At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and the most influential global power. Originating with a few overseas possessions and trading posts, it grew to encompass dominions, colonies and protectorates ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. In 1922 the Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s total land area; by the end of the century it had diminished to just a few overseas territories. During this contraction, ‘Empire’ became a highly provocative term. Its history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful, to address but its legacy is everywhere: not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics. 

Artist and Empire looks at the British Empire through the prism of art and explores some of the ways in which Empire has shaped practices and themes in British art from the early colonial period to the present day. Focusing on works in British collections by a diverse range of artists from across the world, the exhibition illustrates the complicated histories embodied by objects, inviting us to consider how their status and meaning change over time. In reflecting imperial narratives and postcolonial re-evaluations, it foregrounds the peoples, dramas and tragedies of Empire and their resonance in art today.

Large print room guide texts