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Art review: Entangled Pasts, 1768-Now: Art, Colonialism and Change at the Royal Academy

22 March 2024

Susan Gray reviews the exhibition that explores art and colonialism

Photograph © 2023 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

John Singleton Copley RA, Watson and the Shark (1778), on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston. More images below and in the gallery

John Singleton Copley RA, Watson and the Shark (1778), on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston. More images below and in the gallery

THE influence of “Entangled Pasts” will extend way past its closing date. Charting the influence of colonialism, and resistance to colonialism, on art in the centuries between the Royal Academy’s founding in 1768 and now, the exhibition is destined to be an era-defining show. It is also exhaustingly huge or excellent value, depending on your viewpoint.

The curator, Dorothy Price, says that the vastness of the subject is challenging. The Royal Academy was founded in the heyday of the transatlantic slave trade, but also during the emergence of abolitionist and colonial independence movements. A training ground for artists who went out to the empire and painted members of the East India Company, the Academy was woven into the imperial project. Ms Price continues that the show’s curatorial principles were to “foreground back and brown subjectivities”, and to neither replicate the traumas of the past nor whitewash them.

These tensions are addressed by the dialogue between contemporary Royal Academicians, including Hew Locke, Yinka Shonibare, and Lubaina Himid, and Academicians from previous centuries. Issues of empire, indenture, and slavery collide, but the focus is always on art. The presence, subjectivity, and agency of black and brown people is central. The RA enrolled its first student of colour in 1820; so the show’s attempts to address elisions in the archive and give context to nameless black portrait subjects are the beginning of a conversation on making the previously invisible visible, not the last word.

British imperialism became the underpinning of contemporary art in the mid-18th century. Portraiture became radical and political, as issues of race and enslavement were addressed in grand-manner portraits. Locke’s Armada (2017-19), filling the centre of a neoclassical gallery lined with periwigged portraits and history paintings, underlines how migration and the sea shaped Britain. Gazing through Locke’s intricate rigging to historical works offers a new mode of looking at past and present’s collision. Locke’s fleet of miniature boats, constructed from wood, textiles, metal, string, plastic, rubber, paper, and paint, includes vessels from different time periods and locations, such as the Mayflower (1620) and HMT Empire Windrush (1948), and boats modelled on those of the East India Company.

© Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Sprüth MagersKara Walker Hon. RA, no world, from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010), British Museum, London    

One of the most striking paintings in the room is John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778) — all the more shocking because Boston-born Copley is the only Academician known to have owned enslaved people. Based on an event in Havana harbour in 1749, the scene depicts the rescue of young merchant seaman Brook Wats from a shark attack. The pink-fleshed, flailing seaman and contrasting grey, cavern-mouthed shark occupy the lower quarter of the plane. Above, a triangular composition of nine sailors, including a central, standing black sailor holding a rope, stage a rescue, surrounded by a foaming, grey-green sea.

Copley’s adoption of the conventions of history painting for the contemporary political subject of the press-ganging of Caribbean and Atlantic seamen into the British navy caused a sensation. History painting — the depiction of scenes from the Bible, mythology, or history — was ranked first in the hierarchy of artistic genres promoted by the RA in the late 18th century.

Copley’s large -scale compositions on real-life events, addressing empire and race, were well received by a British audience, and, in 1775, Copley settled in London.

As the abolition movement gathered pace, the question of “freedom” was debated in the context of religious choice, equal rights, and self-governance. The neo-classical sculptor Thomas Banks’s political radicalism and proclamations of support for oppressed peoples were at odds with the commissions that he undertook for the East India Company. An etching of Banks’s Monument to Sir Eyre Coote (1790), which still stands in Westminster Abbey, shows the sculpture of a nude man in forlorn pose, on the lower left of the monument. Banks exhibited the sculpture separately at the RA’s 1789 Annual Exhibition as Statue of a Mahratta Captive. The figure can be read as symbolic of the subjugation of Indian people, or as a denunciation of British imperialism. Scholarship on the C of E’s part in both the trading of enslaved people and abolition continues.

Photo © Hickey-Robertson, HoustonSir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber (c.1770), on loan from the Menil Collection, Houston  

In a room filled with 18th-century landscapes of empire territories, some acting as backdrops to group portraits of settler families, Shonibare’s Woman Moving Up (2023), will resonate with everyone whose mother or grandmother emigrated to secure a better future for her descendants. A mannequin in bright Dutch printed fabric, a globe where the head should be, vigorously ascends a staircase, carrying a Gladstone bag, and taking a step into new possibilities.

Landscape was a lesser genre in the hierarchy of painting types, but its combination of the foreign and familiar was popular with audiences, and crucial for travelling artists. Johann Zoffany’s The Family of Sir William Young (1767-69) shows a colonial governor and owner of sugar plantations. The portrait of seven adults, including a black attendant for the children on horseback, and three children, demonstrates the family’s wealth and status through an expansive semi-wooded landscape, and architecturally imposing steps. Reaffirming notions of British civility, but at the same time creating a conceptual distance between Britain and the sources of new wealth transforming it, the work contains no hint of the violence of plantations and enslavement.

Ellen Gallagher’s Stabilising Spheres (2014) connects the final displays of “Entangled Pasts” to its beginning. This oil, ink, and graphite work references an imaginary underwater realm at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, inhabited by the pregnant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships during the Middle Passage. Gallagher’s free-floating dark shapes, some with fronds, represent the new generation of children able to live and breath underwater. It brings to mind Francis Harwood’s Bust of a Man (c.1758), whose nameless black sitter is now elevated in the octagonal entrance gallery, together with eight busts installed by the RA in 1869; and the clergyman’s nephew Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Ignatius Sancho (1768), who was born aboard a slave ship, lived in England from the 1730s, and went on to be the friend of many artists.

The clergyman’s son Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber (c.1770), depicts a sitter who may have been named Quashey at birth on a Jamaican plantation, and went on to be the friend and heir of Reynolds’s friend Samuel Johnson.


“Entangled Pasts, 1768-Now: Art, Colonialism and Change” runs at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Picadilly, London W1, until 28 April.


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