Empires of the Imagination: Politics, War, and the Arts in the British World, 1750–1850

 Denis Judd looks at a book on the cultural interactions and achievements that accompanied Britain’s imperial expansion

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Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Author: Holger Hoock
Publisher: Profile
Price (RRP): £30

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 Cecil Rhodes once defined imperialism as “philanthropy plus a five per cent return on investment”. Others saw the British empire as providing a broad and glittering path to glory and enrichment, both personal and national; as a noble international civilising mission, or as an organisation handing out superannuated jobs for the boys (and some of the girls); as a copper bottomed guarantor of continuing global supremacy and power; as a sure defence against internal corruption and decline, as well as a shield against the commercial rivalry and competition of “lesser breeds without the law”; or as any number of other remedies and placebos for a variety of British malaises – both manifest and anticipated.

In this beautifully produced, closely argued and deeply researched new book Holger Hoock takes another approach: he chooses to examine the complex cultural interactions and achievements that attended the rapid expansion of British power and influence between the latter years of the reign of George II and the early Victorian era. Although Britain became the undisputed global superpower during these hundred years, the nation also had to come to terms with the trauma of the American War of Independence, chronic Irish disaffection and even insurrection, the domestic anti-slavery agitation, the threat posed by domestic radicalism and the unpredictable and potentially destructive forces unleashed by the French Revolution.

The core of Holger Hoock’s thesis is that this great imperial and commercial expansion was attended by, and is in some respects aided by, an exceptional artistic productivity, not merely in terms of varied artistic representations but also in the encouragement of archaeological activity and the more entrepreneurial business of collecting and preserving the art of other, often ancient, cultures.

Of course, we have long understood that art has frequently been harnessed to the service of the state, as well as providing pleasure for the individual. Representational art can make sense of unfolding events, confirm or promote particular attitudes, inspire, console and record. It can, in brief, make history – not simply reflect it. This is precisely what Dr Hoock claims happened in regard to the rapidly expanding British empire during the period under examination. He has scoured the sources to analyse an almost stupefying number of artistic artefacts and endeavours – from paintings to sculpture and monuments, from exhibitions to musical composition, from architecture to the tangible and salvageable residue of past or ‘other’ civilisations, like ancient Greece or India. 

In the process he comes up with a number of original conclusions: these include a radical re-evaluation of the impressive scope and depth of Britain’s artistic achievements compared with those of its major European rivals; he shows how generally well integrated was the artistic interaction between the state and the private individual; he asserts that to a significant extent British wars of expansion, especially in the east, were also ‘cultural wars’; above all he claims that the warlike and aggressive British state was a very important agent for cultural change.

Empires of the Imagination is an important, weighty book. It deserves close scrutiny and a warm reception.   

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Professor Denis Judd is the author of Empire: the British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present, 2001, which is to be revised and reissued later this year