There is much to enjoy in this new exploration of art and the British Empire

Where’s Cecil Rhodes? You would have thought that an exhibition on empire, such as that now at Tate Britain, could hardly have ignored him, as a patron of Herbert Baker if nothing else. The row over his statue on Oriel College, Oxford, which those distressed by his brutality against African tribesmen want to see removed, illustrates his power to ignite controversy, a century after his death. But it’s a sign of the queasiness with which the exhibition confronts the imperial legacy that he doesn’t feature. Political correctness rules.

To judge from the choice of epic battle scenes, most of them showing valiant last stands rather than imperial triumphs, you would think that the Empire had been an unmitigated disaster or run by exceptionally good sports, who were as happy to celebrate heroism in defeat as glory in victory.

It might be objected that the Tate’s primary concern, as an art gallery, is with objects, not history. What a shame, then, that the objects are so randomly chosen. Despite a section entitled ‘Trophies of Empire’, few exhibits evoke the splendours that found their way into British collections, as a result of the sacking of Seringapatam, the Old Summer Palace in Peking, the royal palace at Mandalay and so on. ‘Loot’ was an Indian word and a lot of it came back, from India and elsewhere.

Sir Joseph Banks about to Eat an Alligator (The Fish Supper)

Not that all the wonders were filched. I would have liked to see the diamond in which Governor Pitt of Madras invested his fortune sold for nearly seven times the original outlay to the Regent of France in 1717. It’s now in the Louvre.

Accepting that ‘Artist and Empire’ is not that sort of exhibition, and some aspects may make your blood boil, there is much to enjoy. This is a fresh look at the mountain of avail-able material, with many unfamiliar and, it has to be said, thought-provoking choices. I liked the section on maps, important for the military as much as travellers, although John Montresor’s map, covertly made in 1766 to show the fortifications of New York, didn’t do the surveyor much good he died in Maidstone Gaol.

Henry Nelson O’Neil’s East-ward Ho! (August 1857) and Home Again (1858) are well chosen: they’re marvellous paintings, showing a ship’s gangway as soldiers embark in high spirits to quell the Indian Mutiny and return wounded and wiser; the pair has been reunited for this exhibition. However, you have to buy the catalogue to understand the nuances.

Cheetah and Stag with two Indians in an imagined landscape in George Stubbs's 1965 painting

Cheetah and Stag with two Indians, c.1765 (oil on canvas) by Stubbs, George

Clothes were part of the language of empire, beginning, here, with the bare legs of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s Captain Thomas Lee. Lee was a reckless Elizabethan soldier (eventually executed for treason) at the time of the Irish plantations and his lack of footwear is a reference to the traditional dress of Irish soldiers. (Should Ireland be regarded as the earliest part of the British Empire? Discuss.)

James Sant’s Captain Colin Mackenzie, shown in sumptuous robes and turban given by Muham-mad Akbar Khan, is interpreted as a statement of diplomatic success, rather than military swagger.

Mackenzie, we learn from the catalogue, spoke at least two Afghan languages and although you would not think it from the portrait was known as the English Mullah on account of his deep evangelical faith.

Best of all, however, are the faces. They’re of all kinds: heavily tattooed Maoris, idealised Polynesians, lustful nabobs, princesses from Mysore, Sikh soldiers from the First World War. Queen Victoria herself commissioned Rudolf Swoboda to paint the craftsmen brought over supposedly to demonstrate native crafts at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, which he did in a series of moving portrait heads. It turned out that most of the men had been recruited from the Central Jail in Agra and had been taught their craft skills by the British.

Sir John Everett Millais's The North West-West Passage (1874)

Sir John Everett Millais’s The North West-West Passage (1874)

As this episode shows, British administrators often tried their best to improve native conditions and promote justice. One document I had not seen before is the pictograph of Governor Arthur’s Proclamation to the Aborigines. During the 1820s, it had been discovered that the Tasmanian Aborigines used drawings on bark to convey messages. Governor George Arthur had the good idea of using similar Proclamation Boards to demonstrate his intention to rule fairly, promoting harmony between the races and, where necessary, punishing whites as well as blacks.

Alas, the subsequent history of Tasmania saw the complete elimination of the Aborigines, by genocidal settlers, but the Governor’s vision like that of Rhodes had something to recommend it. Given the choice of living under the British Empire or under those operated by the Germans or Belgians, Ottomans or Zulus, I know which I’d prefer.

‘Artist and Empire’ is at Tate Britain, London until April 10 (020–7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk)