Queen Victoria commissioned the intimate portrait of the Indian artisan Bakshiram now seen in Artist & Empire, a major exhibition at Tate Britain that opened this week. The elderly potter returns the artist’s gaze with a weary stoicism from beneath an orange turban. He had lunched with the Queen at Windsor after demonstrating his craft at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886.

Yet, as with many works in this ambitious, extensive show, time has altered its meaning. Bakshiram and other artisans were in fact on a supervised visit from the colonial jail in Agra where they learnt their skills. At a time when colonial subjects were liable to be portrayed as ethnographic or criminal types, Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda invested him with a striking personal dignity.

Subtitled Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, this is billed as the first large-scale show of art made in response to the British empire since the great imperial exhibitions of the early 20th century. As successive colonies won independence after the late 1940s, many of these works were consigned to basements or military museums as sources of shame, anger, nostalgia or melancholy. Paul Gilroy writes in the catalogue foreword on Britain’s lingering ambivalence towards empire that its imperial past was “long a matter of national pride and a source of prestige as well as a litany of exploitation, famine, cruelty and slaughter”. As a measure of this contentiousness, the show’s announcement last summer triggered, in parts of the British press, a reflex defence of empire.

Some 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures and artefacts span more than 400 years, from the 16th century to the present. British artists are joined by ones from former colonies, with fresh attention to women and amateurs. Loans outnumber the Tate’s 25 works but all are drawn from the UK. As the lead curator, Alison Smith, says: “Imperial collecting formed the bedrock of our collections.”

Sir Henry Tate’s gallery was itself founded in the 1890s on a fortune made in refining plantation sugar. It is now among national institutions rethinking their collections — some would say belatedly — in the light of challenges posed by decades of art and scholarship, much of it driven by intellectuals from former colonies. Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall and Gilroy are among those whose thought implicitly underpins this show.

Arranged by art-historical genres, the display moves from maps and “curiosities”, history painting, portraiture and costume to empire’s impact on the development of modern art. Rather than illustrating a historical narrative, Smith says, “we lead with the picture”. The initial “Mapping” section ranges from a 16th-century watercolour of Enniskillen Castle in England’s “first colony”, Ireland, to iconic oils of high-imperial adventurism. One painting has Sir Francis Drake leaning proprietorially on a globe, flanked by fellow Elizabethan privateers Thomas Cavendish and Sir John Hawkins, a pioneer of Britain’s transatlantic slave trade.

In John Millais’ “The North-West Passage” (1874) a grizzled mariner resolves to beat foreign rivals to an Arctic trade route to Asia, as his daughter, delicate in pink and white, reads at his feet. Copiously reproduced in its day — and deployed to lobby for expedition funds — Millais’ defining image imbued the burden of empire with the heartfelt imperative of familial duty. One of Tate’s earliest bequests, the painting fell from view until it was cleaned for this show.

“Trophies of Empire” charts the channels by which colonial objects found their way to Britain, from gifts to plunder. Reclassified, they formed the nucleus of today’s museums, collecting being a strong theme throughout. George Stubbs’s “A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants” (c1764) dominates, along with a portrait of the 18th-century naturalist Sir Joseph Banks flaunting Maori regalia. There is palatial loot from Benin and Mysore but also nature studies by miniature painters such as Shaikh Zain ud-Din employed by East India Company and other patrons.

History paintings that posed as documentary to rally the British populace behind imperial adventures are grouped in “Imperial Heroics”. A fashion for depicting the orderly exchange of land through treaties gives way to heroic last stands that made martyrs of the defeated, from George William Joy’s “The Death of General Gordon, Khartoum” (1893) to Allan Stewart’s “To the Memory of Brave Men” (1897) on the first Matabele war. The vengeful backlash triggered by the Indian rebellion of 1857 is exemplified by Edward Armitage’s “Retribution” (1858), in which Britannia slays a tiger that has ravaged a pale woman and child.

Yet while many artists were complicit in imperial policy, some were more questioning. Elizabeth Butler’s oil painting “The Remnants of an Army” (1879) portrays an injured cavalryman fleeing battle. Once seen as a lament for a heroic defeat in the second Afghan war, fresh research favours reading the painting as an indictment of a foolish campaign.

The diligent visitor will learn an immense amount from this history of empire in 200 art objects. Yet are the grand imperialist paintings matched by visuals of equal power? Marvellous centrepieces range from Asafo flag collages by Fante artists and Yoruba sculptures of British royals — whether homage or caricature — to Thomas Ona Odulate’s touching wooden sculptures of Europeans from the 1920s and 1930s. Andrew Gilbert’s installation “British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem” (2015) satirically inverts the ethnographic tableaux in military museums, complete with teacups, regimental fetishes and sawdust. Yet such irony, and the captions’ subtleties, risk being overshadowed by what was, after all, powerful visual propaganda.

What does emerge strongly, particularly through mutual portraiture and the growth of modernisms, is the two-way traffic of empire, and the cultural hybridity it fostered, from dress to styles of art. Despite Gilroy’s contention that “the inability to come to terms with these disputed legacies . . . has contributed to a deep and abiding ignorance”, a basic knowledge of the economic workings of empire is assumed. There is little sign of the commodities at its heart, the tea, sugar and tobacco that became part of British identity, nor of enslaved Africans — other than Nicholas Pocock’s ink drawing of captives at gunpoint and William Blake’s manacled peon awaiting liberation by the Royal Navy at the feet of a divine Nelson. An unfortunate absence is JMW Turner’s “The Slave Ship” (1840), depicting slavers on the Zong jettisoning sick captives like ballast to claim the insurance. That masterpiece is in US hands.

Given such visual lacunae, the sinister brutality of Donald Locke’s “Trophies of Empire” (1972-74) comes as a salutary shock. Its phallic, bullet-like ceramics, some linked by leg irons (the shapes also allude to sugar cones), are arranged as in a museum cabinet. An inspiration for a generation of British artists in the 1980s, Locke’s installation was acquired by the Tate only this year. The Aboriginal artist Judy Watson’s etching “Our bones in your collections” (1995) is another powerful response to ethnography.

These last rooms are a reminder of a legacy of dispute, not only over the restitution of art and human remains but the redefinition of British art. The belated acquisition of artists such as Aubrey Williams (1926-1990), who moved to England from British Guiana in 1952 yet, until recently, was not seen as British enough for the Tate, tells its own story.

‘Artist & Empire’, Tate Britain, London, until April 10. tate.org.uk

Slideshow photographs: Leeds Museums and Galleries; Cotton Pebble London Collection; Royal Collection Trust; National Museums Liverpool; Manchester Art Gallery; The British Museum, London; British Library; Tate

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