This CDP investigates and maps the impact of empire on the origins and development of the Gallery and the national art collection, focussing on the first century of donors, trustees and patrons since its foundation in 1824.
While Britain’s traditional rivalry with continental Europe, not least France, is well documented, what has more recently been recognised is the constitutive role of empire in the development of modern Britain.
Empire was fundamental to the “British sense of themselves, as a nation and as a people … [it] did not just happen ‘over there’ … It happened in the minds and practices of people … in what they wrote, read and imagined; in what they ate and drank; in the clothes they wore; in the commodities they bought and sold … [and in] the places they inhabited” (Driver and Gilbert, ‘Capital and Empire: Geographies of Imperial London’, 24).
Crucially, empire played an important but under-examined role in the emergence of public art galleries. Most obviously, imperial profits—from slave-holding, mining, and the management of Britain’s global empire, which during the nineteenth century extended across most of India and large parts of Africa, Australia, etc. —contributed to the accumulation of vast individual fortunes, some of which was invested in art collections, objects which then entered the public domain as gifts or bequests.
This CDP aims to acknowledge, deepen, and share our understanding of the Gallery as a product of patriotic cultural philanthropy in the context of Britain’s imperial interests during what has been dubbed as the ‘century of Empire’.
While the project acknowledges that the Gallery’s collection was restricted to the acquisition and display of Western European art, it aims to shed light in a systematic and consequential way on the fact that the Gallery’s history has its own particular connections to the British Empire, and that its collections have been shaped by colonialism in ways which are not yet known or understood.