The Art of Compensation: Slavery and British Culture

Date and Time: 
Thu, 05/07/2018 - 18:00 - 19:30

Birkbeck, University of London, 1 Salway Road, London E15 1NF

Join us for another Big Ideas in Stratford and come prepared for interesting discussion and fascinating research!

What is Birkbeck's Big Ideas?A series of thought provoking FREE events, designed to inspire and bring world class Birkbeck academics to the local community, with this latest installment from Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art, at the Department of History of Art, Birkbeck, University of London.

About the TalkBetween the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and emancipation in 1833, Britain’s ‘West India merchants’ (as slave-owners were euphemistically known) made more profits from the violent coercion of plantation slaves than they had over the previous two centuries. Following emancipation £20 million pounds was paid by the British government to former slave-owners across the empire to compensate for their loss of income.Given such extraordinary wealth it is perhaps not surprising that slave-owners were also significant connoisseurs, art collectors, patrons and founders of key art museums across Britain.This talk examines the powerful impact of slave-ownership on some of Britain’s key cultural institutions, allowing us to understand how the brutal system of colonial slavery infused the world of aesthetics and taste during the first half of the nineteenth century. It shows that the politics of empire played a key role in the emergence of the public art museum, as the unprecedented wealth generated by colonial slavery was directed towards the large-scale acquisition of Old Master and British paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures. It highlights the important if hidden legacy of slave-ownership on Britain’s art museums today.

Who is Dr Sarah Thomas?Dr Thomas has lectured widely in the UK and Australia, and worked as a curator in Australian art museums for some 15 years. Current research interests focus on the art history of the British empire, the role and particularities of the itinerant artist, the iconography of slavery and the cultural legacies of British slave-ownership. Major publications include an award-winning book, The Encounter, 1802: Art of the Flinders and Baudin Voyages (Art Gallery of South Australia, 2002), book chapters including ‘Slaves and the spectacle of torture: British artists in the New World’ (2013) and ‘Allegorizing Extinction:Humboldt, Darwin and the Valedictory Image’ (2015), and journal articles such as ‘The Spectre of Empire in the British Art Museum’ (Museum History Journal, 2013). Her book Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition is due to be published next year. The event is FREE and open to all, but please note that seating is allocated on a first come first served basis. Registration and refreshments start at 6pm and the talk will commence at 6.15pm. We look forward to welcoming you to this Birkbeck's Big Idea event! Join the conversation on Twitter: #BBKBigIdeas