This exhibition highlights how solid economic bonds can be extinguished, almost overnight in a hail of political wrangling and arguing. It is prescient, although perhaps without meaning to be. Indeed, just as it is impossible to tell the story of Britain after 1945 without reference to Europe, so to is it impossible to tell the story of 18th-century Britain without reference to the Atlantic. Both ideas blemish the island's sense of self; that isolated image of a lion able to thrash out its own destiny, regardless of the rest of the world. The historical (and one suspects, current) reality is far messier, mixing hard-headed economics and political philosophy. This exhibition does an excellent job of juxtaposing the two themes, highlighting the trade in stock and slaves as well as art and ideas between America in Britain during the eighteenth century. It is a brief but well curated (and free) tour through liberty, slavery and revolution.
Despite the apparent disconnect between the often ridiculous heights of philosophical rhetoric and classical allusion and the grim economic undercurrent of slavery, we are nevertheless absorbed into the world in which the two fit together. On canvas at least. The themes often have to be worked at by the viewer: apparently classical scenes can, in fact, be veiled political messages; simple portraits of well dressed gentlemen mask fortunes founded on human misery. The exhibition also has an interesting depth when we consider the artists. Men like Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, who had lofty notions when it came to the task of painting and aspired to poet or philosopher status, were nevertheless able to cash in on money earned from the grubby business of slave plantations. Both men seem to have been able to wear the mask of classical liberty one moment and cynical socialite the next.
It is often not very pleasant to dwell on a past in which the slave trade played a central role in the prosperity of cities like Bristol, London, Glasgow and Liverpool. We are much more comfortable admiring the wardrobes or scenery of the period, without stopping to delve into the souls of the sitters and artists. The painter Joseph Wright, for example, was commissioned to paint one of Liverpool's most prominent traders, Thomas Staniforth of Darnall in 1769. The year the portrait was painted Staniforth had invested in four ships which had sailed to Africa, transporting as many as 1,000 men, women and children to the slave plantations in the West Indies. But the painting is not a tortured or uneasy one; it is of a businessman short on time with a quick intellect, keen to get on with business as usual. There is no guilt or morality here; it is the (familiar) amoral story of a very rich person making money.
This was a period of tremendous flux, both economic and intellectual. Often the intellectual and moral resolutions to economic certainties had not been properly worked out, failing to keep up with an ever accelerating world of trade and finance. Consider one of the most important writers on morality of the age, David Hume, who started his working-life as a trader in Bristol. The young Scot looked forward to 'tossing about the world from pole to pole' on a merchant ship, yet seemed unmoved about participating in a vast network of trading hubs propped up by slave labour. Even more jarring are the semi-deified figures of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who seem to embody liberty, then as now, and yet rose to prominence on the back of slave labour. Men like Jefferson were able to sustain a high philosophical tone which helped establish the nascent Republic in America, while continuing to reap rewards from Atlantic slavery.
Initially, these political views were subtle and nuanced, as in West's grand painting Cleombrotus ordered into banishment by Leonidas II, King of Sparta from 1768. What was once veiled classical reference at imperial discord soon became explicit, however, in images like James Barry's Phoenix and the Resurrection of Freedom from 1776. In this allegory Father Time sprinkles flowers on the ruins of once proud bastions of political liberty: Athens, Rome and Florence. Liberty crumbles in Britain while across the water the dawn of a new freedom takes root on American soil.
By the conclusion of the War of Independence in 1783, Britain renounced its claim to the Colonies. In the same year a portrait of William Woollett was presented to the public. The prominent engraver is seen copying West's famous Death of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe had been a great martyr of the empire; a sacrifice Britain had swallowed in return for the riches of empire. It was a glorious death, celebrated in an image of imperial harmony and brotherhood. Yet what was once glorious image must have tasted especially bitter the year as the Colonies broke away.
Indeed, as David Hume - who never did make it as a Bristol trader - prophetically noted of the age: 'the face of the earth is continually changing, by the encrease of small kingdoms into great empires, by the dissolution of great empires into smaller kingdoms, by the planting of colonies, by the migration of tribes'. An interesting insight into the relationship between money and high ideals during the period, this exhibition highlights the continual flux of the Atlantic World, in an age we more readily associated with stability and certainty.
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