William Hodges, Art and Empire

Geoff Quilley shows how the work of Hodges, official artist on Cook’s second voyage and subject of a major exhibition opening this month at the National Maritime Museum, sheds light on perceptions of the British Empire.

There has been much debate in the past twelve months about the significance of the history of the British Empire and its place (or lack of it) in the teaching curricula of our schools and universities. Argument has centred largely on the morality of empire and the post-imperial legacy – and the degree to which imperial history’s lack of cultural prominence is a betrayal of collective conscience over a past many would rather leave unexplored. Whatever the merits of such discussion, it is the case that the empire is indeed ‘striking back’, whether through a post-imperial insistence on recognising the crucial, formative importance, both to Britain and the Western world, of phenomena such as the transatlantic trade in African slaves, or through the examination in former imperial countries of the important role played by the British empire in their own national histories.

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