Room Five

Face to Face 

Making and managing Empire involved vast movements of people. Their encounters could only be recorded selectively. To the British some cultures, such as India, were more respected or accessible than others. However, many individual portraits were made, by itinerant and, later on, indigenous artists as they reciprocated the Western gaze. They played a part in the way colonist and colonised understood and treated each other, and extended portraiture beyond the European convention of highstatus, commissioned likeness.

Travelling artists included established painters like Johan Zoffany, who visited India, or William Hodges and William Westall who documented ‘discovery voyages’ to Oceania. Amateurs like John Linton Palmer and Olivia Tonge took up art as a visual diary. Subjects ranged from community leaders to more intimate domestic groups, or individuals who were also treated as supposedly objective ethnographic case studies, exemplifying the character and customs of another race. 

Sometimes, British observers romanticised people they saw, or found them mysterious or troubling. Some encounters were forced, and portraits in this room include figures kidnapped or taken as hostages. Elsewhere, social interaction is seen in depictions of entertainments, hospitality or professional collaboration, or in the hybrid style in which subjects were represented by artists across cultural divides.

Watch the short films about this room

In this short film below, historian Zareer Masani discusses the conversation piece Johan Zoffany’s, Colonel Mordaunt’s cock match, 1784–6. He explains the importance of this painting due to its depiction of informal and relaxed cultural mixing between Indians and Europeans, which was unusual for its time.

In this film Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty discusses Simon van de Passe’s portrait of Pocahontas and how this work illustrates the cost of British Empire, including the welfare of women from other cultures.

This to me, is an image of misery. Not a great imperial celebration at all.
Shami Chakrabarti