The Empire Strikes Back

An exhibition at Tate Britain features artwork made in response to British rule in India.

Written by Pallavi Chattopadhyay | Updated: March 12, 2016 12:00:15 am

exhibition, art exhibition, Tate Britain  art exhibition, british rule, George Stubbs, talk George Stubbs’s Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants

One of the many rooms at Tate Britain in London houses British animal painter George Stubbs’s painting Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants from 1764, featuring the first cheetah brought to Britain as a gift from the Governor-General of Madras to George III in the same year. In charge of maintaining a record of animals arriving in the menageries and research collections from the colonies and during voyages undertaken by the British, it was not odd for Stubbs to have painted this cheetah that took part in a stag hunt at Windsor Great Park. The oil on canvas has an Indian raising the animal’s hood, ready to release it, as an accomplice directs its attention to a stag in an imaginary landscape. The cheetah was later moved to the menagerie at the Tower of London, where it was named Miss Jenny. This is one of the many works bearing an Indian context that feature in the exhibition “Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past” that directly addresses art made in response to the British rule.

With the help of 200 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures and artifacts, Tate Britain traces the influence of the Empire on artists from the 16th century to the present day, as it examines people who helped create, promote or confront the British Empire in their work. With a visual collection from across the British Isles, North America, the Caribbean, the Pacific, Asia and Africa forming the crux of the show, visitors get a chance to see how artists reinforced, reflected and resisted the Empire in their work. Lead curator Alison Smith says, “India features prominently in the exhibition because of Britain’s long history of engagement with the subcontinent, from the early years of the East India Company to Independence in 1947.”

So among others, on display is Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Captain John Foote, a Company officer dressed in an intricately embroidered muslin jama with a shawl and pagri, which he brought back from India. Lieutenant-Colonel James Skinner, the son of a Rajput princess and Lieutenant-Colonel Hercules Skinner, who was unable to serve as an officer in the Company due to his mixed-race heritage, also makes an appearance.

Another wall has James holding a Regimental Durbar in 1827. James, who raised two cavalry corps for the East India Company’s army in 1803 and 1814 — comprising local cavalrymen from Sikh, Maratha and Rohilla backgrounds — chose Delhi painter Ghulam Ali Khan to record his cavalry regiments. Khan reportedly prepared individual study portraits of many retainers and cavalrymen over a few years, before combining them into this single setting. Skinner is seen seated on a chair along with his son James, surrounded by cavalry officers (called rissaldars) dressed in their resplendent yellow winter uniforms, their seated position evoking the formality of a Mughal durbar. The most senior rissaldar, Muhammad Shadull Khan, who had saved Skinner’s son’s life in a previous battle, sits closest to him.

In July 1886, Queen Victoria had commissioned Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda to paint several portraits of her Indian subjects invited for an international exhibition in London. Among these was the painting Bakshiram, depicting a 102-year-old potter staring out at the spectator with a piercing gaze, apart from portraits of a coppersmith from Delhi and a nine-year-old carpet weaver from Kanpur. Executed with photographic realism, these works on display at the exhibition could easily be used for ethnographic studies. Most of these artisans were convicts trained in craft skills in Agra’s Central jail and then shipped to London for the exhibition to showcase the commercial power of the British Empire.

Putting the exhibition together did not come easy though. Smith says, “The main challenge was how to frame such a vast topic that encompasses so many geographic regions, historical periods and visual cultures. The history of the British Empire is both sensitive and contentious. This is something we wanted to avoid as we did not want the exhibition to be perceived as apologetic or celebratory in any way. The challenge was how to open up such a difficult subject to a broad and diverse audience.”

The exhibition is on till April 10

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