Artist and Empire, the last exhibition in a fitful year at Tate Britain, is by some way the worst. It is not even as good as its own catalogue. Here you may at least read serious and informative essays on every aspect of the empire, from fiction to famine, jingoism to slavery, politics and penal codes to the last stand at Kabul and the conquest of the Northwest Passage. But in the galleries, so many of the images lack the context that would bring them to meaning and vitality. It feels like the illustrations minus the narrative.
Remnants of the empire are visible all around us, from the statues in our streets to the food we eat, the art in our galleries and the curiosities in our junk shops. The living legacy is harder to define. Historians still argue about the bloodshed at Amritsar, the heroics of General Gordon, the racism of Cecil Rhodes (Oxford students are only now calling for his statue to be removed from Oriel College). We cannot change the past, but it seems that we can change our views of it for ever, disagreeing about the cruelty and killing against the glory. The first thing to say – much in its favour – is that this show remains properly neutral throughout.
The aim is to examine how art may have been affected by imperial history – and vice-versa: how our sense of the empire was shaped by art. This is by far the easiest part. The show is stuffed with Victorian boilerplate. Major Wilson and his troops, running out of ammunition in Matabeleland but still singing the National Anthem as the tribesmen close in; General Gordon bravely meeting his death before a mob of spear-carrying dervishes in Khartoum (George William Joy’s painting was so popular it was translated into wax at Madame Tussaud’s).
The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck shows the dying Essex soldiers still trying to rally round their lieutenant, Thomas Souter, the regimental colours wrapped round him in the freezing Afghan landscape. (Alison Smith, in her excellent catalogue contributions, reports that postcards of William Barnes Wollen’s painting do good trade in Kabul markets even today as anti-British propaganda.)
Some of the exhibits are risible – in Edward Armitage’s Retribution, a brawny Britannia with a face like thunder is seeing off a Bengal tiger as if it were some obstreperous pet (this was Armitage’s response to the Cawnpore massacre) – while others are nauseating. You can imagine The Secret of England’s Greatness, in which Queen Victoria presents a bible to a suitably grateful and genuflecting black man, without ever setting eyes on the canvas.
And sometimes the inclusion of a work just feels comic in itself. Rudolf Swoboda’s kitsch and sentimental portraits of a group of “native artisans” brought over from Agra to perform at the Colonial and Indian of 1886 in fact shows convicts who were trained in a jail. You have to hope they were laughing inside.
The best of the art comes from George Stubbs, who never travelled abroad at all. His portrait (for it truly is that) of a dingo, wonderfully alert, charming and characterful, a sort of anthropomorphised dog, is based entirely on hearsay. Another animal study was worked up from the inflated skin of a kangaroo.
Rare flora and fauna make a vividly eccentric section of this show. Here is the stripy Thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, which is now extinct (although people still claim to see it in the outback). Here is the largest flower in the world, which resembles nothing so much as a pock-ridden UFO.
Indeed the show thrives exactly where you might expect – in the seeing of sights. It is good to see the Indian caves painted by that hardy amateur Marianne North, and the wild waterfalls of Dusky Bay in New Zealand. It is fascinating to see Thomas Baines’s 1850s painting of strange critters carved into the Australian rocks and the trunk of a baobab tree. But Baines was aptly described as “an explorer who painted rather than an artist who travelled”, and herein lies a faultline of this show.
What may be intriguing as documentary evidence is rarely potent as art. A record of two Inuit sitting round a table with some Victorian explorers is pathetic: a collection of badly drawn doll’s house figures. And Matthew Flinders’s famous chart of Australia “Showing the Parts Explored Between 1798 and 1803” may be crucial fragment of Australian history (and of Flinders’s story: he was imprisoned by the French on Mauritius when he made it) but the actual map is a wan thing, representatively blank.
It is not obvious from this show just how the empire shaped art – though it patently did. Van Dyck’s 1635 double portrait of the Earl of Arundel and his wife – she holding compasses, he resting one arm on a massive globe – was a hugely popular format (it’s not here), as was the strategic insertion of maps, indigenous costumes and many other souvenirs and imperial props into portraits through the 18th and 19th centuries.