War on the West: DOUGLAS MURRAY on the Whistler mural denounced for its ‘white supremacism’… and how Poet Laureate Ted Hughes was almost cancelled for having an ancestor linked to company accused of slavery
- Artwork in the Rex Whistler Restaurant, Tate Britain, depicts black child slaves
- Complaints and a petition about the mural from 1927 gained traction in 2020
- Former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes was targeted for his ancestor’s links to slavery
The artist Rex Whistler was just 21 when he was chosen to design and paint a mural that would cover all four walls of the refreshment room at the Tate Gallery in London. He produced an amazing series of fantastical, idyllic (and occasionally macabre) scenes.
There were great lakes and seas with mermaids, and a landscape scattered with Arcadian temples in an expanse of rolling countryside. Throughout this land, strange figures feasted, chased, preened, hobbled and charged. There was even a unicorn.
He called this extraordinary work, which had taken him 18 months to complete, ‘In Pursuit of Rare Meats, a fantasy portrayal of the Duke of Epicurania and his court heading out to find morsels across an imaginary land’.
Its unveiling in December 1927 was a triumph, attracting praise from every quarter. ‘The most amusing room in Europe’ was one of the plaudits given to it by the Press.
Unfortunately, that winter there was heavy snowfall followed by a sudden thaw — and in January the Thames, which runs next to the Tate, burst its banks. Filthy river water poured into the gallery’s lower ground floor and through the just-unveiled room.
It left a line of scum eight feet above the floor. ‘The whole room is completely wrecked,’ Whistler wrote in a letter, joking that ‘at least the mermaids came into their own’. He set about restoring every last inch of it.
The Rex Whistler Restaurant at the Tate Britain art museum gallery in London features artwork from Whistler, some of which has been called racist
‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ featured in the restaurant depicts black child slaves
I have always found something deeply touching about Whistler. He was astoundingly talented, with an invention and ease that made everything he painted instantly recognisable. He was loved by everyone who knew him or even just met him.
He also knew where his loyalties lay. When World War II broke out, he volunteered straight away. And while he could have got a comparatively cushy job as a war artist, he instead joined the Welsh Guards and trained to become a tank commander. He was killed in action in Normandy in 1944. He was just 39.
Almost 80 years later, in December 2020, the Tate announced the permanent closure of the Whistler restaurant, following complaints about the mural. The gallery’s ethics committee had investigated and concluded that ‘the imagery of the work is offensive’. The problem, it decided, was Whistler’s depictions of non-Europeans. Chinese people in one tiny corner were deemed ‘stereotypical’. Worse was that in one of the strange hunting scenes, a woman in a frilly frock appears to be dragging a black child, who must be a slave, and hauling him off against his will.
Certainly this is a disturbing scene, one of several in the mural. But they are there for a reason. Whistler was sending a message that even in Arcadia there is cruelty and suffering, as well as indulgence and delight. It is a typical touch of his. Elsewhere in the mural there is a boy drowning as well as an urn with the initials ‘D.A.W.’, a reference to his brother Denny, who died in childhood.
For decades, all of this was accepted as part of the work. As late as the early 2010s, when the Tate carried out a much-needed cleaning of the mural, no concerns were raised.
When the restaurant reopened in 2013, those who praised it included the Guardian’s restaurant critic, who noted the ‘sylvan beauty’ of Whistler’s fantasy while also commending the excellent wine list.
And then in 2020, complaints began, emanating from an Instagram account called The White Pube. Posters on the site called the Tate ‘deranged’ and fulminated: ‘How do these rich white people still choose to go there to drink from “the capital’s finest wine cellars” with some choice slavery in the background?’
To this intolerable pressure, the gallery responded by trying to contextualise the minor figures in question — all of whom, it should be noted, were no more than a couple of inches high.
It placed a note of interpretation beside the mural, admitting that it did indeed contain scenes that were ‘unacceptable’. It described them as imperialist and demonstrating attitudes to racial identity prevalent in Britain in the 1920s.
But then other media piled into the controversy and upped the ante. One outlet lamented that for years, tourists had been ‘clinking china’ alongside ‘a massive mural that depicts child slavery’.
A spokesperson for Tate Britain said they had been ‘open and transparent about the deeply problematic racist imagery’
An online petition was got up which carefully selected the two tiny images, blew them up and put them on either side of a carefully selected photo of a group of white people of a certain age looking satisfied after finishing a meal in the restaurant. In strident tones, it demanded either the removal of the painting from the restaurant or the removal of the restaurant from the mural room. It added: ‘There simply should not be a dining experience in modern and multicultural Britain where all races are not respected.’
Incensed signatories claimed that so long as the Tate held on to this mural, the institution was showing it was not committed to racial justice.
Some hundreds of people signed the petition, at which point the Tate seemed to think it was on the run.
A spokesperson announced that it had been ‘open and transparent about the deeply problematic racist imagery in the Rex Whistler mural’ — and that, with the interpretation text now on the wall alongside the mural, the gallery was making efforts to confront the ‘racist and imperialist attitudes in the 1920s and today’ and ‘championing a more inclusive story of British art and identity’.
But none of this impressed the gallery’s ethics committee. It unequivocally condemned the mural, insisted that the gallery had not dealt with the situation adequately, and concluded that the only possible options were for the room to be closed or for the mural to be removed. The Tate is now preparing for an external consultation on the mural’s fate. In the meantime, the room remains closed to the public.
The more you look into the matter, the clearer it becomes that the assault on the Whistler mural is a textbook case of a modern mobbing by extreme activists. The Instagram account that started it all is run by people who claim the arts in Britain are dominated by white middle-class people (as well they might be in a country that is still majority white).
The magazine Vogue, no less, described White Pube as ‘the self-styled cowboy critics shaking up the arts establishment’. But they are after more than just increasing access or representation in the arts. One of their posts in June 2020 states, ‘F**k the Police, F**k the State, F**k the Tate’.
This is the bog-standard revolutionary fare that White Pube deals in, egged on by its small support base.
Yet unsurprisingly this anti-Whistler mural campaign gained traction with politicians such as Diane Abbott. She tweeted: ‘I have eaten in the restaurant. Had no idea mural had repellent images of black slaves. Nobody should be eating surrounded by imagery of black slaves.’ The post was accompanied by two supposedly incriminating images, one from a different painting, and a Black Lives Matter hashtag.
MP Dianne Abbott denounced the mural and restaurant, which she had previously eaten at without realising some of the artwork depicted images of black slaves
What I find most telling about the Whistler mural affair is not that shrill and over-megaphoned voices made their voices heard. Nor that a work of art should suffer such a stratospheric context collapse.
Rather it is that the trustees of the Tate — whose job is to safeguard a historic national collection — should instead have stood judgment over a work in their care and misrepresented it so obscenely.
Because of them, what was once described as ‘the most amusing room in Europe’ turned in a matter of months into a ‘white-supremacist’ restaurant that celebrated slavery.
What might they have done instead? They might have said that the characters being complained about were the tiniest imaginable details in a work positively bursting with details.
They might have pointed out that art galleries are absolutely chock-full of artistic details that might be considered disturbing. Renaissance pictures are packed with crucifixions and martyrdoms. Most galleries have significant numbers of nude or semi-nude bodies. There are generally a few rapes.
And the modern galleries (not least the exhibitions for the finalists of the Turner Prize, which the Tate hosts each year) display things that Whistler would never have imagined in his worst nightmares.
The trustees might have pointed out that a work of art and a political manifesto are different things. That just as a novel that mentions slavery does not mean the novelist is celebrating slavery, so a work of art depicting something evil does not mean that the artist is somehow urging it to happen.
Yet the Tate did none of these things. Instead, the trustees accepted that the steamroller of modern political fashion had every right to crush a work in their care.
They effectively conceded to the appalling claim that Whistler was some kind of pro-slavery, pro-empire, white supremacist. So it is that nearly 80 years after he gave his life fighting Nazism, he now stands besmirched by the gallery he spent months toiling away for.
Unfortunately, the vengeful cycle that Whistler has been put through is not unique to him. In the past few years, almost every great figure in the history of Western art has been subjected to the same treatment.
Always at the hands of people who range from the semi-informed to the uninformed. Always subjected to the same coarse form of attack.
And almost always responded to by people in charge of some of our great cultural institutions — alleged guardians of the heritage — who ran up the white flag of surrender the moment the first shot was fired.
Douglas Murray queries what more the trustees of the Tate Britain (pictured) could have done, beyond pointing out ‘that a work of art and a political manifesto are different things’
Our literary heritage has suffered too, prey to the same dulling, remorseless maltreatment. Universities have led the way by supposedly ‘decolonising’ and ‘diversifying’.
Typical is the English department of Leicester University, whose academics were told last year to stop teaching medieval literature and cut back on early modern literature. Out would go Beowulf and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and in would come what?
The university insisted that Shakespeare was safe but the vice-chancellor, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, said it was necessary to change the course in order to be ‘sustainable’ and to ‘compete on a global level’.
Students would study a span of English literature ‘from Shakespeare to Bernardine Evaristo [the first black person to win the Booker Prize].’ Such courses would allow a chronological study of literature with modules on ‘race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum’ and so on.
Perhaps we should have been grateful that Shakespeare could still get a look-in. But only a short while later, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London announced that it, too, was seeking to become ‘anti-racist’ and intending to ‘decolonise’ Shakespeare.
It looked as if the Bard might be for the chop — or at least for severe cutting — in one of the very places that was meant to uphold, celebrate and sustain his legacy. The theatre is near the site of the playwright’s original playhouse and was reconstructed at enormous expense in the 1990s, with the express purpose of audiences seeing his work in the setting for which he originally wrote. For years tourists and locals alike rejoiced in the opportunity.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre said it intended to ‘decolonise’ Shakespeare
But nothing is safe from the precepts of critical race theory (CRT), which sees everything through the lens of race. After applying this to Shakespeare, a crack squad of Shakespeare scholars unleashed by the Globe deemed his plays ‘problematic’.
Which they may well be. But the ‘experts’ who used this term meant it only in the same dull and reductive tenor they brought to everything else.
One complained that in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the character Lysander says ‘Who would not trade a raven for a dove?’ This was interpreted ludicrously as Shakespeare associating whiteness with beauty and blackness with ugliness.
An American professor of English then chipped in by claiming that all Shakespeare’s plays are ‘race plays’ and contain ‘racialised dynamics’. She also thought Shakespeare a very sloppy writer whose ‘language is all over the place’.
Until now, scholars of English have generally admired Shakespeare’s way with words. But a course of ‘decolonising’ and an ‘anti-racism’ agenda can turn even that around,
It beggars belief that the Globe, a place meant to protect the legacy of Shakespeare, commissioned and then respectfully listened to scholars whose own words and scholarship are so fantastically hostile and inept towards him.
How even our plants have been politicised
Last year, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew announced its intention to ‘decolonise’ and acknowledged its ‘exploitative and racist legacies’. Its director, Richard Deverell, declared: ‘We are at a fork-in- the-road moment.’
The outpouring of feeling around the world at the death of George Floyd meant that long-standing injustices had to be faced up to. Kew could not and would not stand aside in this great reckoning.
‘Parts of Kew’s history are shamefully drawn from a legacy that has deep roots in colonialism and racism,’ he said.
‘Much of its work in the 19th century focused on the movement of valuable plants around the British Empire for agriculture and trade, which of course means that some key figures in our past and items still in our collections are linked to colonialism.
‘We were beacons of discovery and science, but also beacons of privilege and exploitation.’
One of his colleagues added: ‘Plants were central to the running of the British Empire.’
But what does it mean, practically, to ‘decolonise’ a garden? Not much, in truth.
One of Deverell’s plans was to change display boards and descriptions so that, for example, any mention of sugar and rubber plants would reflect their links to slavery and colonialism.
He also wanted to stop plants being described as having been ‘discovered’ at certain times because they were known to indigenous communities long before Western botanists and explorers came across them.
His other main suggestion was to make sure that ‘people do not feel intimidated by the Victorian wrought-iron gates of Kew’.
As though there were friendly wrought-iron gates and unfriendly ones and it is necessary to land on the right side of this divide, as all others.
In an editorial, the Guardian supported Deverell, arguing that the botanical gardens were far from apolitical. They came from an elitist Western pursuit for exotic plants that were often collected with economic purposes in mind.
The ‘white men’ who did this had an agenda, it said. As the paper’s headline blared, ‘Botanical Gardens inextricably linked to Empire’. Just like everything else, you might say.
Inevitably, the Globe denied that it was assaulting Shakespeare and claimed his reputation was safe. But there were already signs, of which they should have been aware, that this was not so.
In the U.S., there was a debate in a reputable literary journal about whether Shakespeare’s works should still be taught in American classrooms. According to one expert, his works are ‘full of problematic, outdated ideas, with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism and misogynoir [a specific hate of black women].’ It was, she said, ‘time for Shakespeare to be set aside and de-emphasised to make room for modern, diverse and inclusive voices’.
The more this sort of thing goes on, the harder it is to find any author who is deemed to pass any muster whatsoever. A Massachusetts school has banned Homer for being just another dead white man.
In such judgments, you see the whole canon of English literature being not reinterpreted but simply declared inadmissible.
But at least Shakespeare was being assailed on his works. Other writers were not so lucky. They were being blacklisted not for anything they had ever written or said but for ancestors they could never have met.
In 2020, the British Library announced that it was creating a list of authors who were found to have any connection to the slave trade or colonialism. The initial list of 300 included Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and George Orwell. Rudyard Kipling was found guilty of having made the British Empire ‘a central theme’ in his literary output.
The library said that although the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had expressed anti-slavery views himself and had recorded these views in his poetry, he was on the blacklist because he had a nephew who lived in Barbados and worked closely with estates where there were slaves.
The sins of the father is a familiar problem, but the sins of the people known to the nephew is a new form of associative guilt.
Still the blacklist became more ridiculous. Because one of the people on it — to the surprise of many — was former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes.
Hughes was born in 1930, centuries after the slave trade had ended. He was too young to have any significant effect on the last days of empire.
The reason for adding him to its dossier of wrongdoers was that the sleuths — who are employed at taxpayer expense — claimed they had found that one of his ancestors, Nicholas Ferrar, born in 1592, was ‘deeply involved’ with the London Virginia Company, which helped to set up colonies in North America.
There was no claim that Hughes had any connection with his ancestor and even the British Library’s research squad had worked out that they could not smear Hughes by direct link.
Nevertheless, they insisted that he fitted their criteria of a person with ‘connections to slavery’ or someone who had ‘profited from slavery or colonialism’.
How he had ‘profited’ was not explained, given that he was born in a poor part of Yorkshire, his father ran a tobacco shop and Hughes made it to Cambridge University on a scholarship, making his career and what money he did from his own work.
On this occasion, there was a short and sharp intervention from some of the few remaining adults in the room. First, some actual, real-life researchers pointed out that it was absurd to damn Hughes by association with a man alive in the time of Shakespeare.
Then they followed up with the revelation that Nicholas Ferrar had died without children, so even if Hughes was related to him, he could not have been a direct descendant. They also pointed out that Ferrar was the author of a pamphlet attacking slavery before the British slave trade had even begun. The estate of the late Ted Hughes demanded an apology and got it.
There are several lessons from this affair. One is that people who claim to know what they are talking about do not. They are mostly ignorant, sloppy and less than half-informed. The other is that the slightest firm pushback can bring about a reversal.
So why does this not happen more often? Why is it that the same language, ideas, assertions and dogmatisms are able to run through everything today?
For that is what they have done. It doesn’t matter how delicate or profound the subject, how frivolous or deep it might be. These days, everything is inspected under the same remorseless light. And everything comes out looking equally and eternally guilty.
Extracted from The War On The West: How To Prevail In The Age Of Unreason, by Douglas Murray, published by HarperCollins on April 28 at £20. © Douglas Murray 2022.
To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 30/04/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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