith, exhibited 1882 Tate

The exhibition boasts of a wide array of collection of flora and fauna of the occupied territories which the British people brought back to UK for research and learning purposes.

The room Face to Face documents the voyages the people of the occupied and occupying countries undertook during the ages of British Empire and has a collection of striking faces or characters which they thought should document. These includes portrait of Pocahontas, aged twenty-one, Poedua, the daughter of Orio and many Maori chiefs.

The final room Out of Empire has exhibits when the various artists have come of age and have developed their own styles and genres. The modern artists include Avinash Chandra and Balraj Khanna from India and Sydney Nolan from Australia. The room showcases paintings by Fyzee-Rahamin, the first Indian artist to enter the Tate collection, and Avinash Chandra’s Hills of Gold which became the first modernist work by an Indian artist to enter the national collection at the Tate Gallery. The paintings and art works exhibited shows how the fine lines between the genres dissolve and each artist develops their own individualistic style. The exhibition concludes on 10 April 2016.