The UK Government’s art collection will examine 300 works related to slavery, colonialism and racism

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The UK’s Government Art Collection (GAC) has reserved 300 paintings and prints that need to be reinterpreted, mostly on issues related to slavery, colonialism and racism. Each article was labeled on their website: “The interpretation of this work is under review”.

Following questions from The arts journal, these tags were immediately removed from the website early last month. A spokesperson for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), to which the GAC belongs, said they were tagged in error.

The spokesperson explains: “Due to an administrative error, a number of paintings on the Government Art Collection website were incorrectly stated as being under review. This is not the case and the website has now been fixed.

The tagged works included 26 portraits of Queen Victoria. Among the buildings in which they currently hang are British embassies and diplomatic missions in Berlin, Istanbul, Kathmandu, New Delhi, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Tehran, Tokyo and Tunis, as well as the Cabinet Office and Lancaster House in London.

Although slavery in most of the British Empire was officially abolished in 1833, four years before the Queen’s accession, the system had not been entirely abolished before she was crowned. Under Queen Victoria’s reign, imperial rule was extended, usually by force, and she was appointed Empress of India in 1876.

Other GAC portraits of British monarchs set for reinterpretation include those of Elizabeth I, Charles I, Charles II, William III, Anne, George I and William IV. Some of these kings and queens were involved in the Royal African Company, although the inclusion could also be because an artist or patron was involved in questionable activities.

Two prints of portraits of George Washington have been labeled. Again, they may have been destined to be reinterpreted because of artists or patrons.

Sir William Nicholson’s 1899 portrait of author Rudyard Kipling also needs a reimagining Hirarchivum Press/Alamy Stock Photo

Some works are obvious candidates for reinterpretation. by William Muller The slave market (1842) depicts a scene in Cairo, involving Arab rather than British shoppers. This watercolor was purchased by the GAC in 1964.

by George Bickham How to get wealth (circa 1736) depicts several sailing ships with an inscribed poem. Singing the praises of British traders, the poem includes the verse: “New lands to create, new Indies to explore”. Perhaps surprisingly, this historic item was purchased as recently as 1978.

There are 13 works relating to Jamaica, most of them being early landscape prints. These include a pastel portrait of John Russell by Thomas Millward (1796), who owned a coffee plantation on the island. In the portrait, Millward prominently holds a book recording Jamaican laws, which has a section on the treatment of slaves.

Jamaican GAC works include a lithograph by Joseph Kidd of Cocoa Nut Walk on the coast near Runaway Bay in Jamaica (1838-40). The origin of the toponym remains uncertain: the bay is named after runaway slaves or the Spanish governor who fled the British in 1670.

Rethinking Rhodes

Two prints by William Nicholson (1899) need to be reinterpreted. These depict Rudyard Kipling, author of the chauvinistic poem “The White Man’s Burden”, and Cecil Rhodes, who energetically promoted imperial rule in southern Africa. Edward Lear’s Three Landscapes of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) are also included (1870s-80s).

As the GAC’s website explains, it is currently “reviewing the interpretation of artworks and reassessing how they have been viewed historically.” It’s part of a much wider exercise taking place in most major UK museums, an initiative that has taken on greater prominence since 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement.

But what is new is that the GAC no longer publicly identifies individual works that will be the subject of possible reinterpretations.

by Arthur Kampf Portrait of Cecil Arthur Tooke (1918)

In an article by The arts journal on the GAC work that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak had chosen for 11 Downing Street, we highlighted the work of Arthur Kampf Portrait of Cecil Arthur Tooke (1918), a work depicting a British prisoner of war painted by an artist who later became a favorite of Hitler.

Following our report on this eclectic selection of paintings, the question was taken up by the The telegraph of the daywho wrote that “dozens” of works were subject to reinterpretation.

As we can now reveal, the actual number is much higher, around 300 (out of the GAC’s total of over 14,000 works).

Although the British government began systematically collecting art in 1899, some works had been acquired in the 19th century, at the height of the British Empire. These first acquisitions obviously reflect the spirit of the time. The GAC in its current form dates back to 1946, with the appointment of its first curator.

Although the DCMS spokesperson would not comment further, it appears that the GAC, which is part of the ministry, is awaiting government guidance on “disputed heritage”.

Last May, DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden established a Heritage Advisory Committee “to oversee the development and drafting of a new set of guidelines on how challenging heritage properties should be treaties”.

Dowden emphasized the importance of the need to “remember and explain”. Statues and art should not be removed, but kept, with appropriate explanations, so that we can learn from history.

The GAC, which has museum status, has its core work funded by the central government. The official line is that the GAC “promotes British art and plays a key role in British cultural diplomacy, delivering an expression of British soft power, culture and values”. As such, it is important that works that could possibly offend are properly explained.

The reinterpretation of the GAC’s work should eventually be completed after receiving advice from the Heritage Advisory Board. Presumably, data on individual works will be inserted on the GAC website and in information material at places where works are hung, primarily government buildings in the UK and diplomatic missions overseas.

It seems that in the short term the GAC is unlikely to remove the works that currently hang in the official premises. But as the works are often moved, it will be interesting to see if the most sensitive ones are gradually removed from storage, to be replaced by others that do not raise sensitive issues.

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