21st June is the midsummer solstice – a day to celebrate and more seriously to reflect on our connection to this spinning planet. On this special day, 25 performers spread throughout the National Portrait Gallery and simultaneously had oil poured over their faces, becoming living ‘portraits in oil’. The aim was to raise awareness of what lies behind the Gallery celebrating 25 years of sponsorship by controversial oil company BP.
The performance took place days before the BP Portrait Award 2014 ceremony (on Tuesday) and exhibition opening (Thursday 26 June). It was carried out by a number of groups from the Art Not Oil coalition seeking an end to oil-industry sponsorship of the arts.
The number of portraits was chosen to reflect 25 years of BP’s sponsorship. Read this handy overview and timeline of BP’s poor environmental record over this 25 year period. Its impact is significant because it has such a long history of pollution and climate-altering. BP is one of the world’s oldest oil companies, alongside Shell, dating back to 1908 when the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed. However, the story of Britain, fossil fuels and power goes much deeper into the past. This post tells some of that story linking to 25 portraits of historical British figures in the NPG’s collection. The story is counterpointed by some of my photos of these contemporary ‘besmirched’ portraits.
Early ideas of nature and sustainability
As Britain developed agricultural production and maritime trade between the 16th and 18th centuries, some were already raising questions about the exploitation of people and natural resources. For example, John Evelyn wrote the treatise ‘Sylva’ encouraging the planting of trees and giving voice to ideas of sustainability. John Tradescant travelled to collect plants and artefacts of indigenous Americans, forming the nucleus of Britain’s first public museum. Shakespeare’s writing expressed a humanist vision of nature. His legacy is now tainted through BP’s sponsorship of the RSC.
Growth of British empire and the Industrial Revolution
British inventors such as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt developed the technology to overcome difficulties of coal mining in the 18th Century. Humphrey Davy invented the miners safety lamp in 1815 which helped the coal industry to grow by mining further and faster.
This was an age of science applied to engineering, with figures such as Michael Faraday whose discovery of electrical conductivity led to a world of energy-hungry gadgets, or Baron Kelvin who developed the absolute temperature scale, useful in the study of thermodynamics and climate science.
There were voices for nature too, Romantics and visionaries, very notably William Blake, who saw nature and the imagination as one. John Clare was a Northamptonshire poet famous for lamenting the destruction of the English countryside due to the Industrial Revolution and the enclosures of common land. If he was alive today, his poems would no doubt have responded to the impact of fracking. There were also political radicals such as Thomas Clarkson and Joseph Sturge who formed the Anti-Slavery Society and helped bring an end to the transatlantic Slave Trade.
As the 19th Century progressed, the British Empire’s colonies spread, using the land for mining and crops in Africa, the Caribbean and India, and controlling economies of countries such as China and Argentina. This was a technocratic challenge, with many surveyors such as George Nares employed at land and sea. The British colonisers also controlled other peoples by imposing their beliefs, as we see in the portrait of Queen Victoria giving a Bible to an African ruler.
Meanwhile artists such as William Morris were arguing for manufacture that honoured nature, and British scientists such as Charles Darwin were leading the way in understanding the evolution of species. Today, oil is a major force behind the Sixth Mass Extinction, in process of wiping out much of our precious biodiversity.
The rise of oil and conflict
Before 1914 Britain rushed to explore new resources and technologies, as other nations sought to compete with its imperial power. In this era, the Titanic and Dreadnought ships were built, and Scott and Shackleton reached the South Pole in 1912.
British engineers were responsible for new technologies that created a vast demand for oil, driven in part by advances in military aircraft. John Alcock was soon to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight, in 1919. Supported by Shell Petroleum, the first internal combustion engines were developed from 1900 to 1914.
Winston Churchill successfully argued to replace coal with oil in Navy ships. This resulted in the British purchase of 51% of the Anglo-Persian Oil company, which became BP. Germany was also gunning to secure this source of oil, and many believe this oil struggle is the real spark for WW1.
After the war, in the 1930’s Shell-Mex and BP employed artists such as Graham Sutherland and writers like John Betjeman to promote motoring and the joys of oil.
World War II
The turning point that led to our current fossil fuel frenzy was World War II, the first war to be fought using aircraft and tanks. By now, most ships were fuelled by oil too. Many of Britain’s bombing campaigns, led by ‘Bomber Harris’, targeted Germany’s oil resources.
When the War ended Britain was involved in internationalist efforts for peace and conservation. Julian Huxley played a leading role in the foundation of UNESCO and the World Wildlife Fund.
The escalation of nuclear weapons and use of nuclear power was a focus for the post-War peace movement. Although the USA invested most in this technology, Ernest Rutherford was a key British figure as he had discovered and split the atom. Some now believe that nuclear power is the solution to replace fossil fuels.
The North Sea era
In the 1970’s Britain hit an oil crisis as nations in the Middle East reclaimed and nationalised their oil rights. Middle Eastern oil went from 80% to 10% of BP’s supply. In 1975 it began to extract oil from the North Sea via Scotland. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher then oversaw the expansion of North Sea oil and gas, and BP privatisation.
In the 1980’s there was growing protest at the entanglement of art and unethical sponsors. After a protest at a Kokoschka exhibition, Tate ended sponsorship by an arms company. In 1989, the NPG ended tobacco sponsorship of the Portrait Award, but replaced it with BP.
Oil and power now
Iraq is in the news again. Wars over control of oil-rich Middle Eastern lands have intensified this century, despite knowledge that we must reduce our consumption of oil. Tony Blair took us into the Iraq War in 2003 and now colludes with companies such as BP to gain from war spoils.
The ‘laissez faire’ approach to trade begun by Richard Cobden in the 19th Century is now in full swing and we’re facing a new Transatlantic Trade deal that will make it possible for companies like BP to sue governments if laws reduce free trade and affect their profits.
The National Portrait Gallery contains portraits of many activists who have highlighted the wrongs in systems believed to good, or at least useful. The examples of Anti-slavery campaigners, Suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Anti-Apartheid campaigner Bishop Trevor Huddleston are inspirations to campaigners who aim for a transition beyond oil. Huddleston’s colleague, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, has recently said, “Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing or doing much about climate change. Today we have no excuse. Companies responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change are not simply going to give up. They need persuasion from the likes of us [and] our cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil-fuel industry.”
We can see how oil companies are denying the dire warnings about climate change and seek military action to protect supplies, with no regard for the impacts on people and other species everywhere. This performance today asked for BP to end ‘business as usual’, and asked for cultural organisations to be more aware how the sponsorship of culture serves to wash clean the reputations of companies like BP.