Artist and Empire, an on-going exhibition at Tate Britain in London (till April 10), aims to look at the British Empire through the prism of art. Subtitled Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, the subject of the exhibition is one you might half expect to have been mounted many times, especially in London, the capital of an Empire that at its height covered nearly a quarter of the world’s land mass. Yet, Artist and Empire is billed as the first major show of art that was either made during the British Empire or responds to it.

The exhibition comprises some 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures and artefacts spanning over 400 years – from the 16th century to the present day – and includes both British artists and those from former colonies. There is fresh attention on women and amateurs. Perhaps fittingly, given the role the Empire played in building up the magnificent art collections in Britain, all the works on show in the exhibition are from collections in the United Kingdom.

In the exhibition catalogue foreword, Paul Gilroy notes that in the post-World War II world, as the Empire shrank and colonies won their independence, Britain’s attitude to its imperial past became increasingly ambivalent. The sense of the Empire being a matter of national pride had to be tempered with “a litany of exploitation, famine, cruelty and slaughter”. It is perhaps not surprising then that this ambivalence extended to imperial art as well, with many of the works confined to storage or smaller, less visited museums. The exhibition Artist and Empire makes the case that many such paintings, which are forgotten now, once helped shape Britain’s self-image and thus need to be engaged with afresh.

One poignant example is Elizabeth Butler’s oil painting The Remnants of an Army (1879), which portrays William Brydon, supposedly the sole survivor of the disastrous 1842 retreat from Kabul. A part of the Tate’s collection, the painting was on loan to the Somerset Military Museum till this exhibition. Initially viewed as a lament for a heroic defeat in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the painting is now frequently interpreted as an indictment of a foolish campaign.

Propaganda tools

The exhibition is arranged by art-historical genres, and the display moves from maps and “curiosities”, history painting, portraiture and costume to the Empire’s impact on the development of modern art. The second room, “Trophies of Empire”, highlights how the Empire brought an extraordinary array of art, artefacts and natural history into British collections and afforded artists opportunities to record them. The highlight of this room is George Stubbs’s A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants (1765), which captures some of the exoticism and the excitement the Empire must have provided through its encounters with the wider world. The other standout pieces in the room are naturalist drawings by Patna-born artist Sheik Zain-ud Din of the common crane and Persian lilac, showcasing how such botanical and zoological studies commissioned by British sponsors melded European and Mughal artistic styles to form the so-called Company style.

Perhaps the most staggering room is one titled “Imperial Heroics”, which showcases examples of how the sense of Empire was shaped by art. The room is full of paintings that were made to commemorate and glorify British conquests overseas and staged to win the sympathy of audiences in Britain for the Empire. Among them is Edward Armitage’s vast painting Retribution, c. 1858, made in response to the events of the 1857 rebellion. The painting depicts an Amazonian Britannia standing over the slaughtered bodies of a woman and child, aiming her sword at the raging Bengal tiger that embodies the rebels. Another response to the rebellion is Joseph Noel Paton’s In Memoriam, c. 1858, which shows British women and children kneel and pray, while waiting for death.

From here on, the exhibition stumbles. In trying to accommodate the various ways in which the coloniser and colonised interacted across the many parts of the empire, the exhibition ends up being superficial. As such, its final sections feel bitty and not clearly defined, perhaps due to a lack of context or narrative that would highlight their importance in the Empire’s art.

That is not to say that these portions don’t showcase thought-provoking works of art – of particular note are the ways in which post-colonial artists engaged with the legacies of Empire, including the iconic Trophies of Empire by Donald Locke, c. 1972 -1974. But still these are fewer and farther between. Artist and Empire is a thoughtful look at the art of the British Empire, but perhaps it aims to do and show too much.