Ask the question of the week – what does it mean to be British? – and the answer you might get from our metropolitan art galleries might be at once polymorphic and paradoxical, but also strangely consoling, in the way of the best culture, about the dark times in which we live.
From the British Museum (The Celts), to the V&A (European Arts and Crafts, 1600-1815) to the Royal Academy (Ai Weiwei) and Tate Britain (Artist and Empire), many great British collections present a magic tapestry open to almost infinite reinterpretation.
This dazzling collage of portraits, jewellery, sculpture, rare photographs, wax tableaux and sumptuous oriental prints underlines a simple, and possibly inconvenient, truth: ours is a patchwork culture stitched together by amateur connoisseurs creating an eclectic mix of good taste and booty.
In the tantalising mirror of our accumulated cultural artefacts, from Admiralty maps to Aboriginal miniatures, almost everything you might say about Britain is true – and so is its opposite. Love it or loathe it, in the British Isles we can declare allegiance to any number of totems – global, European, national, sporting, ethnic, civic or sexual – but we cannot escape a rendezvous with Britishness.
That, in turn, derives from the accident of geography. This is an island culture. Appropriately, in the first room of the Tate’s Artist and Empire, between nautical maps and portraits of grizzled sailors, the visitor encounters Millais’s The North-West Passage.
It is the sea above all that makes us British and continues to shape British identity in so many ways. Nearly one in three Britons live within six miles of the coast. A recent YouGov poll placed “being an island” sixth in the top 10 of “best things about Britain”.
The sea is the best defence known to man, and also a great natural highway. People who live by water are different. Islanders have different physical, and psychic, horizons. So the sea did not just define the British – it inspired them to become pirates, merchants, travellers, explorers and empire-builders. It also became integral to our literature and imagination, as well as a raison d’etre.
Not only did the sea sponsor a unique civic transaction in the lives of an island people, it also inspired the British concept of privacy. Islanders are insular – a word synonymous with “defiant”, “separate”, “alone”, “divergent” and “self-sufficient”.
The first Britons, the Celts, sailed here across the sea and established a culture and a society many modern Britons still venerate for its connection to a mythic past. Dr Julia Farley, who curated the British Museum’s exhibition on the Celts, says the history of these ancestors is “phenomenally complicated. You can define Celtic in many different ways, from art to language. That’s why we love the term ‘Celtic’ – because it’s so slippery.”
Farley is not sure why, but visitors to the museum “love the idea of something very old”. The statistics bear this out: almost 100,000 visitors have passed through the Sainsbury Gallery to marvel at more than 300 Celtic treasures from the dawn of time.
Farley’s favourite exhibit, the Gundestrup cauldron, from Denmark, exemplifies a multicultural theme. Although it was made outside the Celtic world, probably in the Balkans, it is rich in lovely Celtic detail: a god holding a stag, a man riding a fish, a female warrior surrounded by her hounds. “It conjures a lost world,” says Farley, “and its ancient magic.”
The Celts’ nemesis, the Anglo-Saxons, also invaded across the sea, landing here with such ferocity that, according to the chronicle, the Britons fled westwards “as if from fire”.
Farley points out that it’s possible to challenge this traditional view and to speculate about the intermarriage of Celt and Saxon. “With the biggest questions about our past,” she says, “it’s always a matter of definition.”
The impossibility of reaching clarity about our identity was illustrated in 2008 when the Times campaigned for a “British” motto: something to rival liberté, égalité, fraternité, but less embarrassing than “Cool Britannia”. Readers had a field day. Their suggestions included, for example, “Dipso. Fatso. Bingo. Asbo. Tesco.” This was closely followed by: “No Motto Please, We’re British.”
Britain’s early history, which was profoundly marginal, echoes this disdain. Somehow, by the skin of their teeth, these people, who had begun to call themselves “Englysshe”, flourished. Now, their language and culture reflected a new kind of self-belief, whose mission statement was Shakespeare’s “O, brave new world”.
After a slow start, they became global adventurers, half-pirate, half-pastor, planting English and Englishness across the known world from Boston to Botany Bay.
There was something “sticky” about this language, and the ideas it embodied, so adhesive in fact that at times it has behaved more like a kind of cultural virus, self-confidently infecting all kinds of international contacts.
In the first room of the newly opened galleries at the V&A, visitors will find Bernini’s Neptune and Triton next to a terracotta model of Ludovica Albertoni, the saintly 16th-century noblewoman who devoted herself to caring for the poor and sick.
This permanent exhibition, currently devoted to Bernini, Caravaggio and the brilliance of 18th century European art, illustrates the complexity of Britain’s passionate engagement with the culture of Europe and a wider world. The dividend from that exchange was an intoxicating infusion of Enlightenment joie de vivre from across the Channel, an intellectual frisson personified in the feline smile of the great Voltaire.
Politically, however, as the century unfolded, all was not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Britain’s experience of the Enlightenment was, arguably, more immediate and more disconcerting.
The American Declaration of Independence, a model of Enlightenment thinking, both appropriated Britain’s “13 colonies”, but also inspired the empire “on which the sun never sets”.
At Tate Britain, art and imperialism meet in the shadows of transportation and slavery. In a promotional video, Shami Chakrabarti reminds visitors that “some great things came out of the British empire, but not without a cost to different peoples around the world”. And at home, too. Millbank is the site of the prison from which convicts were deported to New South Wales. Moreover, the gallery bears the name of Henry Tate, who made his fortune from that genteel product of the slave trade: sugar.
However, in another irony, it was the Tate that would come to house the largest collection of one of Britain’s greatest artists, Joseph Mallord William Turner, an ardent anti-slaver. Turner’s Slave Ship – originally called Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying–Typhoon Coming On and first exhibited in 1840 – is not part of Artist and Empire, but the horrors of the slave trade are represented in work by several minor artists.
Again, the Tate’s art will remind many Britons, currently unsure of their place in the world, of some timeless predicaments. For example, one forgotten landscape has languished in storage for more than 50 years. Now its hour has come.
Elizabeth Butler’s The Remnants of an Army: Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842, painted during the second Afghan war, was seen by Victorians as a stirring portrait of British military heroism.
Alison Smith, curator of Artist and Empire, insists that it should be read as the work of a painter critical of British policy. “This work,” she told theGuardian, “was partly produced to convey the idea of British history repeating itself, often with disastrous consequences.”
Today, Butler’s Remnants hangs near a portrait of another British military disaster at the end of another Afghan war, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, showing an Essex regiment being overwhelmed by its tribal enemy. In 1898, on first display, Wollen’s canvas was praised as a commemoration of gallantry in the face of overwhelming odds. But in 2002, British soldiers found reproductions being sold in the markets of Kabul – as a symbol of Afghans defeating foreign invaders. It would be hard to conceive a more poignant image of post-imperial Britishness.
Today, in London, there is a parallel global mood at work among the art institutions of the metropolis. Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of the Royal Academy, formerly director of the National Portrait Gallery, spoke about this change. “When I was director,” he told the Observer, “we didn’t really think much about issues of Britishness – although, of course, the choice of portraits reflected all sorts of unspoken assumptions about who we are. The Royal Academy likewise used to be viewed as an old-fashioned English institution, based on the democratic traditions of the annual summer exhibition and its position on Piccadilly, opposite Fortnum and Mason.”
Today, such British institutions flourish in a changed world. “It’s now extremely global,” Saumarez Smith continues. At the Royal Academy “we are able to show Ai Weiwei without reference to his situation in China, to open exhibitions next year on Monet and Giorgione, and currently show Liotard, a Swiss artist who became known as a Turk and worked all over Europe. This reflects the global nature of the art world, in which Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor are as well known in China and Japan as they are in London.”
At the British Museum, such global influences get refashioned for a popular domestic audience. Joanna Mackle, its deputy director, speaking to the Observer, noted that “this museum was one of the first national institutions to be called ‘British’, proclaiming the right of every citizen to explore a collection which embraced the whole world. The result would be a new kind of citizen – free, informed and equipped for independent thought.”
Open, tolerant and cosmopolitan, the museum remains an expression of Britain’s global outlook, celebrating, says Mackle, “the diverse cultures of the world on a wide range of subjects, including ancient Persia, indigenous Australia and, currently, the Celts. It’s also in partnership with museums across the country, making it in a very real sense the ‘British’ Museum.”
Perhaps this is why, at home, British multiculturalism has begun to take on some local colour. New Britons have many qualities – in surveys, their optimism, good humour, tolerance and a sense of fair play are ones that we identify – but pride or introspection are not among them.
One recent Channel 4 documentary about multicultural Bradford showed a contemporary white Briton, a man, cheerfully analysing his heritage: “I know I’m a British citizen,” he said, “because I’m not anything else.”
by Robert McCrum
Source: The Guardian