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1776 The Edges of Empire

It was generally agreed among critics that the exhibition of 1776 was the best for some years. “To the eye of any man in the Rooms, with a taste for Painting,” wrote J.H. in The Westminster Magazine,

it must have been an elegant entertainment; to the eye of an Englishman it was a feast; and every unprejudiced Foreigner was ready to own, that many of the Pictures painted by English Hands were replete with genius, judgment, and taste.1

And there were foreigners in the room, in paint and in the flesh. The Mohawk leader, translator, and political intermediary Thayendanegea, or Joseph Brant (1743–1807), was one of them. His reported experience in front of the grandest of the eleven portraits on display by Joshua Reynolds is worth pondering, for it reveals how the exhibition was a space that refracted anxieties about Britain’s volatile empire.

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A letter printed in the Whig-leaning Morning Chronicle purported to relate Brant’s reaction to Reynolds’s classicising full-length of Mai (ca. 1753–ca.1780), or Omai as he was called by the English, a young Raiatean man who had travelled to London from Tahiti aboard the Adventure in 1774 (Fig. 1).2 Brant “gazed sometime on Omiah’s picture”, reported the paper.  At first, Brant thought the tattooed, toga-clad sitter:

some formidable leader, some renowned warrior, and that his chief business in England was to receive from the Great King of this country a very large sum of money, in order to engage and bring his nation to assist the royal troops, faithful subjects, and allies, in bringing to their senses the drunken Americans.3 

Then he reflected for a moment. Omai was dressed like a woman, not a warrior: “perhaps he let you conquer his country too easy, and you ordered him to wear the petticoat; as we forced the New England Indians to do for behaving cowardly in battle.”

After about a minute’s pause the American chief asked (from a very natural curiosity) how often had Omiah’s nation taken up arms, and how many of his countrymen had been killed fighting for his Majesty? Judge, candid and English readers, how great must have been his astonishment, when answered, that not one of Omiah’s countrymen had ever fallen in the cause of Britain, nor even so much as taken up arms; for, that living in an Island at a very considerable and almost immense distance from England, no profitable nor advantageous use could be made, in any shape, of their alliance. Is it not strange then (replied the Mohawk Chief) that this she looking black, this Molly dressed thing of a man, should be brought to England, and more money spent upon him here than is given to all the Indian Nations in America; we, who have so many years fought for the English, and lost so many brave warriors against the French, and even the other day against the Rebels in Canada, lost several brave warriors fighting in his Majesty’s service.4

Brant was himself in London to seek redress for encroachments on Native land in return for loyalty to the Crown. Here he serves as the mouthpiece for a strange kind of ventriloquised art criticism. His surely invented response to Reynolds’s painting exposes larger concerns within metropolitan culture about colonial violence and the bounds of gender and race. Reynolds had painted a “she looking black”, a “Molly” of a man—as destabilising at the level of the body as the “rebels” in America were on that of politics. The “drunken Americans” were revolutionary Americans, with whom the British were at war. Brant and Omai were by now both metropolitan celebrities (The Portrait of Oteronganente, one of the American chiefs now in London, in pastel by Alice Richardson, also in the exhibition this year, was probably Brant’s own image).5 Here, as newspaper allegories of Atlantic and Pacific, they come together in a virtual encounter to bring the febrile edges of empire right into the heart of the London season.

Other works had the same effect. William Hodges’ Tahitian views were on the walls: 

As representations of a place which few of our countrymen have seen, they arrest the eye; and there is at the same time a wild grandeur in them, sufficient to give us no faint idea of the Sublime among the works of Nature, in a part of the world so lately discovered by us.6

So, too, was James Barry’s Death of General Wolfe (Fig. 2), praised by some as “heroic Fact” and equal to Raphael, condemned by others as a failure.7 Benjamin West’s painting on the subject of Wolfe had just been published in the famous print by Woollett. How dare Barry attempt to beat him at his own game? “[W]e do not recollect to have seen so wretched a collection of legs! faces! and eyes! as this piece so glaringly represents us,” wrote one critic of Barry’s picture.8 In front of the dying British hero, Barry included the slaughtered body of a Native American, pressed right up to the picture plane. What would Brant have made of that? Was this Barry’s comment on the conduct of the British state? It may have been difficult, too, to avoid the contemporary implications of his other contribution, a self-portrait in character, fleeing the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus in the company of Ulysses. Ulysses was a veiled portrait of Edmund Burke, Barry’s first supporter, a fierce opponent of Lord North’s belligerent government, and outspoken defender of American self-determination.9

But politics didn’t just enter by way of paintings. In an atmosphere charged by events in North America, the whole structure of the exhibition—its “mode of regulation”—was scrutinised in political terms. “A true Lover of the Arts”, writing to The Morning Chronicle, was outraged by the liberties taken by senior Academicians in not getting their works to the walls in time, which muddled the catalogue and led to the omission of “upwards of an hundred” lesser-known artists.

[A]lmost a monopoly is made of that exhibition, which, under the sanction of royal authority, was graciously designed to promote the arts in general, to disclose to the world the latent sparks of genius, otherwise perhaps allotted to obscurity […] Instead of this, we find that the rooms are covered with the whole year’s productions of each of those leading people whose reputations are already formed […] and the works of younger artists are hereby excluded.10

The “leading people”—a reference to Academicians like Reynolds and West—start to blur, in this accusation, into the figure of an overstepping King. “False catalogues” and an entrance fee “at the royal door” are taken as “infringements” like a tax on tea. “That men of such distinguished talents should enjoy certain privileges, is a justice due to their genius and abilities; but are those privileges to have no bounds?”11

  1. J.H., “Some Account of the Exhibitions of Paintings in May MDCCLXXVI”, The Westminster Magazine, May 1776, 236.↩︎

  2. The Morning Chronicle, Monday 10 June 1776. For the painting, see Harriet Guest, “Curiously Marked: Tattooing, Masculinity, and Nationality in Eighteenth-Century British Perceptions of the South Pacific”, in John Barrell (ed.), Painting and the Politics of Culture: New Essays on British Art, 1700–1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 101–134; Jason M. Kelly, “Omai, Mai, and Joshua Reynolds: A Portrait of the Pacific Borderlands (v. 1.0)”, History Working Papers (2011), See also Natasha Eaton, Mimesis across Empires: Artworks and Networks in India, 1765–1860 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 53–58.↩︎

  3. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 10 July 1776.↩︎

  4. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 10 July 1776.↩︎

  5. Richardson was one of seventeen women to exhibit this year. See Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists before 1800, online edition.↩︎

  6. The Westminster Magazine (May 1776), 267.↩︎

  7. The Public Advertiser, 4 May 1776; The Morning Chronicle, 27 May 1776.↩︎

  8. The Morning Post, 1 May 1776.↩︎

  9. For a discussion, see Martin Myrone, Bodybuilding: Reforming Masculinities in British Art, 1750–1810 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 222–223.↩︎

  10. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 2 May 1776.↩︎

  11. The Morning Chronicle, 2 May 1776.↩︎

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