Britannia descending a staircase
A lost world of imperial myth-making at the British Foreign OfficeBy John Ryle • 9 February 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised • Posted 2016 • 1,306 words
Falling over my feet on the grand staircase of the Foreign Office in London the other day, I was struck, as I sprawled, dazed, on the mezzanine, by the astonishing paintings that adorn the walls of this inner sanctum of government. The works installed here must have exerted their influence—subliminal or otherwise—on generations of diplomats, ministers, spies and visiting dignitaries. Yet the artist who created them—famous in his day—has fallen into relative obscurity.
The murals adorning the long gallery at the head of the staircase were painted during the First World War. They form a graphic novel avant la lettre, an allegorical narrative of the growth of Britain as an imperial power, featuring lissom youths and nubile young women personifying the arts of peace and war. Alongside them are larger-than-life figures of Britannia, her allies, colonies and dependencies. The murals are painted on canvas in high Victorian style, a style already out-of-date when they were new, one that combines voluptuousness and political propaganda to a degree that we—post-imperial, post-modern—can appreciate now only as camp. This is our loss, because the paintings are a curious and instructive example of imperial vision and its counterpart, patriotic excess.
Here, in one panel (if you start from the right, though it’s the last in historical sequence), is the figure of Britannia sending her sons out to rule the empire. In the next one along the collonaded hallway—here in her manifestation as Britannia Belletrix—she is training them in the arts of war. Then, as Britannia Pacificatrix, she is represented bringing the countries of the world together—France, America, Japan, Italy, Serbia and Montenegro among them—in order to ensure world peace under the League of Nations. (Yes, it’s a pity that didn’t happen).
In this panel she is flanked by her dominions: Canada, a youth in a maple-leaf loincloth, and Australia, nude save for a bush hat. Lesser colonies and possessions are not represented. You wonder what Basutoland might have looked like. Or the Sandwich Islands.