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Imperial Portraits

Portraits of historical figures are the most accessible, used, and, perhaps, mis-used visual source for historians of Empire, but many scholars are reassessing portrait imagery in this context. It is increasingly appreciated that likenesses that illustrate our popular and academic historical accounts are not mere avatars of individuals in the text, but, like the other artefacts in this chapter, texts themselves.

Even the apparently objective medium of portrait photography weaves complex narratives. The Scotsman, John Buchan enjoyed a colonial career in South Africa and elsewhere, finishing up Governor General of Canada, and was hugely successful as a writer of adventure novels which reflect the racist stereotypes of the time. His two personae, adventurer and administrator, blend in a famous image in his biography,/. B., 1937, Eagle Face, as a Chief of the Blood Indians, published just after his death in 1940 (Buchan 1940,268) (see Figure 3.10). The photograph


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Figure 3.9 Benedict Enwonwu, M.B.E. (1917-1994), Seven wooden sculptures commissioned by the Daily Mirror, 1960, wood, 7,000 x 2,270, Access Bank.

Source: © The Ben Enwonwu Foundation.


Figure 3.10 Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002),/. B., 1937, Eagle Face, as a Chief of the Blood Indians, 1937, John Buchan, Memory hold-the-door, Hodder and Stoughton, 1940.

was taken by the Hungarian émigré to Canada Yousuf Karsh, shortly after Buchan became Governor and is a familiar heroization of a colonial leader/explorer, continuing a long tradition of men and women wearing clothes of another culture as a sign of adventure or diplomatic power. However, to dismiss it as such is to dismiss historical evidence of a second political leader and culture, the commissioner of the bonnet, Shot-on-Both-Sides, Chief of the Kainaiwa, part of the Niitsitapi nation (Jacobi 2015,148-149). In the early twentieth century, Canadian assimilation policies had confined the Niitsitapi to ‘reservations’ in southern Alberta, regulated by an ‘Indian Agent’, and sent many children away to a residential school system to learn the so-called ‘Canadian culture’. Shot-on-Both-Sides resisted this suppression of heritage while promoting commerce and cooperation with settler communities. An admirer of Buchan’s writing, he offered him an honorary Chieftainship at which the governor received the bonnet and the name Chief Eagle Head (Dempsey 1997, 34-39). An earlier history is also inscribed in the contemporary bonnet, its status derived in part from its advertisement of the reach of Niitsitapi trading traditions represented by Venetian glass beads, English red wool, as well as the 31 eagle plumes. The award boosted both men’s reputations and the photograph, taken the following year, coincided with a series of speeches by Buchan proposing a proto-multiculturalism for Canada which embraced, to some degree, deference for first nation communities (Smith 1965, 423).

Twenty-first-century scholars, artists, and communities are particularly re-viewing the imperial portrait sculpture that populates towns and cities throughout the world. No figure seems more representative of the Imperial hero than Major General Charles Gordon, a British army officer who played a high-profile role in Imperial wars and aggressions in Crimea, China, and Africa and was killed in action in the Siege of Khartoum in 1885. He was represented in countless works of art and illustration but it is important to distinguish their contexts (Sèbe 2013). Berny Sèbeand and Ruth Brimacombe have shown that Gordon’s likeness was, and continues to be, a vehicle for a shifting array of Imperial concerns. Two similar full-length bronze statues, General Charles Gordon Memorial, were designed by W. Hamo Thornicroft, for Trafalgar Square, London (erected 1888), and Spring Street, Melbourne, capital of the state of Victoria in Australia (erected 1889) (see Figure 3.11). Brimacombe argues that narratives around Gordon’s Australian portrait were distinct from the London version. In the Melbourne context, the commission expressed the state’s anticipation of Federation that took place in 1901. Gordon stood for a military solidarity with Britain which would ensure Australia’s security as well as a set of white, British values which, it was felt, would underpin the new country and its presence on the world stage (Brimacombe 2009, 14-15).

Cooper & Co, Photograph of William Hamo Thornycroft RA (1850-1925), General Gordon Memorial Statue, 1889, newly erected cl890, Gordon Reserve, Spring Street, Melbourne

Figure 3.11 Cooper & Co, Photograph of William Hamo Thornycroft RA (1850-1925), General Gordon Memorial Statue, 1889, newly erected cl890, Gordon Reserve, Spring Street, Melbourne.

Hew Locke (born 1959), Restoration Series, Edward Colston

Figure 3.12 Hew Locke (born 1959), Restoration Series, Edward Colston. Commissioned by Spike Island. C-type photograph mounted on ahiminium, with metal, plastic, fabric, mixed media, 182 x 121 x 15 cm, 2006, private collection.

36 Carol Jacobi

Source: City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection.

Source: © Hew Locke. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020.

Commemorative and memorial statues and portraits continue to shift meanings in modern times. John Cassidy’s bronze sculpture of the seventeenth-century slave trading merchant and MP Edward Colston (1895) was one of several monuments of local figures erected in the city of Bristol in the 1890s. At a turning point in Empire and the city’s civic identity based on trade and commerce, Cassidy used the contemplative pose similar to Thorneycroft’s General Gordon, which became standard in this period. The inscription commemorated Colston as a benefactor of schools, hospitals, alms houses, and other charities in the city which bore his name. Only the dolphins on the plinth obliquely allude to the hidden history of the inhuman source of the wealth, his post as Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, and planning and financing of slaving voyages. In 2016, the artist Hew Locke asked the public to look again at monuments of this kind. His series Restoration displayed large photographs of Edward Colston and three other Bristol statues decked with fake gold chains, coins, shells, and beads (see Figure 3.12). The glittering additions suggest the riches the merchant and the port gained from trade in African people as well as gold, silver, ivory, spices, and the shells and beads that were used for currency. Golden letters pulled from greetings cards, such as ‘Congratulations’, ironically undermine the heroizing inscriptions on the plinths of the statues. Plans to alter the Edward Colston plaque were debated and in the context of the global Black Lives Matter demonstrations originating in United States in May 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, the statue was toppled and thrown in the harbour, and is now in a Bristol museum.

Restoration is only one of many conversations about how we can re-view imperial statues and portraits in the twenty-first century and reject harmful commemorative roles. In October 2019, the American artist Kara Walker answered Thomas Brock’s Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace (1906-1924) with a 13-m high fountain in Tate Modern called Fons Americanus (Behold the Sworling Drama of the Merciless Seas, Routes and Rivers, upon which our dark fortunes were traded). The maritime dolphin motifs seen on the Victoria Memorial, Edward Colston, and countless other imperial monuments are referenced by sharks derived from the terrible scene of drowning Africans in J.M.W. Turner’s painting Slave Ship (1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Damien Hirst’s shark installation The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991, private collection).

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