A Left-wing art his­to­rian is run­ning gallery tours de­liv­er­ing po­lit­i­cally cor­rect con­dem­na­tions of the giants who built Bri­tain. HARRY MOUNT found her opin­ions as skewed as some of her facts

Scottish Daily Mail - - News - By Harry Mount

THE Na­tional Por­trait Gallery is the coun­try’s home for pictures of our great­est heroes, right? Wrong — if you’re Alice Proc­ter, the 23-year-old Aus­tralian who leads her un­com­fort­able Art Tours around Lon­don’s mu­se­ums and gal­leries.

Her tours go round the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, the Na­tional Gallery, the Bri­tish Mu­seum, the V&A, the Queen’s House in Green­wich and Tate Bri­tain.

In the two-hour tours, in­de­pen­dent of the gal­leries, she ex­plains how: ‘The his­tory of Bri­tish art is also the his­tory of em­pire and geno­cide, writ­ten by col­lec­tors who traded in landscapes and lives.’

Proc­ter is an MA stu­dent in ma­te­rial cul­ture, who has been a tour guide for six years and do­ing un­com­fort­able Art Tours for a year. On her web­site, pro­mot­ing her tour of Tate Bri­tain, Queen Vic­to­ria has ‘THIEF’ scrawled across her face in red paint. Nelson’s por­trait has the words ‘WHITE Su­prem­a­cist’ drawn on it. For the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery tour, El­iz­a­beth I has ‘SLAVER’ slapped over a por­trait of the monarch.

It’s a pretty rum ap­proach to some of the great­est and most cel­e­brated fig­ures in Bri­tish his­tory. But then we live in an age when it is fash­ion­able to den­i­grate our is­land story, and in­stead take a vir­u­lently anti-colo­nial view of the world. That’s now the ac­cepted at­ti­tude on most cam­puses and in many schools.

Con­sider those shrill de­mands to tear down a statue of em­pire builder Ce­cil Rhodes in Ox­ford, or the tor­rent of abuse from fel­low aca­demics di­rected at an Ox­ford don who re­cently dared to sug­gest the Bri­tish Em­pire did much good as well as bad.

Then there’s the Guardian colum­nist who ar­gued Nelson should be hauled down from his col­umn for his racist views.

This art tour is just the lat­est ex­am­ple of how the Left is try­ing to re­write our past and shout down any op­po­si­tion. So how well does Proc­ter ar­gue her case? El­iz­a­beth I — in the fa­mous Ditch­ley por­trait of her by Mar­cus Gheer­aerts the Younger — is our first stop on one of the tours of the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, on which I tagged along. The tour was called ‘Pic­tur­ing Power: Im­pe­rial Sub­jects from El­iz­a­beth to Vic­to­ria’.

It is a splen­did picture of the Queen, painted in around 1592, stand­ing on a map of her king­dom, rul­ing over all she sur­veys.

HOW­EVER, we are not here to ad­mire the beauty of the pictures, or the skill of the artists — the artists are barely men­tioned in the tour, cost­ing £19.99. We are here to crit­i­cise. ‘One thing ev­ery­one knows about El­iz­a­beth I is that she had black teeth be­cause she liked sugar so much,’ says Proc­ter. ‘But no one ever re­ally talks about where the sugar came from, and it’s dur­ing El­iz­a­beth’s reign that we see the be­gin­ning of the Bri­tish slave trade, and trade with plan­ta­tions us­ing slave labour. The first slave-trad­ing voy­age was bankrolled by El­iz­a­beth I.’

Proc­ter is right about the ex­is­tence of Bri­tish slave-trad­ing then. But, when one of the 20-strong au­di­ence on the tour asks whether the Bri­tish slave-trad­ing ex­pe­di­tion in 1562 un­der John Hawkins, was at the same time as the Span­ish Ar­mada, she is stumped.

‘I think it’s just af­ter the Ar­mada,’ she says.

In fact, El­iz­a­beth I’s de­feat of the Ar­mada hap­pened in 1588 — as ev­ery school­child used to know, be­fore his­tory les­sons, and the study of facts, were de­stroyed by the tri­umph of opin­ion and po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness in the class­room.

Proc­ter wears a T-shirt say­ing ‘Mu­se­ums are not neu­tral’ — the name of an Amer­i­can campaign which high­lights how gal­leries have ‘the po­ten­tial to be relevant, so­cially en­gaged spa­ces in our com­mu­ni­ties, act­ing as agents of pos­i­tive change’.

She also gives out badges bear­ing the words ‘Dis­play it like you stole it,’ a slo­gan de­signed to en­cour­age mu­seum cu­ra­tors and visi­tors to re­think the pol­i­tics of how art is pre­sented in ex­hi­bi­tions.

Next up, Sir Wal­ter Raleigh — cap­tured in a mag­nif­i­cent anony­mous por­trait — one of our great­est ex­plor­ers, who helped colonise Vir­ginia, named af­ter El­iz­a­beth I, the Virgin Queen. Yet on this tour he is pure vil­lain, damned by Proc­ter as ‘part of those first Bri­tish slave-trad­ing voy­ages’.

A sim­i­lar at­ti­tude is shown to­wards Wil­liam Dampier (16511715) — painted by Thomas Mur­ray — who was the first English­man to explore Aus­tralia and the first man to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the world three times.

Proc­ter’s with­er­ing an­ti­colo­nial­ist ver­dict? ‘The first encounters with in­dige­nous Aus­tralians end in mur­der.’

Ev­ery picture we stop at of­fers her the op­por­tu­nity to re­count the story of re­lent­less Bri­tish nas­ti­ness.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the fa­mous 1607 tale of Cap­tain John Smith — the English ex­plorer of Amer­ica res­cued from ex­e­cu­tion by the Na­tive Amer­i­can woman Poc­a­hon­tas. Ac­cord­ing to Proc­ter, in the fa­mil­iar nar­ra­tive of Poc­a­hon­tas’s ro­mance with the Bri­tish sea­man, the ‘voices of Euro­pean ex­plor­ers’ are given a promi­nence not af­forded to ‘the in­dige­nous peo­ple they’re meet­ing... what’s just a nice story to John Smith is cul­tural erad­i­ca­tion for thou­sands of other peo­ple’.

Then we move onto the 1682 picture by the French artist Pierre Mig­nard of the Duchess of Portsmouth (a mis­tress of Charles II) and her black ser­vant girl.

Ac­cord­ing to Proc­ter, the ser­vant is ‘po­si­tioned some­where be­tween house­hold staff and a pet . . . She is dressed as a house­hold or­na­ment.

‘Some­times in wills, they re­fer to these ser­vants as lux­ury items. The child is in­cluded as a coun­ter­point to the per­fect white fem­i­nin­ity [of the Duchess].’

Again, this holder of a BA in Art His­tory from univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don, is wrong about her dates. On re­fer­ring to Lord Mans­field, a se­nior le­gal fig­ure in the 18th cen­tury whose judg­ment be­came a mon­u­men­tal step­ping-stone to­wards the abo­li­tion of the slave trade, Proc­ter says his key rul­ing took place in the 1730s.

When cor­rected by a mem­ber of the au­di­ence — the date was 1772 — she said: ‘I al­ways get that date wrong.’

As the old say­ing by CP Scott, the great ed­i­tor of the Guardian, has it: ‘Com­ment is free but facts are sa­cred.’

BuT noth­ing is sa­cred on the un­com­fort­able Art Tour — par­tic­u­larly when we get to the charm­ing 1740 por­trait by Fran­cis Hay­man of Jonathan Ty­ers (who made the plea­sure gar­dens at Vaux­hall fash­ion­able for Lon­don­ers of all classes) and his fam­ily.

We are told to con­demn this fas­ci­nat­ing picture of a Ge­or­gian fam­ily be­cause — shock, hor­ror! — they are drink­ing tea.

In the 18th cen­tury, says Proc­ter, tea be­came more read­ily avail­able be­cause ‘en­slaved labour be­came more com­mon, as trade con­nec­tions opened up in a vi­o­lent, en­forced process with In­dia and China’. When we get to the 1733 por­trait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (who was from a fam­ily of Mus­lim cler­ics in West Africa and was taken in 1731 into slav­ery and sent to work on a plan­ta­tion in Amer­ica), surely we can breathe a sigh of re­lief. This is a very early por­trait of a freed slave — on prominent dis­play in the gallery.

By now, I should have known bet­ter. The Na­tional Por­trait Gallery is ap­par­ently cul­pa­ble be­cause the picture is on loan from the Ori­en­tal­ist Mu­seum in Doha, Qatar, and not owned by the gallery. Proc­ter ar­gues that not only is there ‘a short­age of por­traits of black peo­ple’, but when they do ex­ist, ‘they’re not bought by na­tional gal­leries’.

Clearly, noth­ing is spared Po­lit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness czar Proc­ter’s judg­men­tal gaze.

Jean Bap­tiste Van­mour’s por­trait of the in­trepid trav­eller and writer Lady Mary Wort­ley Mon­tagu (16891762) is crit­i­cised for show­ing her along­side ‘to­ken, generic, Mid­dle East­ern fig­ures’.

Mon­tagu’s rar­ity as an English woman ex­plor­ing the Ot­toman Em­pire is dis­counted be­cause ‘her travel de­scrip­tions are re­ally racist, even for the stan­dards of her time’.

What about Cap­tain Cook, the fa­mous 18th-cen­tury Bri­tish ex­plorer of Aus­tralia and New Zealand, whose por­trait by the artist John Sher­win hangs in the

gallery? ‘He was per­fectly will­ing to cap­ture in­dige­nous peo­ple, to shoot peo­ple if they got in his way, to take stuff.’

He was also, of course, mur­dered by Hawai­ians, in 1779.

Like most Left-wing aca­demics, Proc­ter isn’t keen on views that clash with hers.

When she refers to the Royal Academy’s Ocea­nia exhibition, start­ing in Septem­ber, com­mem­o­rat­ing the 250th an­niver­sary of Cook’s first Pa­cific voy­age, she says: ‘I’m not look­ing for­ward to it at all be­cause I gen­er­ally don’t trust them to do it jus­tice.’

And so it goes on. Clive of In­dia — Robert Clive, who ex­tended the East In­dia Com­pany’s con­trol in the sub-con­ti­nent in the 18th cen­tury? ‘He wasn’t afraid to in­dis­crim­i­nately mas­sacre peo­ple — and he fought dirty.’

Even Wil­liam Wil­ber­force — the man who helped to out­law slav­ery, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence — doesn’t get off lightly, be­cause he eclipses wor­thier fig­ures.

‘Peo­ple of colour and women of colour are com­pletely miss­ing from the [eman­ci­pa­tion from slav­ery] nar­ra­tive,’ says Proc­ter. ‘We of­ten don’t know their names.’

Then we come to one of the big­gest heroes in the gallery: Ho­ra­tio Nelson, the man who helped to en­sure Bri­tain’s sur­vival as a sovereign na­tion by de­feat­ing a mighty French fleet at Trafal­gar.

Proc­ter says: ‘In Nelson’s navy, 20 per cent were en­slaved peo­ple and peo­ple of colour. The navy un­der Nelson was the sin­gle big­gest pur­chaser of slaves any­where in the world. Nelson was an anti-abo­li­tion­ist and re­peat­edly voted against any kind of abo­li­tion bills in the House of Lords.’

AT ONE point, Proc­ter gets so wound up that she can’t stop her­self swear­ing. When she refers to crit­ics who ques­tioned whether the Crimean War nurse Mary Sea­cole should be cel­e­brated as a black Bri­tish hero­ine when her statue was un­veiled two years ago, be­cause she was ‘only a quar­ter black’, Proc­ter says: ‘What the f*** is go­ing on there?’

The Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, in fact, took great steps to pro­mote Sea­cole’s cause, buy­ing her por­trait in 2008 and putting it on prominent dis­play.

‘Mary Sea­cole was just as cru­cial as Florence Nightin­gale, but is far less known about and his­tor­i­cally re­spected,’ says Proc­ter.

Yet again, though, our guide trips up on her facts.

‘Florence Nightin­gale has a mas­sive statue in White­hall,’ she says. No, she doesn’t. It’s in Water­loo Place.

She’s on even shakier ter­ri­tory when she dis­cusses Bri­tain’s cul­tural her­itage out­side Lon­don.

Re­fer­ring to All Souls Col­lege, Ox­ford, she talks about its li­brary, built us­ing slave plan­ta­tion money.

And the name of the slave owner? ‘At All Souls, the li­brary is named af­ter a man called Colville,’ she says.

No, it isn’t. He was called Christo­pher Co­dring­ton, a slave owner and sugar plan­ta­tion mag­nate who be­queathed part of his for­tune to the col­lege in 1710 to es­tab­lish the li­brary that bears his name.

Over­all, Proc­ter jus­ti­fies the way she judges the past by the stan­dards of to­day by say­ing: ‘His­tory is un­fixed... Our an­ces­tors judged their an­ces­tors; so we’re just judg­ing them in turn.’

OK — even though it’s a sus­pect judg­ment — shouldn’t his­to­ri­ans at least try to be ob­jec­tive?

And, if you’re go­ing to judge the past, wouldn’t it be help­ful to get your facts right?


In­sult: Graf­fiti on posters to pro­mote Alice Proc­ter’s tours. Top row: El­iz­a­beth I and Lord Nelson. Bot­tom row, left to right: Cap­tain Cook, Clive of In­dia and Queen Vic­to­ria

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