The Ball on Shipboard by James Tissot. Pictures: Tate Britain
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How French Impressionism began on the banks of the River Thames

“Impressionists in London” at the Tate Britain explores the British capital’s little-known influence.

Impressionism has much to thank England for. The quintessential French movement was born not on the banks of the Seine but on the banks of the Thames. In September 1870, Monet moved to London to escape conscription during the Franco-Prussian War, which had broken out in July. He was not alone and joined a burgeoning French diaspora, and he was adopted by the landscapist Charles-François Daubigny. Daubigny introduced him to another displaced Frenchman, the gallery owner Paul Durand-Ruel, with the endorsement, “This artist will surpass us all.” The dealer took him at his word, buying several canvases. A few days later, an encouraged Monet returned to the gallery with the struggling Camille Pissarro. This chain of mutual assistance made in London was at the core of Impressionism for the next 30 years.

Monet didn’t stay long in England, leaving for the Netherlands in the spring of 1871, but the succour that London had given him, the sight of the river at Westminster, the London fogs and the paintings of Constable and Turner that he saw here stayed with him. Decades later, he returned. For three successive winters, from 1899 to 1901, he took rooms at the Savoy Hotel and painted the Thames in all weathers. At one point, he was working on around 100 canvases simultaneously. In 1904, 30 years after the Paris exhibition that launched the Impressionists as a group, Durand-Ruel showed 37 of Monet’s pictures in a successful exhibition called “Views of the Thames”.

Kew Green by Camille Pissarro

A room containing a cluster of these paintings – six showing the Palace of Westminster and two of Charing Cross Bridge – is the highlight of “Impressionists in London” at Tate Britain. With its rich, dark blue walls offsetting eight canvases throbbing with lapidary colour and liquid brushstrokes, you won’t see a more euphoric room in years of gallery going.

The room is also necessary to justify the exhibition’s title. This is not a show about Impressionism at all and should have been called “The French in London”. Monet, Pissarro and Sisley are all here but so are Salon and genre painters such as James Tissot, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alphonse Legros and the sculptors Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and Jules Dalou. There are spin-off artists, too, such as the American-born, French-trained Whistler, whose Thames nocturnes perfectly complement Monet’s river views.

The Franco-Prussian War and the ensuing internecine struggle between the radical Paris Commune and the French government hurried artists across the Channel. Some stayed behind: Courbet, for example, was an active communard and formed the Federation of Artists (whose members included Manet, Honoré Daumier and Corot). It was Courbet who was behind the toppling of the column in the Place Vendôme – although he was later ordered to pay to have it put back up. England offered not just safety but new patrons when the war caused the collapse of the French art market.

Tissot already had a successful career as a painter of the Parisian beau monde and he simply switched to depicting London’s high society instead. He looked at English manners with a wry outsider’s eye: his Too Early of 1873 shows a group of embarrassed guests who have made the faux pas of arriving rather too promptly for a ball. His scenes of picnics, flirtations and languid soldiers squiring eligible girls on boats have charm and panache but en masse they pall quickly.

He could be a very different artist, as demonstrated by his terrifying watercolour of executed communards lying beneath the wall of the fort in the Bois de Boulogne from which they had been pushed. “They fall like a rag doll,” Tissot wrote of what he witnessed, “and one can see the sergeant rushing to give the coup de grâce.” This potent little picture leaves the big, elegant oils he went on to paint looking horribly vacuous.

Leicester Square by Claude Monet

Meanwhile Jules Dalou, another communard, carried on his sculptural practice during his eight-year stay in England and became an important teacher, at the National Art Training School (on the recommendation of Alphonse Legros, who was a professor at the Slade) and in his studio. Dalou’s teaching by example, his expressive naturalism and the freedom and rapidity of his modelling had a profound effect on the English students who became the core of the British “New Sculpture” movement in the late 19th century. Dalou also brought Rodin to the notice of the British public.

What becomes increasingly noticeable as this intriguing exhibition progresses is just how absent are the traumatic events in France in the work of the émigrés. Some 10,000 Frenchmen and women died in the Commune fighting but Monet’s Thames flows as gently as the Seine and Pissarro’s Norwood and Kew Green are as sun-dappled as the Tuileries Garden.

The exhibition runs until 7 May 2018

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist