A portrait of an empire

The British Empire has influenced artists' ways of seeing the world. Art, in turn, has the power to shape how people recall and regard the empire today

The Secret Of England’s Greatness (circa 1863), an oil on canvas portrait by Thomas Jones Barker, which shows Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to an African envoy in the Audience Chamber at Windsor Castle. PHOTO: NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY LONDON

At its height in the 19th century, the British Empire covered one quarter of the world's land surface, including parts of North America, Australia, Africa and Asia. Spanning centuries and regions of diverse cultures, the British Empire is not easy to define today. Its form and size changed over time, as it exercised varying degrees of control over its many settlements, colonies, protectorates, dominions and mandates.

Moreover, the impact of the empire flowed in diverse ways, with long-lasting, sometimes devastating, consequences for Britain and its former territories.

Attitudes towards the legacies of empire differ vastly. In January this year, after months of intense public debate, Oxford University announced that it would not remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its grounds. This was despite a "Rhodes Must Fall" student campaign, which had positioned Rhodes, a former prime minister of the Cape Colony, as a symbol of colonialism and petitioned for the statue's removal.

In contrast, the statue of Singapore's colonial founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, enjoys a different fate. In 1887, a bronze statue was made by the British sculptor Thomas Woolner for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. It has always been prominently displayed, even after self-rule in 1959. In the early 1960s, Dutch economist Albert Winsemius, a key adviser to the Singapore government for 25 years, suggested that the statue be retained so that Singapore "will be the only former colony where a statue of the imperialist is still standing. It's your presentation to the outside world that you accept the heritage of the British. Sometime in the future we will need the British and the Americans and the Germans... with their know-how. We will show them they are welcome."

In terms of the empire's artistic legacies, there is a striking difference between how these are viewed within the United Kingdom and outside it. In India, the Victoria Memorial Hall was founded by the British in 1921 with an outstanding collection of imperial art produced by some of the best-known names of the period. It is now regarded in India as the "finest and most prominent building and art museum of Calcutta" with "pictures and statues of men who played a prominent part in the history of India".

By contrast, there is no such institution in the United Kingdom devoted to telling the story of art of the British Empire. The only comparable equivalent was the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, which closed in 2008. Today, examples of imperial art are scattered across different art, anthropological, history and military museums in the United Kingdom. As the empire declined from the 1950s onwards, it became politically incorrect to display such works, and many were relegated to storage, being of little interest to either the public or scholars. Paradoxically, such art is often held in high regard by the former colonies.

The Secret Of England’s Greatness (circa 1863), an oil on canvas portrait by Thomas Jones Barker, which shows Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to an African envoy in the Audience Chamber at Windsor Castle. PHOTO: NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY LONDON

In 2013, the National Gallery of Australia failed in its attempt to buy two 18th-century paintings by British artist George Stubbs, representing the first known depictions of Australian animals in Western art. The National Gallery of Australia's purchase was blocked when the British government placed a temporary export ban on the paintings, deeming the works to be of national importance. This prevented the paintings from leaving the country and allowed time for Britain's National Maritime Museum to raise sufficient funds to buy the paintings for themselves. Despite the fact that the paintings of a kangaroo and dingo were completed in Britain by Stubbs, who had never visited Australia, the National Gallery of Australia regarded the export ban as "forever depriv(ing) Australian audiences of permanent access to two of the most historically significant works of art in the story of our nation's visual heritage".

Indeed, till today, there is no singular fixed idea of the empire. Rather, there are many different empires, variously imagined by the diverse people who continue to engage with its legacies. Such perceptions of empire were inevitably shaped by what the public read, heard and saw; in particular, the myriad visual images - paintings, sculpture, photographs and illustrations - in public circulation then and now.

Till today, there is no singular fixed idea of the empire. Rather, there are many different empires, variously imagined by the diverse people who continue to engage with its legacies.

However, such images were seldom neutral records of fact. Rather, they were creative expressions by artists, coloured by their own subjective biases, preferences and agendas.

The exhibition Artist And Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies, organised by the National Gallery Singapore in association with Tate Britain, and which opens here tomorrow, seeks to examine how artists' ways of seeing the world were influenced by the British Empire, and, in turn, how the idea of empire was shaped by art.

Two paintings from the exhibition highlight how such processes come together - one painted at the height of the Empire, and the other at a critical moment of its fall.

In his painting The Secret Of England's Greatness, the 19th-century artist Thomas Jones Barker chose to depict a popular story in which an African envoy asked Queen Victoria how Britain had become so powerful in the world. Instead of referring to military prowess, she hands over a Bible and says, "Tell the Prince that this is the secret of England's greatness."

The painting was consistent with - if not reinforced - the prevalent view then, which celebrated the civilising role of monarchy and the church, and the salvation they brought to people who were regarded as "heathens".

However, in the colonies, the painting was mocked for masking the exploitative nature of Britain's empire-making efforts.

Not surprisingly, art's power to shape perceptions was also used by those who overcame the empire. Miyamoto Saburo's painting The Meeting Of General Yamashita And General Percival depicts one of Britain's worst military defeats - the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942.

This work was commissioned by the Japanese army as a war propaganda painting. The artist did not witness the surrender, and based his painting on documentary films, photographs and detailed sketches made during his short stay in Singapore in 1942.

When this painting was exhibited in Japan during World War II, it won accolades for its stirring depiction of the Japanese triumph over the British, and also for proving that Japanese art could be as good as Western art.

Artists have always understood the ability of art to stir emotions and change perceptions. Barker sought to depict the empire as a benevolent power, yet his artwork depicted an encounter that never took place. To make his painting as convincing as possible, he based his depiction of the envoy on an African governor who had attended the queen's coronation in 1838.

The rest of the figures in the painting were also based on historical personalities, and the artist chose to stage the event in an actual location, the Audience Chamber at Windsor Castle.

Similarly, Saburo represented the empire as an impotent force justly defeated, yet he had not seen the actual surrender, and in fact took some artistic licence with his painting's final composition. For instance, the British flag and white surrender flag were not present at the surrender, but were included in the painting upon the request of Japanese military authorities. The room where the surrender took place was small and cramped, but was visually enlarged in the painting through the artist's use of an elevated perspective.

Despite their lack of historical accuracy, both paintings became deeply imprinted on the public consciousness of the time. In their own ways, they went on to influence how people recall and regard the empire today. This is the power of art.

•The writer is the director of Curatorial, Collections and Education at the National Gallery Singapore. The exhibition Artist And Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies is at the National Gallery Singapore from tomorrow to March 26 next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2016, with the headline 'A portrait of an empire'. Print Edition | Subscribe