Art of the British Empire is mired in darkness, but don’t hide it
The debate out the UK’s cultural past should be reignited, but ditching past controversial works is a bad idea
When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined his vision for Britain’s future outside the EU last month, he selected the setting for his speech with great care. He wanted the location to reflect his theme and tone. His choice was a masterstroke – the Painted Hall at Greenwich, often described as Britain’s Sistine Chapel.
As his audience gathered beneath its grand ceiling decorated with a spectacular allegorical baroque painting, the prime minister exhorted them to “raise [their] eyes to the heavens” and contemplate, as he put it, “this gorgeous and slightly bonkers symbolic scene”. Behold the “well-fed nymphs and cupids”, he said, painted by James Thornhill in the early 18th century. Take note of the anchors, cables, rudders, sails and oars. Here was a celebration of political stability and optimism, “an explosion of global trade propelled by new maritime technology”. He asked: “Does it not speak of supreme national self-confidence?”
It was memorable rhetoric. With our national identity in flux, Johnson was suggesting that Britannia could rule the waves again. What he didn’t address, though, was that, these days, the British Empire is an infernally hot topic – especially in the world of museums, where a massive rethink is under way about how its history should be told...