Art and Empire - Wembley, 1924

By August, Tom | History Today, October 1993 | Go to article overview

Art and Empire - Wembley, 1924

August, Tom, History Today

On St. George's Day, April 23rd, 1924, the British Empire came to Wembley in a colourful display of imperial solidarity. Unlike the earlier exhibitions of 1886 and 1899 or the colonial participations at the Jubilee celebrations of 1887 and 1897, the Wembley extravaganza was first and foremost a stocktaking of imperial resources, the purpose being to increase public awareness about colonial production and thereby maximize intra-imperial trade. Though previous exhibitions had presented the products of a particular territory, Wembley was, as the billboards advertised, |the empire in microcosm'. Never before had the British public been treated to such a comprehensive survey of the peoples, cultures and economies that comprised the empire.

Wembley afforded the imperialist movement in Britain an ideal educational opportunity to acquaint the public with its overseas offspring. The Great War, only recently concluded, clearly documented the value of the empire as a Kriegsverein (military union). Now, locked in a struggle for economic recovery and continued great power status, Britain, so imperialists argued, would need to depend more than ever on its empire. As markets for home manufactures and suppliers of primary products, the dominions and colonies allegedly held the key to the economic future of the metropole.

The British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25 consisted of three main areas. Firstly, His Majesty's Government building housed the exhibits of the various ministries along with the Department of Overseas Trade, the Imperial Institute and the Overseas Settlement Office. Secondly, the Imperial Section formed the centrepiece of the exhibition, displaying the industrial and agricultural products of the empire in pavilions that invoked the exotic splendours of Africa and the Far East. Interestingly, the dominion buildings were all ponderously neoclassical in style with the exception of South Africa whose pavilion suggested an authentic architecture. Lastly, the Metropolitan Section presented British industry, engineering and art, advertised by The Times as |the ripened fruits of all the wisdom and invention of the ages'. Here, adjacent to the Palace of Engineering, the metropolitan section constructed the Palace of Arts, which housed the art of Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and Burma. Empire art, however, occupied only the north-eastern third of the exhibition; the greater space officials reserved for metropolitan art, along with the highly popular Queen's Dolls' House, the most highly publicised exhibit at Wembley.

Why, at an exposition highlighting the empire, did the organisers of the Palace of Arts exhibit empire painters in the metropolitan section of the park? According to Sir Lawrence Weaver, (director of the United Kingdom Exhibits) in the 1924 Catalogue of the Palace of Arts, dominion artists were transplanted Britishers and thus part of the great tradition:

The British Empire Exhibition has for the first time made possible the assembling under one roof of the paintings of today, not only from the United Kingdom, but from every Dominion of the Crown. Now first can be seen in one place how the Daughter Nations have developed their art from the English School which is represented so splendidly in the Retrospective Galleries.

In this regard the Palace of Arts illustrated the Wembley theme of empire as family. Wembley, the |first show of British art of a truly Imperial nature', would, in the words of the Prince of Wales of the same year, show to the world |the part which our race has played in the development of the arts'.

The arrogant and antiquated assumption that dominion art was but an extension of the metropolis created considerable tension in the planning of the Palace of Arts. After all, the rumblings of dominion nationhood were by 1924 clearly audible in London. At the Imperial War Conference of 1917, the dominion representatives demanded constitutional equality with the metropolis. …

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