Posted by: Catherine Weston | May 2, 2015

British Identity?

Just before Christmas, I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London where I saw two contrasting images of Britain. It made me think about what stories we tell ourselves about our identity.  The first was a large oil painting: a confident depiction of Queen Victoria, at the height of the British Empire, offering a gift to a bowing visiting diplomat from East Africa. The gift is a Bible and the title of the painting is ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’. You can see the picture and read the gallery description here.

It provokes thought at all kinds of levels. As a Christian, I can affirm strongly that the Bible has had a profound positive effect over centuries in shaping many of our cultural values and institutions. To imply that it was the prime mover in creating the empire is quite another matter. The scene depicted is in fact based more on wishful thinking and propaganda than a real event, so while I can rejoice at the idea of an African gentleman receiving a Bible, I am profoundly uneasy at the underlying message.

The second artwork, part of a temporary exhibition, is a contemporary piece by Grayson Perry, entitled ‘Comfort Blanket’. It is a large tapestry designed like a banknote with an oval portrait of the Queen. It’s a vibrant, funny and thought-provoking piece that pays close inspection. It was a bit like looking at a visual depiction of ‘Watching the English’ by anthropologist Kate Fox.

Each colourful section, mimicking the detailed segments and patterns of paper money, puts together names, words and phrases to sum up our ‘Mongrel Nation’. So, for example, laid out in a shape like the Union flag are Offa’s dyke, Titanic and Ceilidhs rubbing shoulders with Tom Jones, William Wallace and Seamus Heaney. Elsewhere Cricket, The Rolling Stones, Margaret Thatcher and the North South Divide were juxtaposed, near a prominent ‘A Nice Cuppa Tea’. Curry is there, along with Fish & Chips and Cheddar. One of my favourite sections has Marks & Spencer, Eric & Ernie, Feet & Inches, Pie & Mash and Posh & Becks. I could go on, but you get the picture.

I’m not sure where ‘Comfort Blanket’ has moved to since the exhibition closed in March, but I hope it has found a home where many more can enjoy Perry’s take on the identity we British give ourselves.

You can see a picture and read a bit more here.

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