The history of British art has often been told as an ‘island story’, as if the visual arts were directly shaped by the immediate social and physical environment. The modesty and naturalism of British art has been explained with reference to a mythic ‘national character’. However, all the paintings displayed here illuminate a different history – that of the ‘Atlantic world’ which connected Africa, Europe and the Americas.
British investments and colonial settlement in North America and the West Indies expanded enormously in the eighteenth century. Military successes during the Seven Years War (1756–63) resulted in Britain becoming the dominant European force in the American colonies. Even after the declaration of political independence by the North Americans in 1776, Britain remained tied to an Atlantic economy. The circulation around the Atlantic of money, goods, ideas and people (not least in the form of enslaved Africans) underpinned economic and cultural development well into the nineteenth century.
Britain’s imperial and economic relationships were rarely addressed directly by artists in the period. But underlying these apparently unrelated works are stories which reveal how even the most parochial-looking of British paintings may be connected to a larger history of trade, war and imperial exploitation.
This display has been devised by curator Martin Myrone.