Where is ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’?

Fatema Ahmed

In the middle of Room 23 (‘Empire and Expansion’) of the National Portrait Gallery, between the explorers and officers on one side and Florence Nightingale receiving the Crimean wounded on the other, is a selection of cartes de visites and group photographs of visitors to the Houses of Parliament. The calling cards include those of the Parsee intellectual Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian to become an MP (for Central Finsbury in 1892), and ‘Mr Stanley, in the dress he wore when he met Livingstone in Africa’.

Among the groups in Benjamin Stone’s parliamentary photographs are great-coated and top-hatted Basuto chiefs (1909), and five of the six ‘Pygmies from Central Africa’ who had been captured by the big-game hunter James J. Harrison and could be seen at London’s Hippodrome in the summer of 1905. The display is part of Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948, on show until 11 December.

A wall text nearby asks: ‘Where is The Secret of England’s Greatness?’ Thomas Jones Barker’s painting shows Queen Victoria handing an ornate Bible to an even more ornately dressed African man bowing before her, while Lord John Russell and Palmerston look on from the right of the painting and Albert and a lady-in-waiting stand behind Victoria. The African is thought to be based on Ali bin Nasr, the governor of Mombasa, representing the Sultan of Oman, but the painting shows an imaginary scene – and a fantastical one. An apocryphal story circulated in the 1850s that the queen, asked by an African envoy how Britain had become so powerful, gave him a Bible and said: ‘Tell the prince that this is the secret of England’s greatness.’

The painting itself tells a more complicated story. The Bible is right at the centre of the composition, but it’s the relationship – and lack of contact – between Victoria and the unnamed emissary that catches the eye: they both have their hands on the Bible, but do not touch; only their gazes connect along a dramatic diagonal filled by a dark background.

Barker’s painting went on a national tour in the 1860s to promote sales of a mezzotint reproduction, called simply The Bible. It has been on a more far-flung tour this year. It was part of Elizabeth to Victoria: British Portraits from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and is currently at the National Gallery of Singapore, on the second leg of Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire exhibition. Both venues throw up thought-provoking world-historical ironies, but the more local encounter I’m sorry to have missed seems like a bigger loss, in this country, and at the moment.


  • 19 November 2016 at 11:22am
    kadinsky says:
    Ha ha, that wooden mirror of the English is of some vintage. The Lord John Russell pictured at Victoria's shoulder was the prime minister who permitted the Irish to suffer mass starvation rather than bend the iron law of laissez-faire. Yet here he is being depicted a few years later - along with his queen and nation - as divinely inspired. Leap forward another 150-odd years and the same liberal nation is to be found congratulating itself on leading world condemnation of the bombing of civilians in Aleppo; while simultaneously selling Saudi Arabia bombs to drop on civilians in Yemen. Vintage stuff!