Nelson and Drake unchained from government review of art linked to slavery

A probe of government-owned artworks has been paused, after it emerged that pieces depicting the victories of Admiral Lord Nelson and Sir Francis Drake were listed “under review”.

An 1835 canvas illustrating the Battle of Trafalgar that hangs in Britain’s embassy in Tokyo, and a 1739 engraving depicting the defeat of the Spanish Armada displayed in the Cabinet Office, were linked to a reappraisal of works in the Government Art Collection (GAC).

Dozens of artworks with links to slavery and colonialism were listed as “under review” on the GAC’s website, and now-deleted online labels for depictions of Trafalgar and the Armada outlined plans to “embed anti-racist and equitable practices” and “address inequality in the collection and its interpretation”.

The Department of Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) – which runs the GAC – has now said this labelling work has been reversed and that no artworks are under scrutiny.

Labels branding artworks “under review” – appearing alongside dozens of works ranging from Indian landscapes to portraits of colonial administrators – have all been removed.

The DCMS has said review labels like the one for a portrait of Admiral Nelson were added “due to an administrative error”, and explained that the GAC has decided to pause and wait for guidelines which are currently being devised by the Heritage Advisory Board.

The board was set up by the former culture secretary Oliver Dowden in 2021 to decide best practice for “how difficult heritage assets should be dealt with” in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.

News of the decision to wait for these guidelines comes after The Telegraph revealed that a portrait of James II installed in Number 11 Downing Street during a summer rehang was under review.

This was part of the GAC’s project aimed at highlighting “hidden narratives” among its 14,500 works, with its purpose outlined as: “Reviewing interpretation about artworks and reappraising how they have been considered historically.”

As both the Duke of York and then the king, James II led the Royal African Company, which was responsible for shipping large numbers of slaves from Africa to the Americas.

Website ‘being corrected’

The DCMS and the Treasury confirmed that the artwork in the Chancellor’s official residence was under review, but gave assurances that in line with a policy to “retain and explain” for controversial objects, the painting would not be removed.

The DCMS has now said that no artworks are under review and restated its position that no artworks will be removed as a result of this process.

A spokesman for the department said: “Due to an administrative error a number of paintings on the Government Art Collection website were incorrectly stated to be under review. This is not the case and the website is being corrected.”

Both Drake and Nelson were widely criticised for their links to the slave trade following Black Lives Matter protests.

Drake undetook voyages with his slave trader cousin John Hawkins to seize African captives, some have argued that Nelson’s upholding of British naval supremacy helped uphold the slave trade

In letters written by the admiral more than 200 years ago, Nelson also stated to associates who are in favour of slavery that he too is “of the good old school” which support the trade, and had been “taught to appreciate the value of our West India possessions”.

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