An Empire of maps – ‘Artist and Empire’ at Tate Britain

What is the enduring image of the British Empire? Pith helmets and red coats? Sweating Colonial Officers drinking gin in button on collars? Packed ships sliding out of port, destined for foreign shores? The grand buildings that the wealth and manpower of empire left behind in London and Liverpool?

Or is it a map?

Those great, coloured maps with the pink of Britain’s colonies covering swathes of the globe. The, quite literal, picture of an Empire upon which the sun never sets. Even to those born decades after the end of Empire, there is possibly no more powerful evocation of the the size and power of Britain’s global domain. That is, of course, if you are British yourself.

The Tate’s new ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition, which opened this week, certainly places maps at the centre of the Imperial story. The very first of the six rooms the exhibition takes you through is dedicated to the cartography of Empire. Its power as propaganda and as a tool to erase local cultures and customs and replace them with, well anything the map maker wanted.

The Navy League Map of the British Empire from 1922, in the first room of the Tate’s ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition.

But there is so much more. As you’re led through the exhibition you’ll find layers of complexity in the art of (and from) the Empire that you didn’t know existed. You’ll be reminded of bits of history you’d forgotten (if you ever knew them) and be confronted by some awkward questions.

Did you know that Tangier was given to Britain as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry when she married Charles II? Are the Mughal style miniatures, commission and paid for by officers of the East India Company symptomatic of a cultural exchange or cultural appropriation? How long will it take you to notice that the early, fading photographs of the Opium Wars contain (deliberately) only Chinese dead?

The art and artefacts brought back from distant shores, such as prints of rare fungi or Maori clubs and portraits, may feed the idea of the Empire as being forged as one of discovery and science. Gentleman explorers traveling the world in sturdy wooden ships, discovering new lands and bringing enlightenment. That is certainly how the Victorian architects of the Empire liked to be seen, and it is telling that well over a century since the Empire’s peak, their art can still be propaganda. As William Dalrymple says in his (much better) review of the exhibition, ‘We actually still live in it – for we still reside in a globalised economy dominated by rich nations. Today’s international politics have far more in common with the days of General Gordon than with those of Neville Chamberlain’. 

It can be a little overwhelming. There is so much to take it, from so many places. Some of the rooms feel a little cluttered and harder to make sense of. But once you’ve toured the six compartments for the first time, retrace your steps and stand in the room full of images of the Empire at war. The last stand at Isandlwana, the death of General Gordon in Khartoum and Elizabeth Butler’s harrowing, haggard image of William Brydon, the first and supposedly last man to make it to Jalalabad after the 1842 retreat from Kabul. It should be a challenge to look at them in the same way as when you first passed through. That alone is worth the price of a ticket.