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The Best Art Works At Artist & Empire
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The Best Art Works At Artist & Empire

Picture of Isa Morais
Updated: 24 April 2017
The legacy of the ‘Empire’ that extends across time from social, political and even economic issues still has impact on our lives today. The exhibition Artist & Empire at the Tate Britain will lead you to explore this world of images and history and take a peek at the best artworks on display.

George Stubbs: Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians

This painting was commissioned by and designated for Sir George, Governor-General of Madras. In 1764, this female cheetah was given by King George III to his uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, to be part of his private zoo. After being part of a stag hunt in Windsor Great Park, she escaped and had to be recaptured by her trainers. This scene possibly represents the moment of her recapture, made by two Indian men; a Lascar and his brother. They are involved in a conversation, while the wild animal casts a penetrating gaze at the scared deer. In this piece we can see two different characters (human and animal); where the hunters can be seen as agents of control, and the animals represent this relationship to nature: a hunter and prize, or predator and prey. After the cheetah’s failed escape, she moved into a new home at the Tower of London, where she was called ‘Miss Jenny’. Perhaps her life in the menagerie wasn’t so bad after all…

1ACheetahandStagwithTwoIndianAttendants by George Stubbs
A Cheetah and Stag with Two Indian Attendants | Courtesy of Press Tate

Edward Armitage: Retribution

Edward Armitage (1817–1896) was a well-regarded artist, best known for creating works of public art in Britain. It is possible that this particular piece of artwork was designated for the new Town Hall in Leeds. The artist created this Allegory of Retribution, which depicts a brave and impotent women warrior fighting a Bengal tiger (an emblematic figure of India). The warrior has a powerful, vigorous body, resembling the allegories of Britannia or Justice. By fighting with her sword, she is defending the crying baby that lost his mother in the war. Another figure that emerges from the picture is of a scared little girl that stands quietly, hidden away from this terrifying scene. The bodies in the foreground refer to the massacre of innocents (women and children) that took place in 1857 at Cawnpore during the Indian Rebellion. This civil war in India brought great repercussions for British society. Not only did this kind of British historical painting develop the imagination and contribute to perceptions of the British public over overseas events, it also increased the sentiment of resentment for Indian society. During the seven years of war (1756–63) to the colonial wars of the late Victorian period, this kind of imagery was highly popular and there were great demands for commissions (especially for public spaces).

Retribution |© www.wikiwand.com
Retribution | © Leeds City Art Gallery

Elizabeth Butler: The Remnants of an Army

The viewer is confronted in this painting by the loneliness, desperation and solitude of this man mounted on his horse. We can see the exhaustion, sadness and brutality of what war can do to the individual (both in a physical and psychological aspect). This settlement of unsettlement, exclusion and unfamiliar territory augments with the representation of the landscape of the desert. However, the sun on the horizon brings a sense of hope and salvation, in which the British army appears to be coming to assist this man and his horse. The painting works as a historical retrospective of a tragic occurrence from the first Afghan war of 1839-42. This situation took place in Jalalabad (13 January 1842), when the forces of the East India Company occupied Kabul with the aim of protecting British India from alleged threats from the Russian Empire. The image shows Dr William Brydon, assistant surgeon in the Bengal army, arriving alone at the British military base. At the time, he was supposed to be the only survivor from the expedition.

The Remnants of an Army |© Courtesy of Press Tate
The Remnants of an Army | Courtesy of Press Tate

John Everett Millais: The North-West Passage

In this piece, the strong gaze and facial expression of the elderly man looks straight at the viewer. The name of the piece is connected to the name of the map in the centre, which represents the dense network of islands along the north coast of Canada and the waterways between them connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The British navigators made consecutive expeditions to plan a passage to Asia, but they resulted in failure. Therefore, the painting’s dominant theme arises from an unresolved problem of the past. The expressions of both the young woman and male figure seem to suggest that they are waiting for something that never happened. Therefore, not only does the man’s expression encapsulate this feeling of unsettlement; but also represents a public feeling of disappointment and uncertainty. Some elements of the piece relate to marine expeditions such as the map and the boat on the horizon that looks lost or too far away to be identified. The rigidity of the elderly men contrasts with the beautiful innocence and purity of the young women. Therefore, both of them are presented in a private space and are complementing each other, where ‘past and present’ are together as one. The small scale objects connect with both figures and give them psychological attributes; for example, the man appears in relation to the boat, map and book and the young lady with the flowers.

The North-West Passage: ‘It might be done, and England should do it.’ |© WikiCommons
The North-West Passage: ‘It might be done, and England should do it.’ | © Dcoetzee Bot / WikiCommons

William Hodges: Cascade Cove, Dusky Bay

Here we have the representation of a beautiful landscape, where the luminous cascade of water contrasts with the darkness of the forest and the rest of the surrounding landscape. The delicateness of the water falling gives this piece a sense of rhythm; as if it is trying to represent a moment in time and the overwhelming beauty of a natural landscape. The piece is completed with a magnificent rainbow, providing a deep sense of depth and brightness to the overall picture. Hodges was the official artist throughout James Cook’s second voyage. These pictures were designed for the Admiralty and they included depictions of New Zealand and its people. Here we have a record of the ‘large cascade’ at Dusky Sound that Cook took him to see on 12 April 1773 and the viewer is presented with the indigenes of nomadic Maori that the British had met five days earlier. In this picture there is a man resting on a staff (a taiaha) and a group of women. These indigenous people had stayed in the area for two weeks and visited Cook’s ship. While apparently friendly, they once broke into violence among themselves, leaving Cook’s gathering uncertain of the group’s interrelationships.

Cascade Cove, Dusky Bay by William Hodges | © Dmitry Rozhkov / WikiCommons
Cascade Cove, Dusky Bay by William Hodges | © Dmitry Rozhkov / WikiCommons

Benjamin West: Sir Joseph Banks

In this painting, the viewer is presented with Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who took part in Captain James Cook’s first great voyage (1768–1771); visiting Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia (returning to immediate fame). He was the President of the Royal Society and he advised King George III on the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He thus helped to make it the world’s leading botanical gardens, by collecting a major collection of plant species of around the world acquired by a large number of botanists. In this painting, the sitter is not only wearing a contemporary British costume, but is he using a Maori flax cloak (a kaitaka) and stands beside objects including a staff and paddle (waka hoe), similar to ones owned by Cook, which are presented in the exhibition next to this painting.

Sir Joseph Banks by Benjamin West |© mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com
Sir Joseph Banks by Benjamin West | © mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com

Anthony van Dyck: William Fielding, 1st Earl of Denbigh Aavindraa

This piece represents the first English nobleman to travel to India and Persia. He may appear to be an intrigued tourist; his Indian rose silk pyjamas (trousers) and kurta (loose tunic) contrast with the western pair of shoes and shirt. Not only does his opulent dress combine and clash European and Oriental features, but it was a way of adapting and being integrated into a new culture. Fielding visited the court of the Mughal Emperor and later travelled to Persia. He returned weighed down with jewels, which resulted in a lasting impression on his contemporaries. As a consequence, he helped to create the notion of the nabob (Anglo-Indian term for a conspicuously wealthy man who made his fortune in the Orient). One of the most impressive elements in this portrait is William Fielding’s facial expression; looking away to a distant landscape, wearing an exuberant and colourful costume. The exotic landscape with tropical trees and other plants cause the viewer to imagine what he is looking at that has captured his attention.

William Fielding, 1st Earl of Denbigh by Anthony van Dyck | © Pinterest
William Fielding, 1st Earl of Denbigh by Anthony van Dyck | © Aavindraa / WikiCommons

Johan Zoffany: Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match

Today, cock fighting would be considered to be animal cruelty, but at the time it was considered entertainment. Zoffany (1733–1810) spent six years in India (1783–9), where he painted this picture for Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal. This ironic and satirical picture of Anglo-Indian relations was painted for the social circle that attended the event depicted, a cock-match at the court of Oudh at Lucknow. Oudh was the East India Company’s main supporter in northern India and this is where we can see people from different cultural backgrounds meeting each other. This cock match was seen by numerous Company employees. The artist himself is on the far right and many courtiers, the Nawab, Asaf-ud-Daula, and the Colonel of his bodyguard, John Mordaunt, greet each other with open arms as their birds are prepared for battle. The most amusing thing about this painting is the small-scale detail and the comic expressions, gestures and costumes of the figures in this event. The excitement of the party-goers and the depiction of the cock owners themselves makes everything delightful and brilliant about this painting. Although the sense of perspective in this picture looks distorted, all the figures in this picture are in relation with each other; where each one seems to be looking at another one in a different position. This achievement contributes to the sense of chaos and crowded environment, one of the artist’s main objectives.

Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match by Johan Zoffany | © Flickr
Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match by Johan Zoffany | © shadow in the water / Flickr

Sidney Nolan: Woman and Billabong

The Australian painter Sidney Nolan (1917–1992) explored the themes of adaptation to a new culture without that feeling of estrangement or detachment from your home country. These artworks are part of a series inspired by the legend of a Victorian Scotswoman Eliza Fraser; who was shipwrecked and started living with the Aboriginal Butchulla people on the island of K’gari.
Nolan rejected the conventional styles of art, therefore experimenting in favour of international modernism. The body of the female nude becomes part of the created landscape, thus becoming part of the natural environment. This picture reacts against the conventional imagery of European women by showing this female nude becoming native and part of the surrounding landscape. Here, Nolan is depicting an escaped convict with a striped uniform who helped Fraser to return to a British settlement; here she appears as an Aboriginal rock drawing. In this way, the viewer can see the influences of primitive art on modern or Western art, moving towards abstraction.

Women and Billabong by Sir Sidney Nolan| The estate of Sir Sidney Nolan. All Rights Reserved 2010 / Bridgeman Art Library | © Courtesy of Press Tate
Women and Billabong by Sir Sidney Nolan | The estate of Sir Sidney Nolan. All Rights Reserved 2010 / Bridgeman Art Library | Courtesy of Press Tate
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Sonia Boyce: Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great

Sonia Boyce (b.1962) explores a sense of identity and displacement at the same time; reflecting her identity as part of the British society and also her parentage from a West-Indian background. As Sonia Boyce recalls: ‘all these English kings and fewer queens were absolutely remote from my daily life – a girl of West-Indian parentage, growing up in east London during the 1970s.’ In this painting, Boyce adapts Victorian wallpapers commemorating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, instead depicting scenes of Australia, South Africa and India. By doing this, she is exploring and experimenting with these different elements to create a sense of personal identity, where the artist’s self portrait replaces that of the Queen in one original design. This can be connected to the sense of national and international identity; that Britain is great and well-known, while a large part of the population comes from or is part of different backgrounds. Therefore, the idea of national identity is much played and changed around as is the notion of heritage.

Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great by Sonia Boyce| © www.artscouncilcollection.org.uk

Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great by Sonia Boyce| © www.artscouncilcollection.org.uk

The exhibition ‘Artist and the Empire’ is on display at the Tate Britain until 10 April 2016.

Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG, +44 (0)20 7887 8888

By Isa Morais