Violence, victors and victims: how to look at the art of the British empire

William Dalrymple in The Guardian:

12b77e6e-46b3-4cb8-912b-6d98d2410ac1-1020x612One wet autumn night in 1951, the travel writer Peter Fleming – the elder and, at that point, more famous brother of Ian – was leaving the theatre when he heard a woman ask her companion to dinner to meet “a friend back from Rangoon”.

This fleeting snatch of conversation prompted Fleming to write a celebrated essay about how isolated and provincial postwar, post-imperial Britain had suddenly become. Twenty years earlier, he realised, half his friends and contemporaries would have been working in such cities across the British empire. Now, he wrote, “a man who has just come back from Rangoon is a rare and potentially interesting phenomenon. The contraction of our empire on one hand, and our incomes on the other, have reduced very considerably our knowledge – as a nation – of the world.” Gone were the days when “remote, romantic place names became domesticated in English households, and grandmothers headed for Asia in the Autumn … [Now] our horizons have shrunk … The British at the moment are more out of touch with the rest of the world than they have been for several generations.

This introversion, and the growing confusion and embarrassment it began to generate about the recent colonial past, had a dramatic effect on the arts in postwar Britain, and particularly on attitudes towards the country’s substantial holdings of imperial art. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, images of empire came to be regarded with something between a deep ambivalence and a profound distaste: paintings with Indian, African or Caribbean imperial themes seemed at best fuddy-duddy and passe, at worst mawkishly jingoistic.

More here.