Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Art and Empire in Leeds

During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire controlled colonies and territories across the world. Though it was once celebrated as a symbol of Britain's supposed technical, intellectual and moral superiority, it is now widely accepted that violence and exploitation characterised the expansion of the British empire and that it depended heavily on the exploitation of people and lands under Britain's control.

Art created during and after this period played a significant role in both promoting and criticising the British empire. Artists used imagery connected to empire, materials that had been brought to Britain through imperial trade routes, and created objects for those who used both inherited wealth and wealth made from exploits across the empire to pay for commissions.

This guide was designed to help researchers, teachers and learners interested in exploring art objects connected to British colonial history in Leeds. It can be used to create interpretation materials for objects in collections and communities, and learning materials around art rooted in structures of British imperial/colonial power. These structures include, but are not limited to: transatlantic slavery, the colonisation of land and people, geopolitics (reform and policing), settlement, trade, military conflict, wealth accumulation and industrialisation.


Leeds and the British Empire

Like many large regional cities, Leeds played a significant role in structures that supported the empire. Though it was not a port city, aristocratic and middle class people in Leeds participated in transatlantic slavery through the ownership of enslaved people from West Africa, plantations and inheriting generational wealth. To find out more about the role Leeds and its citizens played in colonial and postcolonial narratives see the Leeds Empire and Colonialism Collection of resources in Supporting Links.



Empire – the collective term used to describe a large group of countries whose inhabitants and lands are controlled by a single entity, such as a monarch or ruling country.
Decorative arts – the arts concerned with the production of objects which are both useful and beautiful
East India Company – an English company established in 1600 for the purpose of trade with India and Southeast Asia. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was an agent of British imperialism.
Propaganda – misleading information used to promote a singular point of view
colonialism – the practice of gaining control over and exploiting the resources of another country
Decolonising (museum context) – the process of critically engaging with and questioning the ownership and histories of museum objects that have been acquired or stolen through colonial channels such as war, transatlantic slavery, extraction and settler colonialism
Postcolonial – occurring after a historically defined period of colonial rule has ended
Censorship – the suppression or prohibition of any media based on its content, particularly content that is politically sensitive or unacceptable, obscene or threatening to dominant power structures
Transatlantic – concerning countries on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, typically Britain and the US.
British ‘factors’ – British people who lived full-time in Africa for the purpose of buying enslaved people from tribal chiefs.
Missionary – a person sent on a religious mission, especially one sent to promote Christianity in a foreign country
Raw material – the basic material from which a product is made, e.g. wool, wood.
Sepoy – an Indian soldier serving under British or other European orders
West Indies – the name given to the islands that made up Caribbean coined by colonising European powers. 'West Indies' was eventually used by all European nations to describe their own acquired territories in the continent of America.
Triangular Trade – the name given to the three stage process of transatlantic slavery, where goods were transported to ports on the West Coast of Africa and exchanged for human life, the enslaved were then forcibly migrated to the Caribbean on the same ship, where they were sold at auction. The ship then returned to England filled with goods from the Caribbean, including sugar, rum and mahogany.