By Vernon, Patrick
History Today , Vol. 55, No. 10
HISTORY HAS A HABIT of repeating itself and reinventing cultural and historical experiences. The history of African people and the diaspora living in Europe, North America, the Caribbean and South America is no exception. The new exhibition 'Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900' organized jointly by the Manchester Art Gallery (where it opens on October 1st) and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (where it transfers in January 2006), is a wide-ranging and comprehensive exploration highlighting both positive and negative aspects of the depiction of black people in the nineteenth century.
Blacks feature surprisingly widely in Victorian art. Some were successful in breaking through the Victorian 'glass ceiling' in the worlds of music, nursing, politics, theatre, and the nobility. The portrait by James Northcote of the actor Ira Aldridge, for example, was one of Manchester Art Gallery's earliest acquisitions in 1826. Other well-known figures featured in the exhibition include the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Britain's first professional Black footballer, Arthur Wharton and Mary Seacole. Blacks' achievements became the stuff of conventional visual imagery in painting and sculpture, and the exhibition has some fine examples by the likes of William Hohnan Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James Whistler. But the exhibition also sheds light on unknown Blacks. Some portraits are new discoveries, and some subjects hitherto unknown, like the artists' model Fanny Eaton. Many of the works have not been exhibited since the nineteenth century.
As well as paintings, the exhibition includes photography, popular illustration, caricature and ephemera. The Victorian age saw the development of the mass-media, and the postcard industry between 1870-1920 in particular contributed to the spreading of racist images in popular culture.
By the First World War millions of postcards were being sent every week in Britain. Millions more were collected for personal interest, on subjects ranging from rail disasters to risque or obscene images of the human body.
Black people in Victorian postcards are very common: they appear in several categories of picture. There are the topographical scenes of popular tourist sites, particularly in Africa, the Caribbean, South America and the Deep South of America, in scenes of famous landmarks such as the Victoria Falls, the Pyramids and the Panama Canal.
There are historical or lifestyle pictures from such places showing street or market scenes, people at work, perhaps picking cotton, fishing or hunting. …