10 May, 2010Issue 12.2Politics & SocietyVisual Arts

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The Arts of Empire

Deborah Rosario

foerHolger Hoock
Empires of the Imagination:f Politics, War, and the Arts in the British World, 1750–1850
Profile Books, 2010
544 Pages
£30.00
ISBN 978-1861978592

In a violent evening assault in 1776, an equestrian statue of George III built of lead and gold leaf was knocked down by a crowd of soon-to-be American soldiers and commoners who took exception to His Majesty’s rule. The severed and mutilitated head was carried off with processional festivities, while the remaining lead from the statue was reportedly melted into 42,088 bullets. As one bemused writer commented, George III’s “troops will probably have melted majesty fired at them”. To the modern reader, this story might well call to mind the equally savage treatment of Saddam Hussein’s likeness in Baghdad.

Holger Hoock’s Empires of the Imagination is a veritable treasure trove of such stories, which put recent events into perspective and reveal the equal amounts of passion and absurdity ideologically invested in art. Hoock’s latest comes at a propitious moment in history when an introspective mood prevails across the globe. While questioning the ethics of recent war, countries are also attempting to salvage and restore the antiquities of battle-scarred countries and to encourage an artistic witness to war. Hoock’s book charts similar developments in an 18th- and 19th-century Britain driven by military and colonial enterprise.

Following memorialised heroes, painters, diplomats, and art collectors, Hoock expounds an original understanding of Britain between 1750 and 1850 as the crucible in which the country emerged into artistically informed maturity. Most histories of the period see little state involvement in the promotion of art when compared to countries like France. Hoock’s originality lies in recognizing precisely the opposite—galvanised by war and empire, the state was in fact vitally involved in shaping the artistic character of the nation. By studying the “interplay between aesthetically performed politics and politically inflected art” through acts of artistic commemoration, creation, and collection, Hoock frames the state, war, and empire “as powerful agents and sites of cultural change”.

In the first half of his book, Hoock analyses heroic memorialisation in the sculptural and artistic responses to the American and French wars. The strength of his analysis lies in revealing the contingency and pragmatism from which heroic art materialises. Though purported to embody patriotic ideals, heroic monumentalisation is often the result of the vying power-plays and agendas of a moment in time. For instance, the British parliament’s only commission for a military monument during the American Revolutionary War, the one erected to Admiral Rodney, is found on close study to emerge from an attempt to salvage the political reputation of the House of Commons amidst a furore of criticism and embarrassment. Navigating politics and the market, American artists too displayed a canny pragmatism in the ambiguity or candour with which they displayed their loyalties on canvas.

Hoock’s analysis is of an astonishing breadth and this is never more in evidence than when he charts the shifts in the character of British heroism from the 18th to the 19th century. He writes of the reconciliation of neoclassical allegory with naturalism and reportage; examines the differencing of Scotsmen in depictions of battle; demonstrates how educational discipline and the hot debate over corporal punishment fed harder codes of masculinity; surveys the responses of churches and preachers to earthly heroism and military glory; and integrates the revival of chivalry with that of Gothic architecture and medieval romances. Like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, the various pieces of literary, social, educational, and religious history lock into place. Through this intricate assemblage, Hoock illuminates not just the subject of political art but how parallel cultural movements mutually shape each other.

The section on collecting takes us to the East and to stories about such icons as the Elgin marbles and the Taj Mahal. Here Hoock’s argument hinges on recognizing the varying levels of state involvement entirely apart from a consistent official policy. The state’s artistic investment emerges through a complex web of relationships between the government, diplomats who had antiquarian interests, other diplomats who used antiques as bargaining chips, and local antiquarians and translators.

It is in this section that we begin to see the contours of modern collecting emerge from the informal mess of public-private partnerships. Men like Alexander Cunningham began to argue for a responsibility concerning Indian antiques for no other good than the “honour of the British government”. We also witness the subsequent emergence of government policy concerning the preservation of antiques and the gradual standardization of archaeological practice. It is the peculiar conditions of colonial India that catalyze the emergence of the in situ ideal of preservation. The following period of the 1830s to 1840s saw the state’s effusive investment in the arts. This period, by Hoock’s demonstration, became the natural summit of several decades of state interest in the arts inspired by war and empire.

For a book that frequently discusses art’s accessibility to the public, Hoock’s narrative architecture renders his book pleasurable to the academic and the amateur historian alike. It proves equally entertaining and encyclopaedic by virtue of good story-telling. Opening with his dramatically coloured account of the coronation of George III, Hoock whisks us through groups perched on scaffolding to get a good view of the procession, street-viewers munching meat pies and drinking wine, and the nobility listening to the bishop’s sonorous tones at Westminster Abbey. The stories continue to roll with engrossing momentum. That said, the laboured conclusions to each section might pall on the non-academic reader.

But Empires does not just set out to regale the reader with its anecdotes. Hoock’s relish of a good story is integral to his methodology, for the book is itself a carefully constructed edifice of many inter-linked narratives. It is from attentively following the turns of each that Hoock teases out his precise and original conclusions. By his deft discernment of pattern in detail, he proves himself master of his subject in this empire of political and artistic tales.

Deborah Rosario is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.