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DateLecture
20 February 2020IMAGES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE
16 January 2020A KELMSCOTT CHAUCER FOR OUR TIMES
05 December 2019EDWARD HOPPER The answer is on the canvas
21 November 2019HISTORY OF CARTOONS From William Hogarth to Private Eye
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16 May 2019REMBRANDT and VERMEER The Golden Age of Dutch Art
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21 June 2018THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY The story of photography from an art historians perspective
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17 November 2016NO ORDINARY CHRISTMAS An exploration of the depiction of the Nativity in western art
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19 May 2016REBEL IN GLASS The art of Louis Comfort Tiffany
28 April 2016CDFAS AGM and SECOND MARY BURKETT MEMORIAL LECTURE
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03 December 2015Christmas Lunch with a talk by Joanne Stamper entitled "Discovering Derventio"
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21 May 2015THE ELGIN MARBLES
30 April 2015CDFAS Annual General Meeting Including The First Mary Burkett Memorial Lecture THE ROMANS IN NORTH WEST CUMBRIA
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24 April 2014CDFAS ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING
20 March 2014MECHANICAL VISIONS, THE PRE-RAPHAELITES AND PHOTOGRAPHY
20 February 2014THE IMPERIAL EASTER EGGS OF KARL FABERGE
16 January 2014NICHOLAS PEVSNER AND THE BUILDINGS OF ENGLAND

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IMAGES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE Dr John Stevens Thursday 20 February 2020

Dr John Stevens is a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London, and a member of academic staff at the SOAS South Asia Institute.  His PhD in History is from University College London. He teaches British Imperial history, Indian history and Bengali language, and is a regular visitor to India and Bangladesh. He publishes widely in the fields of British and Indian history. His biography of the Indian guru Keshab Chandra Sen – Keshab: Bengal’s Forgotten Prophet - was published by Hurst, OUP New York and OUP India in 2018. He appears regularly in the Indian media and was recently a guest on BBC Radio Four’s In Our Time, discussing the poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the British Empire held sway over approximately one quarter of the total population of the world. British imperial power was projected through a variety of artistic mediums, from fine portraiture and grand imperial buildings to more popular forms of imagery. British artists also produced countless images of people from all over the globe who had become subjects of British rule. Through considering a variety of paintings, buildings and objects from across the Empire, this lecture provides a fascinating insight into the ways in which the British viewed themselves and their subjects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

 

LECTURE REPORT

The Arts Society Cumbria welcomed Dr John Stevens to present the February  Lecture on Images of the British Empire, an empire which held sway over approximately one quarter of the total population of the world at the turn of the twentieth century .Through considering a  ariety of paintings, buildings and objects from across the Empire the lecture provided a fascinating insight into the ways in which the British viewed themselves and their subjects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

George V was crowned in 1911, and together with Queen Mary, he travelled to India to preside over the Coronation Durbar, an unprecedented gathering of over 250,000 participants. The Viceroy ordered a tented city to be built covering twenty eight square miles.  The Royal Pavilion  was set in a semi-circular amphitheatre, where the local rulers, the Maharajas, came to pay homage to the King and Queen.  Dressed in full  royal regalia the royal couple were the epitome of British power and superiority. Photographic images vividly illustrated the magnificence of the occasion. Durbars were established by the Moghul empires as expressions of power.  The 1911 durbar was intended to show Britain at the apex of human civilisation.  However, there was a big difference between the splendour of the Durbar and the reality of demands for  independence. Britain held India by force not consent.

  What secret lay behind the incredible scale and power of the British Empire?  At its height  it ruled over 25% of the world's population over 412 million people.  In an 1863 painting by Thomas Jones Barker Queen Victoria gave her answer, she is shown presenting a bible to an African prince, interestingly printed in Arabic. The ideology was liberal imperialism, the purpose of empire being social, political and religious progress.  Fairness, justice and morality were to be spread through Christian enlightenment. A doctrine of rule and transform through Empire as a paternalistic superiority, and yet slavery existed and was incompatible with the idea of Christian justice.

Eighteenth century thinking held that the black peoples were inferior to white, but from the early nineteenth century increasing numbers of educated British people began to hold opposing views.  In 1733 William Hoare had painted  a portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an African  Muslim cleric.  A highly educated, pious man, he was bought out of slavery by public subscription, having first escaped, been captured and imprisoned in England.  Black people could be educated and become civilised.          

By 1840 the Anti-Slavery Society was an increasing force in society, Benjamin Robert Haydon painted their convention meeting in that year in which the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and the emancipated slave Edward Barrett are clearly visible.  Setting people free had become a strong movement towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, there was the view that peoples would have to be controlled. In 1857 revolution began in India.  Sepoys serving in the British army, having been ordered to bite off their cartridge paper refused, believing it to be impregnated with pork and beef fat and therefore against their religious belief to consume. This action became more than just asoldiers' rebellion, and turned into full opposition to British rule.  Thus began what came to be known as The Indian Mutiny. There followed a major incident in Lucknow, illustrated in a painting by Thomas Jones Barker, where 1500 British and Indian soldiers, together with a population of men women and children were attacked and many killed.  A relief column of 3000 troops under the command of General Havelock arrived to put down  this rebellion. An iconic new sense of imperialism, resulted in  Indians being represented as cruel and rebellious, the British press deeming Lucknow an atrocity.  A famous cartoon of the time, entitled Justice, showed the British lion, overpowering the Indian tiger with slain British women and children at its feet.  1858 saw the end of the powerful East India Company, which was dissolved, hence began the era of the British Raj.  It was the end of the  liberal imperial dream, a more authoritarian rule ensued with displays of British power as at the Durbar of 1911. 

In 1865 uprisings began in the West Indies.  Morant's Bay, Jamaica had a plantation economy,  a local worker Paul Bogul led a protest march against the inhumane treatment of plantation workers.  British Militia shot many rebels, and the protestors burnt down the courthouse.  There was shock and horror in Britain, but also concern at the way the rebellion was suppressed on the orders of Governor Eyre with extensive and harsh reprisals.  In 1866 two British associations forming the Jamaica Committee were demanding that Governor Eyre be put on trial. J.S.Mill and Charles Darwin held that the rule of law had been broken by Governor Eyre and that all races were equal in the eyes of the law. Leading defenders of  Eyre's actions Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens held that he had acted heroically, that black and white peoples were  not the same species, and that therefore they should not be treated equally.  A liberal attitude was replaced by paternalism, emphasised  in commercial advertising.  The dominance of the British Empire was expressed in a popular Punch cartoon showing Cecil Rhodes as a colossus bestriding the continent of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo. 

The turn of the twentieth century heralded more moves towards “the sun setting on the British Empire”.  In India the emergence of Mahatma  Gandhi as a political leader and increasing calls for independence meant that Britain would have to leave.  A series of famines led to adesperate situation and in 1947 the politics of partition brought matters to a head.   Lord Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy with the task getting Britain out of India with minimum damage to our reputation.  The partition of peoples according to their religion saw the creation of East (Muslim) and West (Hindu) Pakistan.  Over ten million people were uprooted and moved on foot, by cart and by train, The partition was a humanitarian disaster. 

The Gandhi movement marked the beginning of increasing calls for independence over all overseas territories.  The departure of Hong Kong in 1997 was described by HRH Prince Charles as “the end of Empire”.

The legacy of Empire in Britain abounds in buildings, statues, and street names.  Gandhi once vilified is now honoured with a statue  near  the Houses of Parliament.  Many monuments to “heroes” of colonialism have been vandalised  even pulled down, but they were part of our history and so are part of the Empire's multi-facetted legacy, their stories are important.  

Elaine Jones