Simon Schama at the Whitechapel Gallery

“Cultural exchange,” said Penny Johnson, the hospitably learned director of the Government Art Collection, as I stared excitedly at the treasures on the sliding racks, “that’s what we thought might make a good theme for your show.”

“Ah yes, of course,” I pretended, thinking it sounded a bit forbidding. My instincts, getting hungrier, greedier, by the minute as I checked out the abundance, were more like grab, gorge and glut, which, come to think of it, wouldn’t have been such a terrible theme. The mission was to bring a sampling of work from the GAC, mainly on display in consulates, cabinet offices, civil service antechambers and embassy staircases, to the public. The collection exists to promote British art. Time to promote it with the British! Beholder democracy! What else did we need to justify the pick?

There is, if I’m honest, a large quotient of Stuff-That-I-Fancy about my selection, making provoking hook-ups of artists I like to spend time with – David Bomberg’s Jerusalem interior with Howard Hodgkin’s “Mud on the Nile”, both in the neighbourhood of Ori Gersht’s bleached-out Judaean desert; or Richard Long’s Dartmoor memory-tramp in the vicinity of Mark Edwards’ fenny-flat East Anglian allotment and shed-strewn panorama; Thomas Phillips’ Albanian-kitted Byron lording it beside Vanessa Bell’s mosaic Theodora; Grayson Perry’s map of his brain across the gallery from Mona Hatoum’s formidably polemical brain remapping the projection of the world.

But then I saw that something along the lines of Johnson’s kindly suggestion would, indeed, make a show more interesting. For there is something going on in the bulging storehouse of British artistic creativity and that something is its restiveness. The traffic has always been heavy and multi- directional. “British” art has long owed much to imported talent. The Plantagenet decorator-king Henry III brought in Sicilian craftsmen to make the ostensibly ur-English shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. Who, after all, have celebrated or memorialised English, and then British, monarchs? Why, the un-homegrown likes of Pietro Torrigiano (for the tomb of Henry VII); Hans Holbein, Marcus Gheeraerts, Anthony van Dyck, Johan Zoffany, Franz Xaver Winterhalter and Pietro Annigoni.

Equally, the list of British artists going abroad in search of warmer light crowds the island pantheon: from the great Welsh painter Thomas Jones to John Robert Cozens; JMW Turner and John Martin; from William Holman Hunt in the wilderness of Edom to Edward Lear in Ceylon; the Bloomsburies in Italy, and David Hockney by the side of the chlorinated pools of splashy bliss in Los Angeles.

Rachel Lowe’s video ‘Letter to an Unknown Person 3’ (1998

But there’s conceptual travel too. Something in our imaginative wiring is unrepentantly insular one minute and deliriously post-colonial multiculti the next: fish and chips for lunch; chicken tikka masala (that purely British invention) for supper. This two-way trippery is shown by artists who embody the migrations in their lifelines: the half-Japanese Peter McDonald, who has pretty much reinvented the conversation piece with its licence to eavesdrop on the human comedy; Barcelona-born Marta Marcé, whose serpentine ribbons writhe, wriggle and roll in the high colours of the cultural fidget; the Anglo-Israeli Ori Gersht and the Anglo-Palestinian Mona Hatoum, who bears the marks of exile in everything she does. And that odd gang (among whom I number myself) who are caught as much by the travelling itself as the often postponed, diverted, destination.

As if mocking the deluded purposefulness of voyaging, conveyances can get shrunk to the scale of toys in the vision of the artist. The emblem of heroic nautical triumph, Nelson’s Victory, is bottled by Yinka Shonibare’s piece for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in its own particularly Britannic Toy Story, for ever separated from its dauntless admiral atop his column. Peter Liversidge’s airplane is lost, off the radar screen, motionless and silent, an antique that has drifted in from another time-lot. Now it hangs, like a child’s Airfix model, in a timeless blue vacuum, a sky so perfect and empty it somehow looks sinister.

The work that seems to embody – with a kind of hyperactive glee – the commonplace that it is, indeed, better to travel hopefully than to arrive, is Rachel Lowe’s jumpy-dippy-swervy video, “Letter to an Unknown Person 3” (1998). Through it snakes the darting, swooping, hand of the artist; for ever chasing the landscape flying past her moving car window and her field of vision. The hand frantically attempts to contour the scenic line and is constantly outpaced by the perpetually altering sightlines as the world rushes past, leaving the line as a self-erasing memory trace.

There are other artistic ways and means of seizing, however imperfectly, the moment and the place – sometimes, powerfully, through a kind of visual synecdoche. Howard Hodgkin takes a fragment of remembrance and broad-brushes it into visual theatre. His frames act as a box in which an ambiguously brilliant light show happens. Brushed with colour that continues the paint within the frame, they also contain and constrain its energetically worked surface. The result is a two-way optical travel. “Mud on the Nile” is typically neither, but a wavy splash more oceanic than the oozy sludge of the red-brown languid river. But, despite the self-conscious joke, the painting still functions as travel-shot: indelibly bright.

Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips (1814)

In another key are Travellers for Britain: two 17th-century queens (mother and daughter); two romantic heroes (Nelson and Byron) who sought and found the epic deaths that were in part the fatal logic of their celebrity. Anne of Denmark (wife of James I) was the first Stuart Queen of the new country called Great Britain, shipped in from Elsinore and doubtless conscious that queens can come to grief; not least her beheaded mother-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots. Anne’s progeny were shadowed by grief: her first son, Henry, much eulogised as Britain’s future, died prematurely; Henry’s brother Charles would lose his head on the scaffold. Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, was married off to Frederick, the Elector of the Rhineland-Palatinate, and in their state capital of Heidelberg the couple created a milieu of elaborate spectacle: neo-Platonic gardens by Salomon de Caus, grottoes, monkey houses.

But the furies caught up with them. Frederick’s promotion to the throne of Bohemia in 1619 triggered a bloodthirsty round of wars and an incoming Catholic army tossed the “Winter Queen” and her husband into a life of perpetual wandering. They settled eventually in The Hague by the mirror lake of the Vijver, a sad fallen-lace feature of the elegantly mournful club of the deposed. It is no surprise that the very beautiful portrait I have included was once thought to be of the Winter Queen, for the face not only bears a resemblance to earlier images of Elizabeth but is touched by the marks of delicate melancholy romantically attached to the story of an exiled wanderer.

It’s a paradoxical trait, much honoured in the representation of heroes, to advertise their Britishness by celebrating their wanderlust. For the Romantic generation, escape abroad was a vocational obligation and striking a pose secured cultural celebrity. Thus, the beauteously swarthy young Byron stands cradling his scimitar, clad in the heavily embroidered Albanian get-up he bought on the eastern Mediterranean journey that produced the equally heavily embroidered epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. At a time when clothes very much made the man (and woman – he and Caroline Lamb made quite a sight) the turban and the velvet-gold coat, the swag of muslin pantaloons, signified ebullient contempt for conventional Englishry.

You might imagine Nelson in the heavily frogged uniform of the vice-admiral to be as opposite from the Byronic pose as the furious reactionary was from the radical-atheist poet. But, politics aside, the two men weren’t that different; both avid for women and the glare of renown. One can overdo the weirdness of the off-kilter portrait painted by Leonardo Guzzardi of Nelson during his time in Sicily, while he was toting around the mistress he’d stolen from his host, the volcano-loving British ambassador Sir William Hamilton. Nelson’s hat is pushed back, perhaps to avoid irritating the spectacularly slashed-in heroic scar tissue above his damaged right eye.

‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ (2009) by Yinka Shonibare

So far, so naturalistic. But there is something unsettling that the hack painter has caught with an almost Goya-like artifulness: the awkwardness of fit between the man and the costume; the little man with the heroically outsize ego; the oversize sash with its blingy medallion; that points up the nearly comical burden of fame. Nelson was not that easily amused and it’s safe to assume he would not have found Yinka Shonibare’s bottled Victory diverting, but the two of them, the hero and his ship, belong together.

It was more domestic rambling that was at the heart of Romantic sensibility: exemplified by Wordsworth, who made much of connecting with The People on their own ground. Painterly versions of those perambulations, though, are conventionally stationary. The originality of Richard Long’s treatment of his own solitary walks was to use text to re-enact his progress, so that we might proceed through it concretely, as well as imaginatively. The words themselves – A Crow Perched on Great Gnats’ Head Cairn for Five Minutes – magically envisions what the work describes.

Grayson Perry’s ramble through the picturesque landscape of his own brain, helpfully laid out for us in “Map of an Englishman”, is exactly in the opposite temper: merrily sociable, drolly and irresistibly invitational. It should be on sale at a map shop for anyone planning excursions through themselves. There’s Perry kick-starting his pink motorbike, the bear Alan Measles on the handlebars, and roaring down the byways that lead south from the districts of Tender, Love and Normal down to the misty badlands of Cliché, Myth and Dreams. You exit Bitch only to end up, aargh, with Guru!

It’s always been a bit of an import-export business, this post-imperial art-travelling, and none the worse for it. Hurvin Anderson makes immigration chatty: hard Midlands grit turned companionably domestic when splashed with a wall of easeful Caribbean blue. The room is empty but the shrine-like radiogram poised on those spindly legs is waiting to calypso. The partying continues in Peter McDonald’s cocktail gathering of art world translucent balloonheads; sweetly observed in their opening night threads and gallery poses while, outside, a yacht-collector is moored beneath a buttercup moonlet.

Surveying all this action – the trundlings, traipsing and tramping, the heaving of cultural luggage – are two walls of ghostly stoppage, things that have come to rest, both set there by women who have done their share of travelling, through time as well as space. The windows of Tacita Dean’s Palast (stills from her 2004 film) enclose something not just at rest but dead: the official culture of the German Democratic Republic and, in particular, the Palace of Culture to which the dutiful citizenry were reluctantly herded. The reflecting windows of the official monstrosity were designed to repel the inquiring gaze rather than invite it in, for the regime was supremely paranoid about travel, mobility, the permeable boundary. Perhaps a feather or two from the old German style of downy beds might have made it out of the Palast-World and over the wall, on a gust from an indiscreet sigh. Set beside each other, Cornelia Parker’s feathers are the ultimate lightweights of my gathering of travellers; making it to the south pole or the summit of Everest; into Benjamin Franklin’s bedroom and on to the weightless universe of Freudian dreams; immaculate drifters on the gusts of history.

Sometimes I come upon them on walks – a gull’s fallen quill along a beach; a red-tailed hawk’s tail-feather landed on the dry stone walls amid the woodland tracks at the back of my Hudson Valley house. They land as randomly as it might seem I have landed these pictures and pieces in the Whitechapel Gallery, to entertain you with works that might set your own imaginations travelling.

And now that I stand back and look, mysterious connections declare themselves. The Whitechapel Boy Bomberg who went to Jerusalem in the 1920s (and later by teaching and friendship fathered a generation of Jewish-Anglo painting – Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach) stands in some sort of relationship, not least through the thick forcefulness of the strokes, with Bloomsbury Vanessa who, along with Dora Carrington and the rest of them, made Mark Gertler their favourite Jewish amusement; Mona Hatoum’s ghost-shrunk vision seems to contract the world one way, while Ori Gersht’s immensity of bleached dust loses its bearings in another.

I myself haven’t worked out what the sum of it comes to, except a little bounce of pleasure; the happy-trippy thing the kid inside us does when we’re about to travel. Time I was off, then.

Whitechapel Gallery, London, to February 26,

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

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