The British Empire has become invisible. It is an abstraction that people argue about. Right and left lay claim to its pride or shame, but the historical entity – whose rights and wrongs patriots and radicals now debate – lies cold in its grave, its banners, medals, statues and pith helmets neglected and ignored.
It is the genius of Tate Britain’s exhibition Artist and Empire to resurrect the British Empire as a physical reality you can see and feel, and almost smell and hear. Is that a Highland marching band; are those the cries of rebels approaching the compound? The ghosts of empire become flesh and blood in this awe-inspiring, exciting and provocative exhibition.
Red on the map and red-coated soldiers in the desert heat give history a bloody pulse. There are martyrdoms galore. Women and children kneel and pray, waiting for death, in Joseph Noel Paton’s 1858 painting In Memoriam. This is one of several emotional paintings of British victims of India’s Great Rebellion in 1857 (it also has a young Indian woman sharing their fate). Of course, no British artist painted victims of British violence in this compassionate way.