The word ‘empire’ evokes different reactions from different people, especially among those from the erstwhile colonies. So when I first heard of the ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Singapore, I had mixed feelings about the concept. However, the exhibition focusses solely on the art that originated from Britain and its colonies (16th century to date), and I’m too much of an art lover to miss the masterpieces that came in via this association with the Tate Britain, London.
My political opinions aside, here are some of my favourites from the exhibition. As you can well imagine, there is some sort of personal link, either to the artist or the subject.
Paintings by Victorian botanical artist, Marianne North
I first heard of Marianne North during my time in the Seychelles this year.
A trailblazer in her own right, Marianne defied societal norms prevalent in the late 1800s for women, and travelled (mostly alone) to 17 countries in six continents, including the Seychelles, India and Singapore.
A self-taught artist, she painted 848 pieces of flora and fauna between 1871 and 1885; of which 833 are on permanent exhibit at the Marianne North Gallery in Kew Gardens, England. Among the 46/47 paintings Marianne painted in the Seychelles, there are several versions of the fabled Coco de Mer.
Five of her paintings from Asia are currently on display at this exhibition.
‘Remnants of an Army’ by Lady Butler (maiden name Elizabeth Thompson)
A few years ago, while reading about the Afghan Church in Mumbai, I chanced upon this poignant painting.
This artwork depicts Dr. William Brydon, assistant surgeon in the Bengal Army, arriving at the gates of Jalalabad (in modern day Afghanistan) on a dying horse, in January 1842. At the time, Brydon was believed to be the lone survivor of the First Anglo-Afghan War, which saw the massacre of thousands of British soldiers and the subsequent British retreat from Kabul.
Painted in 1879, in the midst of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, this artwork is believed to depict Lady Butler’s feelings about the futility of the war in Afghanistan.
About the Afghan Church in Mumbai: Consecrated in 1858, this church was built by the British to commemorate the deceased from the First Anglo-Afghan War, most of whom came from the East India Company’s Bombay Army. This Anglican Church is one of the most beautiful and serene churches in the city.
‘General Gordon’s Last Stand’ by George William Joy (1893)
Another Seychelles connection! Even today, the Vallee de Mai on Praslin island in the Seychelles, is rumoured to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden and this myth originates from General Gordon’s remarks during his visit to the valley in 1881.
This painting depicts General Gordon as the quintessential hero, defending the city of Khartoum against its invaders. In reality, this would have been the scene, moments before his death and subsequent beheading.
‘The Jester’ by Sir Gerald Kelly (1911)
A portrait of British playwright, novelist and short story writer, Somerset Maugham, the title of the painting refers to the writer’s famous wit. Maugham is not forgotten here in Singapore, thanks to a suite named after him at the legendary Raffles Hotel.
Maugham made three visits to Singapore between 1921 and 1925 and gathered material for his short stories collection, ‘The Casurina Tree’, set in 1920s Malaya. A regular guest of the Raffles Hotel, the suite named after him at the hotel, is the one in which he stayed during his last visit in 1960.
Among the 211 exhibits on display, there are also a significant number of artworks from the former colonies, from South Asia to the Oceania region.
So if you are visiting Singapore before 26th March 2017, I highly recommend a dekko*
from the Hindi word ‘dekho’ meaning to look 😉