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Imperial drama: “The Remnants of an Army, Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842” (1879) by Elizabeth Butler

It is rather brave of Tate Britain to put on an exhibition examining the artistic relationship between Britain and its empire. An openly celebratory show would, of course, be beyond the realms of contemporary acceptability and it is inconceivable that a national gallery could ever stage such a provocative project. Indeed, as the Tate’s curator Alison Smith has said of Artist and Empire: “The real challenge was selecting the material to make a wonderful show without being celebratory of empire.” A shame, but with that stricture in mind she has chosen some 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures and artefacts through which to lay out the case that British art was as transformed by our dominions as was British trade.

 It is appropriate too that Tate Britain is holding the show (which runs until April 10), since it was built on the site of a prison for felons awaiting transportation to Australia and named after Henry Tate of Tate & Lyle, a man who made his fortune from colonial sugar (though, as the Tate is twitchily quick to point out, he had no links to slavery). The empire is a subject of extraordinary richness, not least because its story offered artists and public in search of dramatic set-pieces an irresistible choice.

One picture stands as an example of the complications of the subject matter as a whole. Elizabeth Butler completed The Remnants of an Army, Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842 — a painting of the first Afghan war — in 1879, during the second. It shows a solitary figure on horseback, the heavily wounded William Brydon, assistant surgeon in the British Army that had occupied Kabul. By the time Brydon reached Jellalabad he was half dead, part of his head sliced away by harrying tribesmen. He was asked by the British commander where the rest of the garrison was. “I am the Army,” he replied, the sole survivor of nearly 17,000 soldiers and civilians who had retreated from Kabul.

Lady Butler was a critic of British policy and painted the picture as an image of the human cost of imperial folly. The Victorian public, however, saw the painting as the opposite: an image of British heroism, survival and endurance. In the 1950s the Tate, which owned the picture (the only one, then and now, by Butler, the most popular military painter of the 19th century, in its collection)  loaned it to the Somerset Military Museum. It has taken 50 years and the sloughing off of some of its colonial guilt for the painting to return to Millbank. The fact that yet another Afghan war remains unresolved gives the picture a new layer of meaning.

If Butler’s image is equivocal, so are many of the other exhibits, though to different degrees. Alongside straightforward images of the empire’s martyrs — Benjamin West’s tableau of an expiring General Wolfe at Quebec (1770) and George Joy’s General Gordon nervelessly facing death at the spear-tip of the Mahdi army (1893) — is Augustus John’s handsome 1919 portrait of Lawrence of Arabia in Arab costume. The unspoken theme of the picture is that the unintended consequences of Lawrence assisting the Arabs to win independence from the Ottoman empire are, like the themes of Butler’s painting, still being played out.

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