Critics’ Picks

Hew Locke, Souvenir 8 (Albert Edward, Prince of Wales), 2019, mixed media on antique Parian ware, 21 x 12 x 12 1/2".

Hew Locke, Souvenir 8 (Albert Edward, Prince of Wales), 2019, mixed media on antique Parian ware, 21 x 12 x 12 1/2".


Hew Locke

Hales Gallery | London
7 Bethnal Green Road
September 26–November 9, 2019

Empire manifests itself in myriad ways, from the statues populating public squares to how many sugars a culture takes in its tea. During the Victorian age, technological advances enabled the mass-production of busts of British royals in Parian, a slip-cast porcelain substitute for marble. Developed in the early 1840s, the material made a splash at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, where the affordable statuettes were snapped up as aspirational décor by the burgeoning middle class. Still others circled the globe as “souvenirs” from the exhibition, traveling to the outer reaches of the commonwealth.

In his ongoing series “Souvenirs,” 2018–, Hew Locke reverses this trajectory, opening antique busts of British royals—Queen Victoria, her son Edward VII, and his wife Alexandra—to the assimilation of influences from the cultures these rulers once sought to control. In one of the three busts of Edward, the king glowers out from an extravagant oblong headpiece bedecked in bronze, military medals, and red jasper–esque gemstones, while Alexandra wears a Medusa crown of rubber snakes. Swaddled in a cocoon of metallic frills, black lace, and fake pearls, Victoria’s stern countenance loses its air of authority and sooner suggests a discontented doily.

These newly adorned royals stare solemnly out, toward a makeshift fleet suspended through the gallery. Painted in vibrant hues, the vessels resemble Guyanese houseboats, only festooned with magnificent patchwork sails. Closer inspection of their cargo reveals the gritty underpinnings of the Victorian dollhouse; miniature jute sacks, crates, and chests spill across the decks, conjuring piracy, plunder, or illicit trade. The artist sources his materials from the streets of Brixton, a neighborhood in South London whose rich collage of cultures stands testament to the fact that empire is not just something that exists abroad.