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London Art: Galleries and Exhibitions

British Art's Forgotten Paradise
Wander through the tiny corridors and back buildings of the National Maritime Museum, and you’ll likely stumble into the William Hodges exhibit – according to Sir David Attenborough, the most “unjustly neglected British painter of the 18th century” – with his floral and fauna depictions of South Pacific paradise still somewhat neglected in the museum’s tedious, winding second floor display.

William Hodges 1744 – 1797:

The Art of Exploration
6 July – 21 November 2004

(10.00 to 17.00, 7 days a week, Free)
Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

For a person with a professional career that ranged across seven seas, who strung-up the identities of newly discovered territories, and was first to paint the landscape of India, Hodges had a tragic end: a failed financial venture and two deceased wives led up to his suspiciously suicidal death, in 1797.

What was the fate in life for Hodges seems also to be his fate posthumously – Hodges’ word was snuffed, ignored and altogether forgotten as but historical information until relatively now, with some of the pieces in this show being presented for the first time since 1788.

The NMM’s exhibit consists of six rooms: Hodges’ historical landscape paintings, Cook’s second voyage, works for the Admiralty, historical pictures of India, Indian arts & architecture’s influence on Hodges, and Hodges’ East India Company patrons, with each room illustrating a different facet of Hodges career.

The exhibit celebrates the sheer number of his pieces, ranging from his earlier surlier portraits, to elaborate en plein air Eden-like portrayals of Micronesia, to eerie depictions of Indian landscape and crumbling landmarks. Yet, there is still a great deal of room left for commentary, especially in regards to his own influence on Britain’s response to the colonies: Neanderthal-like renderings of South Pacific Islanders, frightening scenes of the natives' confrontations with the British, and the paradise of palm trees and fresh springs – all colouring Britain’s impending Victorian imperialistic ideals.

The show’s supplementary information does little to bring this revelation, if not already known, to light. The exhibit is worth the windy tour of the Maritime Museum grounds, the climb of a large set of stairs, and a creaky journey through the Queen’s old rooms – if not to remind yourself of Hodges’ little Edens as the autumn’s rain sets in, and remember that history is merely personal interpretation.

(Megan M. Retka)

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