Martin Gayford

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

‘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.

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