Artistic taste is inversely proportional to political nous

It’s possibly why Tate Britain’s Artist & Empire exhibition is so thin — and why the Queen’s Gallery display of Dutch masters is so rich

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

Artist & Empire

Tate Britain, until 10 April 2016

Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer

The Queen’s Gallery, until 14 February 2016

‘Wherever the British settle, wherever they colonize,’ observed the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, ‘they carry and will ever carry trial by jury, horse-racing and portrait-painting.’ This doesn’t sound like a bad set of cultural baggage, even for those who don’t care for the races. There is clearly a lot to be said for trial by jury, and portraits make up the most enjoyable — in fact, downright humorous — section of Artist & Empire, a curious new exhibition at Tate Britain.

Not, of course, that Tate approaches this subject in a playful spirit. At the entrance, a hand-wringing text declares that the British empire’s ‘history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful to address’. Even so, it points out — correctly — that the whole sorry business had a considerable effect on art, in Britain and elsewhere.

The show turns out to be a good deal more fun than this introduction augurs because of the intrinsic charm and, quite often, absurdity of the objects on show. A good deal of space is taken up by grand Georgian and Victorian paintings on imperial themes. Among these first prize for hilariousness goes to Edward Armitage’s ‘Retribution’ (1858), which depicts a burly, governess-like figure of Britannia throttling a full-grown Bengal tiger in revenge for the Indian Mutiny. This represents another game effort on Tate’s part — following Sculpture Victorious earlier in the year — to find something to do with the 19th-century paintings previously relegated to the storeroom (or perhaps the officers’ mess).

There are much more engaging, and better, things to be seen. The flora and fauna of the empire are depicted in delightful images such as the Indian artist Shaikh Zain ud-Din’s ‘Common Crane’ (1780), a lanky bird with enormous feet, twisting its neck around to peer at the viewer with one sharp little eye. George Stubbs’s ‘Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian handlers’ is an out-and-out masterpiece, apparently recalling the moment when the big but timorous cat tried to run away rather than take part in a deer hunt.

Similar panache, plus a hint of fancy dress, is to be found in the portraits. Van Dyck’s full-length of an early nabob, the hefty ‘1st Earl of Denbigh’ (1633–4), strides along in Indian dress, with palm tree and attendant in the background. In John Singer Sargent’s portrayal, ‘Sir Frank Swettenham’ (1904), the first Resident-General of Malay States, wears a uniform as gleaming white as hotel napery in a setting worthy of Louis XIV, but looks as though he might be more at ease in the club bar.

Elsewhere — an introductory section of maps, for example — the exhibition is a bit thin, visually (the ones in which a strident imperial red covers much of the globe looking the jolliest, although that is not the curators’ point). Art & Empire poses a question for the new director of Tate Britain, soon to arrive: whether to carry on with this lowering blend of art and social history — or mount more exhibitions like the marvellous Frank Auerbach, currently on show upstairs. Time for a change of policy on Millbank, I would say.

Meanwhile, at the Queen’s Gallery there is Masters of the Everyday. This is a display of some — just some — of the Dutch pictures in the Royal Collection. Nonetheless, it contains no fewer than four Rembrandts (the Queen has more of those) plus enough Jan Steens to make up a mini-retrospective, several fine Pieter de Hoochs and a single, superb Vermeer.

‘The Music Lesson’ (c.1662–5) was bought by George III as part of a job lot from Consul Smith of Venice. At the time it was attributed to Frans van Mieris, and even if it had been labelled ‘Vermeer’ no one would then have been interested. Now it’s one of the best known pictures in the world, and subject of a film, Tim’s Vermeer.

Paintings have their fates; so do their owners. The greatest contributors to the Royal Collection were George IV and Charles I, both disastrous rulers. In Britain at least there seems to be an inverse relation between artistic taste and political nous. This may explain why the mighty empire did not produce very much in the way of good art.

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  • carl jacobs

    the British empire’s ‘history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful to address’.

    Oh, how meticulously righteous. Do they repudiate the benefits they enjoy even today because of the British Empire? No. Would they wish to inhabit some counterfactual world where there had been no British Empire? Not if they are honest. See answer to question 1.

    But they have to strike the proper moral pose.

    • Vuil

      In Africa, I’ve always said, if they did not like colonization they should have given the wheel and reading and writing back.

      Oh, and for God’s sake even the idea of bridges over rivers and chasms. Even THAT was a product of colonization.

      • Funkenstein✓FuNk-ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

        hi babycakes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        • Vuil

          May I “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”

          • Funkenstein✓FuNk-ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ


    • stuartMilan

      “meticulously righteous” what a splendidly neat and elegant insult! thank you

  • Stefan Reich

    “There is clearly a lot to be said for trial by jury,”

    No there is not – not with the laws you have.

    • Davedeparis

      The great thing about Jury Nullification is that a jury can and should strike down bad laws thus acting as the one sure life line to freedom we have.

    • King Kibbutz

      Come now, it does its bit in providing sustenance for our grossly bloated legal profession.

    • Hamburger

      The alternative, trials by a judge, as we have, is worse.

  • Sahib

    Disappointingly thin, indeed, given how broad a canvas the topic presents, though there is a laudable effort to have at least one piece from every country once under British rule. Worse though, is the embarrassing preference to override the zeitgeist of the period, notably with the larger-than-life parody of Victorian soldiery by a contemporary Scottish artist dominating a room full of well executed historic paintings. Compare those with the later daubs included in the unnecessary “Out of Empire” room. Political correctness abounds to the point of incorrectness: The Mutiny is called Rebellion, the Russian threat to Afghanistan is deemed “apparent” and discovery and trading opportunities are, of course, mere exploitation. The next Curator needs consider whether the Tate is there to demonstrate artistic mores of the time (as it does for WWI) or to further fuel the Revisionist movement. This exhibition tries to do both.