“Hail, Britannia” – A Surprising Exhibit in our Local Corner

Posted on March 27, 2015


By Marguerite Spiotta


Our lovely city of Memphis currently boasts a national treasure on loan from the Denver Museum of Art. The Dixon Gallery and Gardens features an exhibit entitled “Hail, Britannia! Six Centuries of British Art from the Berger Collection,” which is now on display through April 19, 2015. According to sources at the Dixon Gallery, “On size alone, the Berger Collection is without peer among privately owned collections of British art in America. In holdings of British artworks made during the 1500s and early 1600s it rivals the public collections at the Yale Center for British Arts in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.” A diverse sampling of British art punctuates what one might expect to find on a visit to Memphis’ Dixon Gallery and Gardens. While architects designed the Dixon home in a Neo-Georgian style, original owners Margaret and Hugo Dixon aimed for their gardens to match that of the English, French, and Italian varieties. While Margaret Dixon mainly collected pieces of French Impressionism, her husband hailed from England. For these reasons, I imagine the Berger Collection feels quite at home nestled in a house with an affinity for English tastes and style.

The actual show features fifty works of art spanning over six centuries. It displays renowned British artists like Sir Anthony van Dyck, Sir Thomas Lawrence, and Angelica Kauffman. Notably, the collection includes works from American painters like James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Both artists were among the many American painters who found a following and patronage in England, a country that was considered important in an era when the United States was not the global power or cultural leader it became in the 20th century. My greatest surprise when visiting “Hail, Britannia!” arose from the diversity of subject matter presented. Detailed portraits of buttoned-up ladies with heavy hairdos, hunting pictures, canal scenes, maritime adventure painting, religious representations, and contemporary pieces all meet in the Berger Collection. My favorite work at the exhibit is a painting by Sir Howard Hodgkin entitled Storm, 1996-1997. One senses the drama and emotion behind the vivid colors and depictions of light. With such a wide range of style, era, and genre, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this painting seamlessly blended with the others, like a rendering of Jesus on the cross, to create a cohesive and engaging exhibit.

Even while weaving in and out of different rooms, never once did I question the success of the compilation. In fact, I mostly ignored chronology and simply traveled where my eyes led. When I finished gazing on the many captivating works of art, I found myself wondering, why name the exhibit “Hail, Britannia!”? First, I thought maybe because the exhibit in fact hails from Britain. This seemed too easy of an explanation. Upon further research, I learned that the name actually derives from the chorus of a familiar English song. One immediately recognizes the tune and thinks of England upon hearing the melody. The song alludes to the era when Britain was a world-wide empire, formed and defended by its massive naval power. I like to think that whether or not one understands the true meaning, the title and exhibit still recall a sense of “long-ago.” Before the movies and proliferation of photography, artists represented the world through paintings like those currently on display at the Dixon. The art evokes another world, and what a treat that our city has the opportunity to experience it!

Posted in: Arts