CULTURE: Black History Comes out of the Shadows; Terry Grimley Reviews an Exhibition Exploring the Theme of Black People in 19th Century Art

The Birmingham Post (England), February 6, 2006 | Go to article overview

CULTURE: Black History Comes out of the Shadows; Terry Grimley Reviews an Exhibition Exploring the Theme of Black People in 19th Century Art


Byline: Terry Grimley

It would be relatively easy to suppose that Britain's first black residents arrived on the SS Windrush after the Second World War, but it would also be flying in the face of considerable historic evidence.

Jointly staged with Manchester and first seen there last year, the exhibition Black Victorians, now showing at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery's Waterhall Gallery, has plundered the collections (and perhaps more often the reserve collections) of museums across Britain and further a field to explore ways in which black people left their mark on the visual record of Britain in the 19th century.

A starting point for its curator, Jan Marsh, was Dante Gabriel Ros-setti's painting The Beloved with its black child servant, for whom there are two pencil studies in the Birmingham collection.This painting links two recurring roles for black people during this era - as servants and artists' models - for both of which their perceived exoticism recommended them.

Walking around the exhibition, you can tick off various further roles. There are the visiting African kings and ambassadors, the doctors and clergymen who came to Britain to study, the sailors who fetched up in Britain's ports or in its navy, the soldiers and military bandsmen.

Then, prefiguring 20th century stereotypes, there are sportsmen and entertainers like the prizefighter Bill Richmond, the peg-legged fiddler Billy Waters or, higher up the artistic ladder, the imposing-looking American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge.

One of the most haunting portraits, The Black Boy, attributed to the Liverpool Pre-Raphaelite William Lindsay Windus, comes with a romantic story attached about how the boy was reunited with a sea-going relative when it was exhibited in a shop window. But then the painting may not be by Windus and may have nothing to do with Liverpool.

Another remarkable child portrait is Walter Willis's of the six year-old future composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose father was from Sierra Leone and mother from Croydon. He grew up in the London suburbs and Willis was evidently one of a group of local artists who thought he made a cute model -which indeed he did.

Elgar described Coleridge-Taylor, a contemporary of Holst and Vaughan Williams, as "much the brightest of the young men", but he was still young when he died in 1912 and his one big hit, Hiawatha, has faded seemingly beyond recall. I already knew about Coleridge-Taylor but not George Bridgetower, a black Austrian-born violinist and composer who had lessons from Haydn and gave private performances for George III and the Prince of Wales.

Bridgetower was the original dedicatee of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, but they quarelled and Beethoven changed the dedication, calling Bridgetower "gran pazzo e compositore mulattico" (madman and mulatto composer). Undeterred, he settled in Britain and graduated in music from Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Perhaps the most famous of all black Victorians was the formidable Crimean nurse Mary Seacole, who is represented by several representations including a rare glimpse of a terracotta bust from a Jamaican collection. Another rarity is a photograph from the Rutgers Museum in America of the circus acrobat Miss La La, the subject of a famous painting by Degas which is on loan from the National Gallery.

There are several paintings by William Etty, an interesting painter who was unique in his country and era in making the nude his central subject. …

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