Retribution - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
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by Edward Armitage

The lurid stories in the press were his inspiration
Edward Armitage was one of the main exponents of public art in Britain and was never dependant on the open market. He was born in Yorkshire in 1817 into a family of wealthy industrialist and was therefore able to train in Paris. He returned to London in 1843, having developed the main principles of French art which he followed throughout the rest of his life. One of his early works was his 1847 Battle of Meanee, bought by Victoria, one of many paintings from Britain’s colonial wars. Armitage was in England when the Indian Rebellion broke out in 1857 and he followed the newspaper accounts of the main sieges and the movements of the British army in trying to relieve Cawnpore, Lucknow and Delhi. The lurid stories found in the press about atrocities committed by Indians produced a lust for revenge amongst readers, especially the events at the Bibighar where over 100 women and children were butchered and then thrown down a well. The evidence about large numbers of Indian remaining loyal to the crown were ignored as were the acts of revenge perpetrated by the British army.

For his painting on what  he had read about Armitage decided to paint an allegory of revenge, possibly getting his idea from John Tenniel’s cartoon in Punch which showed a lion attacking a tiger to prevent it attacking a woman and child. Armitage in preparation produced a large cartoon in black and white chalk, but using a depiction of Britannia instead of the lion. The lion is held motionless as it is about to pierce a tiger, representing India. At the feet of Britannia, representing the regiments of soldiers who have been sent to India to bring order (and exact revenge) is a woman with her child, prostrate on the floor, symbolic of the massacre at Cawnpore. In the background is a minaret and dome representing India. The storm and dark background represents the revenge and violence to come from the British army whilst the torn book and child’s toy lying on the ground represent an attack on the civilisation being brought to India by the British. The massacre at Cawnpore was represented in the British press as the act of a thankless people and legitimised this act of vengeance. The British response was brutal with British soldiers ransacking villages and hanging anyone thought to have been a former sepoy.
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