WHAT A FUNNY OLD AGE WE LIVE IN!
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
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?
DAMNED ON HER WEBSITE ... ELIZABETH I, NELSON, CAPTAIN COOK, CLIVE OF INDIA, AND VICTORIA
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