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1939 Pageantry, Politics, and Empire

The 171st Summer Exhibition spanned a period of crisis. In March 1939, The Times Literary Supplement reported on a flood of forthcoming books investigating recent German aggression and colonial expansion in Europe and Africa under the Third Reich.1 But if visitors to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition that year sought a comparable engagement with the threat of war, they were to be disappointed. Eric Newton, writing in The Manchester Guardian, complained that “following on a period of crises” the Academy might be “expected to reflect some aspect of the critical atmosphere of the last nine months” but unfortunately, “nothing of the kind can be detected”. He teased that “pageantry” was “apparently better stuff for the artist than politics” and elsewhere lamented that “propaganda” was the preserve of the Left Book Club.2 The colonial politics of all the Summer Exhibition’s pomp and pageantry had been easily, and conveniently, forgotten.

By 1939, the critics looked hopefully towards artistic opportunities afforded by imperial exchange. In December 1938, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens was elected President of the Royal Academy. Only the third architect to hold this position, Lutyens was best known for his work on the Cenotaph—itself an “Imperial grave of all those citizens of the Empire … who gave their lives”—and with the Imperial War Graves Commission.3 At the time of his appointment, his most far-reaching work as the chief architect of New Delhi was nearing completion. With artists under increasing pressure to professionalise their practice in order to survive—both economically and in the face of potential conflict—The Observer noted that the new President would serve as a positive influence and bring his “wide connections in various parts of the world” to the Academy.4

In his first year in office, Lutyens contributed only one exhibit to the Summer Exhibition: a drawing of his design for the King George V memorial in New Delhi. Founded in 1911 as the new imperial capital for British India, New Delhi was eventually inaugurated in 1931 and incorporated a number buildings designed by Lutyens, including Viceroy’s House, several bungalows, the Records Office and palaces for the rulers of the princely states of Baroda and Hyderabad on the wide central plaza of Princes Place.5 The memorial to George V—a collaboration with fellow Royal Academician, Charles Sargeant Jagger, who had died before he could complete his statue of the King—was one of Lutyens’s final contributions to the New Delhi project.

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The modest geometric drawing, by Lutyens’ most trusted assistant Hubert Wright, exhibited at the Summer Exhibition belies the monumental scale of the final product (Fig. 1).6 It can have hardly jumped from the walls. Whereas in reality, Jagger’s statue of George V rose like a pillar from the pools of water at the base of Lutyens’ pedestal, bordered by columns and covered from above by arches and a domed canopy (Fig. 2). This was a monument meant to be seen in the round; the baldachin exploiting both an allusion to temple architecture and the sculptural value of shadows. From the chivalric star of India to the sculpted nautilus shell fountains, the memorial brimmed with a mixed language of visual references to both British imperial governance and metaphors for divine power.7 One reviewer writing in The Architects’ Journal even regretted that the shape of the memorial’s canopy was bound “to encourage chatter about pith helmets”.8

The lower half of the drawing is of the overhead plan, and underlines the link between public sculpture and setting. It shows a surrounding pool and a concentric structure radiating rhythmic patterns among the pathways and trees on the hexagonally shaped Princes’ Place. Here we are reminded that monuments could be geographical markers as well as memorials. A gift of the Maharaja of Kapurthala and other unspecified princes, once installed, the monument sat at the heart of the district set aside in New Delhi for the palaces of Indian regional rulers.9 It acts, therefore, as both an imperial assertion of authority and a colonial declaration of allegiance by its sponsors. Positioned at the intersection of some of the area’s largest avenues, this latest monument embodied the idea of a new centre for British India in New Delhi.

Interestingly, many of the Academicians who helped memorialise the administrators of empire also shaped monuments to the dead of the First World War.10 This is hardly surprising given that, for over twenty years by 1939, public statuary had been almost exclusively focused on commemorating the fallen. However, an appetite for memorials following the death of George V early in 1936 fuelled a flurry of figurative monument making. William Reid Dick and Giles Gilbert Scott’s controversial model for a memorial in Westminster was also on display at the Academy in 1939. The sculptor Leonard Jennings presented his own model for a bronze statue of the late King-Emperor that would shortly be erected in Hardinge Park, Patna in the recently proclaimed British province of Bihar.

In fact, many of the public sculptures that were installed in cities across British India were first displayed at the Summer Exhibition. In her study, Statues of the Raj, over a third of the sculptures Mary Ann Steggles identifies were, at one point or other, shown at the Royal Academy.11 The Academy’s prime exhibiting and administrative position in central London, at the “heart of empire”, meant that once memorial ennui had set in at home, Academicians could capitalise on a thriving market for the export of civic monuments.12 The public prominence of their statue work, combined with the popular association of the Academy with artistic standards and tradition, undoubtedly helped in securing commissions for such overseas projects.

While Eric Newton, in his review of the 1939 Summer Exhibition, accused exhibitors of being “cloistered” in the “privacy of the studio”, significant public works of sculpture and architecture were still being exhibited and exported. The performance of what Catherine Moriarty has called the “apparatus of imperial obligation” was reliant in part on highly visible symbolic expressions of loss and allegiance.13 The Academy and its Summer Exhibition, a heady mixture of pomp and populism, offered these conditions in abundance. There was never a gap between pageantry and politics at the Summer Exhibition—the two were intimately bound up in the business of empire.

  1. Philip Tomlinson, and Arthur A. Foss, “Books on the European Crisis”, Times Literary Supplement, 25 March 1939, 180.↩︎

  2. Eric Newton, “The Royal Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 2 May 1939.↩︎

  3. Catherine Moriarty, “The Cenotaph”, in Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson (eds), Modern British Sculpture (London: Royal Academy, 2011), 46.↩︎

  4. “Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Observer, 1 January 1939, 10. For a discussion of the response by artists to economic conditions during the 1930s, see Robert Radford, Art for a Purpose: The Artists’ International Association, 1933–1953 (Winchester: Winchester School of Art Press, 1987); Robert Radford and Lynda Morris, AiA: Story of the Artists’ International Association, 1933–1953 (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1983); and Andrew Stephenson, “‘Strategies of Situation’: British Modernism and the Slump c.1929–1934”, Oxford Art Journal 14, no. 2 (1991): 30–51.↩︎

  5. Gavin Stamp, “New Delhi”, in Lutyens: The Work of the English Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944), exhibition catalogue (London: Hayward Gallery, 1981), 41.↩︎

  6. Christopher Hussey, The Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens (London: Country Life, 1953), 428.↩︎

  7. Robert Grant Irving, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 262.↩︎

  8. R. Myerscough-Walker, “Architecture at the R.A. Exhibition”, The Architects’ Journal, 4 May 1939, 725.↩︎

  9. Mary Ann Steggles, Statues of the Raj (London: British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, 2000), 100.↩︎

  10. William Reid Dick, who exhibited a model for his own memorial to George V in 1939—destined for Westminster—and had worked with the architect Reginald Blomfield on the memorial to the RAF, Westminster, and the Menin Gate, had overseen the final stages of construction of Jaggers’ figure of George V after the latter’s death in 1934.↩︎

  11. Steggles notes that: “over 170 civic monuments were exported from the workshops of some of Britain’s leading sculptors to British India and south-east Asia between 1800 and 1940.” Steggles, Statues of the Raj, 1. Some of those exhibited were shown more than once as designs, models, or the final object itself.↩︎

  12. Jaggers had already exhibited his figure for the New Delhi memorial in 1933 and again in 1935. The commission for the first public statue exported from Britain to India was awarded via the Council of the Royal Academy to Thomas Banks RA in 1792; Steggles, Statues of the Raj, 58.↩︎

  13. Moriarty, “The Cenotaph”, 49.↩︎

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Explore the 1939 catalogue