I suspect that many of my readers will have no idea of what I’m talking about, especially if they hail from the northern latitudes. I certainly didn’t until I first came to Italy a lifetime ago. Loquats were one of a long list of new food items my wife introduced me to. Except that she didn’t call them loquats, she called them by their Italian name, nespole, and it took me at least thirty years and the internet to figure out their English name.
Loquats are a fruit. They look like this when unopened.
They’re a bit fussy to prepare. You have to first peel off their thin skin, which tends to break and tear easily, complicating removal. Once you’ve done that, you slice them open, only to find three or four large stones inside.
The stones are quite beautiful really – warm brown, smooth, glistening – but they take up a lot of the internal space, which of course means less flesh to eat. In any case, once you flip the stones out the fruit is ready to eat. Ah, my friends, such taste! Sweet, but with a slightly tart, acidic note, a very juicy but firm flesh. To die for …
When we lived in Italy, I always looked forward to the month of May as loquat season. Then we went away for some twenty years and loquats remained but a dream. Even in retirement, when we spend a good amount of time here, we tend to leave before loquats come on the market – we have been in the habit of migrating up to Vienna by mid-May. As luck would have it, though, this year we’ve stayed longer than usual, so I’ve had the joy of once again eating loquats.
The fruit’s English name gives us a clue as to where the loquat hails from. “Loquat” is the English rendering of the Cantonese name for the fruit, lou4gwat1 (I believe those numbers are indications of the tones – good luck with that; in my five years in China, I never managed to “hear” a single tone). The fruit’s ancestral homeland is indeed southern China – more strictly the middle and lower valley of the Daduhe River. I throw in a satellite map from Google Maps, where the red pin is stuck in the river’s valley.
Readers will see that Daduhe River is in the far south-west of China, in Yunnan province. It lies north of Xishuangbanna, which sits on the Mekong River (and which we had the pleasure to visit when we lived in China), and to the south of Pu’er, the location of a rather particular Chinese tea (which I must confess to not liking very much). It doesn’t surprise me that the loquat originates from this part of the world. Yunnan is a globally famous “hot spot” of biodiversity, hosting thousands of different species.
This Chinese connection delighted me when I found it out since over the years I have written a number of posts about various plants which have been carried out of China and spread to the rest of the world. To date, I have written about the Ginkgo tree, Kaki fruit, the Magnolia, the Peking Willow, Wisteria, the Pauwlonia tree, and Osmanthus. As always, Chinese poets and artists celebrated the fruit. We have here a painting from the mid to late Ming dynasty.
While here is one from the late Qing dynasty.
The fruit’s English name may be Cantonese but it was not through the port of Canton that it was first transferred to Europe. Like a number of other Chinese plants that reached Europe (from just among the ones I’ve written posts about: the ginkgo tree, kaki fruit, and the magnolia), the transfer occurred via Japan. It seems that the Portuguese, the first Europeans to reach Japan, were also the first to bring the loquat back to Europe. By the time they first set eyes on the fruit and its tree, probably very soon after they arrived in Japan in 1543, it had been growing there for 500 years or so. In all likelihood, it was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, either Chinese monks going to proselytize in Japan or by Japanese monks returning home after a period of study in China.
The modern varieties of loquats owe a lot to the patient work by Japanese farmers to develop fruits that were bigger, juicier and sweeter than their wild ancestors. I salute all those anonymous Japanese farmers for their efforts! I throw in here a woodblock by Katsushiga Hokusai of Japanese farmers at work on their more traditional crop, rice.
Of course, like the Chinese, the Japanese celebrated the loquat in their art. Here is a woodblock by Utagawa Hiroshige (whom I’ve had cause to discuss at length in a previous post) with the same subject of bird and loquats as the Ming-era Chinese painting above.
In any event, some time in the late 16th, early 17th Century, a Portuguese ship like this one carried the loquat back to Europe.
The Portuguese didn’t call this new fruit “loquat”, nor did they even call it by some Lusitanian derivation of its Japanese name “biwa”. Instead, like a good number of other countries in Europe, they thought they had to do with a Japanese cousin of an already well-known fruit in Europe, the medlar, whose Portuguese name is nêspera (closely related to its Spanish name, níspero, and more distantly related to its Italian name, nespola – for those interested in linguistics, in all three languages the word derives from the Latin name for the medlar, mespilus, although at some point the “m” drifted to an “n” and the “l” further drifted into an “r” in the Iberian peninsula). The medlar was once quite a well-known fruit in Europe although it has since fallen into obscurity. I certainly had no idea what it looked like when I started this post, and I suspect this to be the case for many of my readers, so I throw in here a photo of this antique fruit.
Comparing this photo to my first photo of the loquat, I think readers will understand why this confusion arose. By the early 1800s, botanists had understood that it was actually a different plant but by then the damage was done and the Chinese upstart had linguistically dethroned the venerable medlar in about half the European languages.
Loquats have an interesting life-cycle. Like the strawberry tree, which I wrote an earlier post about, the flowers appear in the late autumn or early winter. It seems that the flowers have a sweet, heady aroma that can be smelled at quite a distance; personally, I have never experienced this even though the loquat tree grows in Liguria (from where I am writing this post). The sweet-smelling flowers were also a reason why the tree was a favourite among Chinese and Japanese poets.
But from a botanical point of view, what is more interesting is that to obtain fruits from these flowers you have to grow the trees in a region where pollinating insects are around at that late time of the year. That is why I never saw the fruit in either the UK or France when I was growing up and had to wait till I came to Italy, where the tree can fruit in the south and along the Ligurian coast, for me to discover it. An advantage of this life-cycle is that the fruit ripens at any time from spring to early summer. It is the first fresh fruit to be available naturally in Italy (i.e., not ripened artificially in some greenhouse somewhere, nor flown in from some remote part of the world), and so can have the monopoly of the fresh-fruit market before the cherries and other fruits appear. Which is why for me the month of May is loquat time.
And now it’s time for me to gorge myself on some more loquats!
That was the thought which crossed my mind when in our last AirBnB my wife and I were going through the kitchen cupboards to see what had been left behind by previous occupants. I looked at the bottle glumly. I like having my vegetables in salad, and my sauce of choice is a simple vinaigrette: olive oil, vinegar, salt. I dislike having to use balsamic vinegar. I don’t care for the sweet taste it imparts. Salads, in my humble opinion, require astringency, not sweetness. I hasten to add that I am not against the mixing of sweet and salt per se on my plate, as this previous post attests to. I’m just against sweet sauces on salads. So, as I say, I stared at the bottle glumly. It looked like I was going to have to use balsamic vinegar on my salads during our stay; who wants to buy a whole bottle of vinegar for a short AirBnB stay? Luckily, our daughter, whom we were visiting, came to the rescue, lending us some of her vinegar, the real stuff, made from red wine.
Where did all the real vinegar go to? There was a time, not so long ago – we’re talking 15-20 years ago – when waiters brought you real vinegar when you asked for “oil and vinegar” for your salad. Then, mysteriously, balsamic vinegar appeared out of nowhere, and the waiters would start asking: “balsamic or normal?” Then, after a bit, the waiters simply brought you balsamic; if you wanted real vinegar, you had to beg for it and they would bring it with evident ill-will if they had it at all. I think I know what the pagans in the Roman Empire must have felt like, just after Christianity became the State religion. One moment, your religion is mainstream, then along comes this upstart religion and suddenly everyone is looking at you askance, your favourite temple is being torn down or turned into a church, and you can’t get a job in government anymore! (an experience well described by Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Swerve).
I’ve always had a love for vinegar, ever since I tasted my French grandmother’s homemade brew. Down in her cellar – its earth-packed floor exuding a special scent of centuries-old dry dust and its dark corners packed with the fascinating flotsam and jetsam from the many generations who had lived in the house – there was a long wooden table, on which she kept her store of little round local goat’s cheeses as well as a small wooden barrel in which she made her vinegar. When the vinegar in the dining room was finished my grandmother would send me down to the cellar (which has already been the subject of a previous post) to fill the little vinegar pitcher. Of course, I never took a picture of her vinegar barrel. After a search on the web, though, I found this image which gives an idea of what I would find before me after I had walked down the old stone steps and opened the heavy cellar door.
As I would open the tap in the barrel, a lovely winey but slightly acidic scent would rise to my nostrils as the vinegar ran into the pitcher. Ah, that lovely, lovely smell! Never forgotten, even though half a century and more has passed. How can it be that people prefer balsamic vinegar to this elixir of the gods?!
After much thought on the matter, I have put it down to the fact that, contrary to my preferences, most people like a sweet sauce on their salads. I still remember with a shudder the sickly white, creamy, sweet sauces that the Brits spread with wild abandon on their salads. I see the same types of sauces in the Germanic and Nordic lands of Europe. In my youth, I had this theory that there was a salad-sauce border that ran across Europe, between the countries or parts thereof which spoke Romance languages plus Greece – all oil-and-vinegar salad sauce countries – and the remaining Germanic and Slavic speaking countries – all sweet creamy salad sauce countries. The US and Canada, reflecting their immigration history, have always seemed to me to be mixed in their tastes in salad sauce although I feel that the sweet creamy salad sauces predominate; even the non-creamy sauces are horribly sweet. Here is a picture of an array of such sauces in the posh supermarket that was up the road from our AirBnB. But the tsunami of balsamic vinegar which has flooded over bastions of the oil-and-vinegar salad sauce countries like Italy has led me to bitterly conclude that even most Italians – and probably most French and most Iberians – like their salad sauces sweet. I am the old 4th Century pagan left bewildered and embittered by the mass conversion of my compatriots to Christianity …
The ridiculous thing is, I’m sure that most people who liberally drizzle their salads with balsamic vinegar don’t realize that they are actually consuming a FAKE. We have all read and heard that balsamic vinegar has its roots in the Italian towns of Modena and Reggio-Emilia (I throw in here a photo of Modena’s main square).
It does indeed, but the original is hugely different from the vast majority of the stuff people call balsamic vinegar. First of all, it is not made from wine in the way vinegar is. Instead, a must of (locally grown) crushed grapes – pulp, seeds, skin, stems and all – is slowly reduced to a thick syrup over an open flame. This is then allowed to ferment to create some alcohol, at which point the acetic acid bacteria are allowed to get to work to turn that alcohol into acetic acid. After which, the acetified syrup goes through a long, long aging process, during which the acid levels rise. A series of at least five progressively smaller barrels (each made of different woods) are used for this.
Once a year, part of the syrupy vinegar in the smallest barrel is withdrawn as final product. The barrel is topped up with vinegar from the next largest barrel, and so on, in a cascade mode; at the end, the latest batch of acetified syrup is used to top up the biggest barrel. The procession of syrupy vinegar from largest to smallest barrel can take anywhere from 12 to 25 years or more to complete. All this is now regulated by a Protected Designation of Origin certification (DOP in Italian) for “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar” (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale). If readers would like to pick up the product in a shop (or online), it looks something like this.
Such smart-looking (and very small!) bottles come with a correspondingly high price tag. They can be yours for no less than 150€ and for as much as 300€! At those prices, do readers think it gets drizzled on salads? No way José!! Discerning Modenese and Reggio-Emilians will place a few drops on shards of Parmesan cheese as an appetizer, or on a plate of simple pasta like tortelli di zucca, or on a grilled fish, or on fresh fruit such as strawberries, or on a dessert like panna cotta. They will even drink it from a tiny glass to conclude a meal as an after-meal digestive, especially on special occasions such as weddings. But they will definitely not waste a single drop of this precious liquid on a vulgar salad.
As readers might appreciate, a product which takes this long to make doesn’t have a huge annual production. But when, after what I suspect was a canny global marketing campaign, balsamic vinegar became the thing to have in your home and at the restaurant, demand grew hugely. How to satisfy this voracious – and highly profit-making – demand? Very simple. Make grape must from any old grape variety, reduce it a bit (or maybe not), add any old normal vinegar to give the vinegary taste, add caramel to give it the dark look, and corn starch to give it the syrupy look, of the real thing, slap on a label proclaiming it to be balsamic vinegar, et voilà! I’ve simplified a bit, but that is more or less what happened in the heady days of the late 20th Century when demand for balsamic vinegar shot up.
Some order was brought into all of this by the EU creating two certifications: the highly prestigious DOP, which I’ve already mentioned, and a Protected Geographic Indication (IGP in Italian) for “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” (Aceto Balsamico di Modena), which in its name recognizes the origin of all this balsamic vinegar. In fact, when people buy “high-end” balsamic vinegar, they normally buy the IGP variety. If readers refer back to the first photo in this post, they will see that the bottle I stared at glumly is IGP certified. And I took this photo in the condiment aisle of the same posh supermarket I mentioned earlier. All the balsamic vinegars were, without exception, IGP-certified “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”.
But I’m afraid this product is also rather a fake. You see, to get this certification all the producer really needs to do is to make sure that one stage of production occurs in or around Modena. So the must could be made in California with Californian grapes, and the vinegar could be made in Australia using Australian wine, but as long as the last required step – aging the resulting mixture for a minimum of 60 days – is carried out in a warehouse in an industrial park on the outskirts of Modena, the producer can quite legally claim it to be a “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” and use the mark of IGP certification on the label. (Oh, and the product would have to have at least 20% by volume of must, and at least 10% of vinegar, and at least 6% acidity, and no more than 2% of caramel for colouring.) And of course I leave it to my readers’ imaginations to think where any other product with just the words “balsamic vinegar” came from and what it contains (and doesn’t contain).
Well, with a bit of luck, this exposé of the nefarious ways of the world of balsamic vinegar producers may have persuaded some of my readers to abandon balsamic vinegar and go back to the one true faith of real vinegar on their salads. I can hear readers objecting that much of what passes for “wine vinegar” is also the product of some chemical refinery somewhere. I cannot deny this; my only answer is “caveat emptor and read the label” – and I make a mental note to myself to write a post in the future on how to make your very own, real, vinegar at home.
Yesterday, by sheer happenstance, my wife and I took in an exhibition entitled “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983)” at the Broad museum in Los Angeles. In one section, this was written on the wall: “During this period, centering the Black figure – historically marginalized in Western painting – was radical. Many artists created powerful images of Black Americans, including portraits of writers, artists, and everyday people.” It is true that the non-whites in almost all the paintings I showed in the last two posts are not centre-stage. So as a follow-up to my last two posts, I have decided to do some centering of my own, extracting the portraits of non-whites which are to be found in Art UK’s database. Here is the result: not quite all the ones I found; I chose the best.
Interesting fellow, Ira Frederick Aldridge, whose portrait this almost certainly is. An African American, he found himself constantly discriminated against as an actor in New York and so came to the UK in 1825. Thereafter, he had a very successful acting career, both in the UK as well as in the rest of Europe. There was of course a dearth of black characters in plays, so occasionally he took on roles as white European characters, for which he would be appropriately made up with greasepaint and wig. I love the idea: blackface in reverse …
After this, we have a number of portraits of anonymous people who sat as models.
Even though the model’s face is hidden in this next portrait, I thought of including it because it is the first portrait of a woman.
The next portrait is the first I found of a South Asian.
Intriguing woman, Bapsybanoo Pavry. She was born in Bombay, daughter of a Parsi Zoroastrian “Head Priest”. She came to the UK at a young age, determined to use her great beauty (and presumably great riches) to break into high society. She was about 30 when Augustus John painted her portrait. 20 years later, aged 51, she managed what she thought was a great coup: she married the Marquess of Winchester. Admittedly, he was marrying for the third time, was 90 years old, impotent, and bankrupt. But he was la crème de la crème of British aristocracy. Alas! Within weeks of marrying her, he eloped with his former fiancée Eve Fleming, mother of Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame), first to Monte Carlo and then to the Bahamas. Bapsybanoo followed them there, but was reduced to pacing up and down in front of their house and shaking her fist at them. Of course, she became a figure of ridicule in British high society, who no doubt felt that this Indian parvenue had got what she deserved. She eventually returned to India and died in 1995.
The artist who painted this last picture, Glyn Philpot, spent most of his career in the UK as a pretty conventional Edwardian portrait painter. Then in his last five years or so, he moved to Paris, his palette lightened and his style became more modern. He painted numerous paintings of people of African origin in this period, a good number of which are in Art UK’s database. This painting is of a young Jamaican, Henry Thomas, who was his lover.
I include the next painting, of Nurse Brown, to remind ourselves of the huge role non-whites played, and continue to play, in the UK’s health service. Although the painting is undated, I’m guessing it is from the immediate post-World War II period.
I include the next two paintings because they intrigue me. They are both set in what we could consider an iconic UK context, Trafalgar Square. One shows three Indian women and the other Caribbean family in the square, with white families forming a background. I wonder what the artist was trying to tell us? That non-whites were now a part of the UK landscape?
Perhaps immigrants were becoming more visible. This next painting is actually entitled “The Immigrant”.
It’s in this period that we see the first non-white councillor, the first step on the political ladder. It is David Pitt, who was councillor, the first non-white councillor ever, and later chairman of the Greater London Council. He was later made a member of the House of Lords, the pinnacle, one might say, of the British political establishment.
David Pitt tried twice to be elected as an MP. It seems that the British population was not ready for that. More or less overt racism seems to have been behind his loss both times.
As we enter the 1980s, the pace picks up, and non-white artists begin to make an appearance.
As far as I can make out, this next painting is the first by a non-white artist in this series.
This is the first portrait which I found of an Asian entering the political mainstream.
This next portrait is the first in this series to celebrate a sportsman, in this case the boxer Randy Turpin. Interestingly enough, it was painted some 40 years after his triumphs and 30 years after his death: British Middleweight champion 1950-54, World Middleweight champion 1951 and 1953. Why did it take so long to get around to painting his portrait, I wonder? I rather suspect that Warwick Town Council rather tardily remembered one of its more famous local sons.
This next painting certainly brings back memories for me, of the corner shops that were suddenly being run by South Asians. But we’re talking of the 1970s, while this portrait was only painted in 2000.
I rather like this next double portrait of mother and daughter. It captures beautifully the process of integration, from one generation to the next.
And here we arrive at the pinnacle the British political elites. Paul Boateng was able to be elected MP, he became the first non-white member of the Cabinet, and after a spell as High Commissioner to South Africa he became a member of the House of Lords.
One other pinnacle has been scaled, first black woman MP. The honour goes to Diane Abbot, Labour MP.
There is another elite, the military elite, which we have not had examples of yet. As of 2016, there wasn’t a single non-white in the British army’s top 133 positions. Perhaps it’s improved slightly since then although I doubt it. But there is also an elite of courage. Here, we have Johnson Beharry, who I believe is the first black British recipient of the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He won it during the Iraq war (there have been a good number of non-white recipients of the Victoria Cross, but they have all been Commonwealth troops).
In this post, I’ll continue looking at how non-white people were represented in British art, covering the period from the early 1800s, which more or less coincides with the formal abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire, to the present day. I want to focus on group paintings, that is, paintings where a number of people are present, because I feel that these more than anything else tell us how much non-white people were “visible” in society; if the paintings show them, it means that the painters – presumably as a reflection of those who commissioned the paintings – noticed that non-white people were present in British society. These types of paintings also show the “power relationships” between the people in the paintings. In the previous post, for example, I showed mostly group paintings, where the non-white participants – young black pages for the most part – were clearly in a subsidiary position to the whites in the painting. When do the paintings in Art UK’s database show that these power relations change, and how do they change?
In the previous post, the last of the group paintings with a non-white person in it was from 1794. There is then a big gap in the Art UK database; the next group painting in which I identified some non-whites was from 1875, some 80 years later. They were in what I would call a society painting entitled “Hush!”.
The sharp-eyed reader will notice two Indians sitting on the sofa to the right. From their dress (and the fact that they were even at this type of high-society gathering), they must have been high-class Indians, Maharajahs or such-like. Like the little black pages of the previous post, they were no doubt an exotic addition to the gathering, but their presence in the UK also suggests that they were presumably part of the British elite’s attempts, throughout the Empire, of co-opting the traditional ruling classes of the colonised countries and turning them into philo-Britishers. There is a similar painting in Art UK’s database, from some forty years later – similar in the sense of celebrating a high-society occasion and including a sprinkling of ethnic exotica. It is a painting celebrating a formal luncheon in London’s Guildhall in honour of King George V’s coronation.
Straining a bit, readers can see a group of Indian grandees, dressed in their colourful ethnic costumes, to the left and towards the back (of course). I presume they are there to remind readers that ever since Queen Victoria British monarchs had appropriated to themselves the title of Emperors of India; the Indian grandees were there, then, to celebrate “their” Emperor.
What about group paintings of normal people? Well, the very first I could find after the “black page period” is this one, from 1880 – once again, some 80 to 90 years after the “black page period” petered out.
This is actually a very intriguing painting, since it positively bursts with ethnic pluralism. Three of the main figures – the old man, the man with an injured arm, and the boy – are white, but the young man on whom the old man is leaning is Middle Eastern, while immediately behind the injured man are an East Asian man and an African, there is another African on the second flight of stairs on the top left, while some of the other characters at the back could also be of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin. Of course, the artist is stressing the Christmas angel’s message of “On earth, peace and goodwill to all men” but I cannot believe that he merely invented this ethnic diversity. I have to think that this Old Sailors’ Home in Greenwich really did look after sailors with very diverse ethnic backgrounds. As I highlighted in the previous post, life on the high seas seems to have been a place where ethnic diversity was common.
Thereafter, there is another gap of 90 years in Art UK’s database until I find the next group painting with a non-white person in it. This painting is from 1971. By this time, the immigration of non-whites into the UK to fill low-class jobs that white British people didn’t want to take anymore or to fill gaps in the growing labour market had been going on for some 20 years. The West Indians first started to arrive in the 1950s, followed by the South Asians (Indians and Pakistanis) in the 1960s and ’70s. This particular painting is not very flattering, as it turns out.
It seems sad that the first group painting with non-whites in it that I could find in the modern, post-War, post British Empire era should be about prostitution. But perhaps it is an apt if somewhat harsh descriptor of the position in British society of non-whites at the time. And perhaps it continues to reflect the old idea of non-whites as exotic: the exotic is a popular selling point in the sex trade.
Thereafter, things get more normal. In 1985, for instance, we have this painting of a South Asian family walking down a road, with a white couple behind them.
It is a scene showing equality among the painting’s participants – although perhaps the artist, in having the adults in the South Asian family wearing traditional dress and the children in “British” dress, is making a point about integration? I certainly see integration as the issue in this next, undated, painting by the same artist.
White children are using the slide. The South Asian children are looking on. Do they want to go on the slide? Is the little fair-haired girl at the bottom of the slide inviting the smaller South Asian girl to join in? What about the mother? Is she urging her children to get on the slide?
As we get into the 1990s, the presence of different ethnicities in the UK becomes more recognized in Art UK’s database. For instance, we have this painting from 1990 shows the mix of ethnicities in football.
This painting from 1992 (which I’ve used in an earlier post) gives an example of different ethnicities in the workplace.
While this painting from 1993 (also used in a past post) comments on the lack of work affecting all ethnicities.
This next two paintings show the presence of different ethnicities in the political process. This painting, from 1993-94, shows what we might call the politics of the street.
While this painting, from 1993, gives a view of the more formal political process.
I suppose this last painting represents a key moment in the integration of non-whites into British society. I started this series of posts with paintings from the mid 1600s to the early 1800s where non-whites were clearly in a subordinate – actually, a subjugated – position. This painting shows that by the 1990s non-whites were entering the British elites. It is not enough to have racial integration “on the street”, as this next painting from 2001 would suggest.
Only when non-whites are consistently present at the elite levels, as suggested by this 2008 painting, can one say that racial integration is truly occurring.
It has certainly been a long journey from subjugation to equality for non-whites in the UK. After a presence as slave-servants in the mid-1600s to early 1800s, non-whites disappear from British art, apart from brief appearances as upper-class exotica, until the 1970s. Thereafter, their presence becomes more felt and a steady progression up the social ladder is apparent. The process is not yet complete; it would be nice, for instance, in the last painting to have more non-whites in the front rows rather than finding them all in the back rows. But it is happening, which is heartening.
Several weeks ago, I read about an exhibition opening at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Titled “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse”, its purpose is, according to the Guardian where I read the article, to “tackle the depiction of black and mixed-race people in French art from the country’s final abolition of slavery in 1848 until the 1950s.” One of the paintings in the exhibition, for instance, is Manet’s “Olympia”, showing the said Olympia, a courtesan (or high-end prostitute in today’s parlance), naked on her bed and being attended by a black servant.
The painting has been renamed “Laure” for the exhibition, after the name of the black model who posed for the servant in the background. The exhibition renames several other paintings where the curators managed to discover the name of the black person in the painting. Once more from the Guardian article: “the influence of people of colour has been eclipsed from art history by racism and stereotyping, Murrell [one of the exhibition’s curators] said. Instead their identities were hidden behind “unnecessary racial references” such as negress or mixed-race “mulatresse” – which comes from the French word for mule.” For any readers who are interested in this exhibition, here is the link.
After reading the article, it occurred to me that I could use the data base of Art UK, which I used for a different purpose several posts ago, to carry out the same sort of study: see how non-white folk have been represented in British art over the centuries. Just a quick explanation to those readers who are not familiar with Art UK: it is a pictorial data base of all the pieces of art held by the UK’s public bodies. For those interested in perusing it, this is the link. I would imagine that it is probably a statistically valid sample of the art which has been created in the UK ever since painting started in the country.
Just as I did in my previous foray into Art UK’s data base, I will spread my results over several posts, each with a somewhat different subject. This post will cover the period from the very first representations of non-white people in British paintings until the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th. I choose to end it there because in 1772 there was a famous case in England, Somerset vs. Stewart, which in effect concluded that slavery was not allowed under law in England, while in 1833 Parliament passed a law banning slavery throughout the British Empire.
The earliest British painting I found with a non-white person in it is this one. It depicts a certain Lady Tollemache being served by a young black page.
If one was rich, it must have been quite the thing to have a little black page in one’s household to show off to one’s friends. A number of such paintings are to be found in the Art UK data base, stretching from 1651 to 1740. I don’t think those dates are a coincidence. 1651 is about when there was a large increase in the transatlantic slave trade to feed the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Many English landowners had important economic interests in these plantations, while English ships – in which, again, landowners had interests – began to dominate the slave trade. It would therefore have been increasingly normal for rich and important families to be involved with black slaves. It is but a small step from this to start thinking that it would be cute to have a black child as your slave-servant. At the other end of this period, 1740 marks the time when abolitionists were becoming increasingly vocal and when it became “not done” to be so visibly seen as involved with black slaves.
The next painting of this type is from about 1660 and is of a certain Elizabeth Risby and her son, being served by both a black page and a maidservant who also looks non-white.
Quite what the ethnicity of the maidservant is, is not clear. I wonder if she was not the companion to the manservant in this next painting, also of Elizabeth Risby but this time with her daughter.
Given the date of the painting and the manservant’s hair style, I wonder if he, and therefore she, were not Native Americans, signaling perhaps that either Elizabeth or her husband had lands (and slaves) both in the Caribbean and in the American colonies.
From some 40 years later, 1695, we have this painting of the 3rd Earl of Chesterfield and his family, being served once again by a black page.
It is interesting to see in this last painting the presence of some exotic bird (a parrot? a cockatoo?), something which you also see in the second of the two paintings of Elizabeth Risby and see again in the painting below of Lady Grace Carteret. I wonder if that puts black pages into the category of exotica, with the families using these paintings to show off all the exotic things they owned?
The next painting, from 1711, is a portrait of Sir John Chardin, a Frenchman. He travelled to Persia and the Near East and wrote learned tomes about these places. He was also a Protestant, who emigrated to the UK because of the persecution of Protestants in France. That experience of persecution didn’t stop him from taking part in the persecution of enslaved Africans, though.
This next painting of Lady Grace Carteret, from 1740, is the last I could find of this type.
Apparently, it wasn’t just the aristocracy and the landed gentry who had young black slave-servants. I found one painting of a doctor who is letting the blood from a patient’s arm and whose assistant is a young black boy.
For the sake of completeness, I should say that it wasn’t just black children who were taken on as servants. I’ve already shown one example in the second of the two paintings of Elizabeth Risby. In the Art UK database, there are two other examples of children of other ethnicities being taken on as servants. One is of a certain Colonel Blair and his family. Colonel Blair worked for the East India Company and commanded a brigade at one of the early battles through which the UK eventually took over India.
The painting’s title suggests that the little Indian girl in the painting is an ayah, a maid or nursemaid. She looks too young to be either; perhaps she played the same role as the black pages, a cute little addition to the family belongings which also allowed the Blairs to signal to the viewer their connection with India.
The other is of a Lady Staunton and her son George, with a Chinese servant lurking in the background.
This picture was painted a year after her 12 year old son George had come back from China. George had accompanied his father, who was Secretary on Lord Macartney’s mission to the Chinese imperial court. Macartney’s instructions were to wrest trade concessions from the Emperor, which he signally failed to achieve (I’ve mentioned the diplomatic spat about whether or not Lord Macartney should kowtow to the Emperor in an earlier post). Presumably, George’s father, Sir George Staunton, got himself a young Chinese servant while in China and had him inserted into the painting to show off his connection with that country.
Coming back to the black pages, assuming that the idea of having one was that it was cute, like having a parrot, what happened to these black pages when they grew up and lost their cuteness?
From what I can gather from the painterly record in Art UK’s database, it seems that some of them at least continued on as servants of one kind or another to the rich folk. We have, for instance, this painting by William Hogarth of an aristocratic captain in the Navy, who has, among other appurtenances, a black servant ringing what looks like a dinner gong – or is he giving the beat to the fellow singing?
We have this painting by Jacopo Amigoni, an Italian painter who spent some ten years in London, of three gentlemen whose precise relationship to each other is not clear to me. In any event, the painting-within-the painting of one of the three is being held up by a black adult servant.
We have a painting of Baron Nagell’s running footman. The Baron was the Dutch Ambassador to England, while according to Art UK’s entry on this painting “a running footman could be expected to serve as a messenger and to accompany his employer’s coach”. I presume the poor man had to run alongside the coach.
Servants to the rich does not seem to have been the only niche that Black slaves or ex-slaves filled. Art UK’s database throws up a few other examples. This next painting suggests that Blacks worked in taverns or inns or maybe even brothels (given that he is trying to attract a soldier), presumably as servants to their owners.
The sea also seems to have been a home for Black people. A recent article in the Guardian suggests that already in Tudor times (so 200 or so years before the period we are considering here), foreigners – specifically, North Africans – were present among the sailors in the English fleet. This sympathetic drawing of a Black sailor – the first of our subjects whose name we know: Thomas Williams – suggests that Black men found a profession at sea. Probably, the British Navy, always short of men (we remember stories of the press gangs roaming the countryside and kidnapping men for the Navy), was quite happy to take on Black men in their crews.
I think what this next painting is telling us is that Black sailors also took part in the smuggling that was chronic along the UK’s coasts.
I suspect the next one tells us that some Black sailors, like all sailors, were mutilated at sea, either by cannon fire or in some other way.
It seems appropriate at this point to insert what is thought to be the portrait of Ignatius Sancho, the second black person in all these paintings for whom we have a name.
Ignatius Sancho was well known in his time. I think it instructive to cite a somewhat shortened version of his biography in Wikipedia:
“Charles Ignatius Sancho was born [in about 1729] on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. His mother died not long after in the Spanish colony of New Granada. His father reportedly killed himself rather than live as a slave. Sancho’s owner took the young orphan, barely two years old, to England and gave him to three unmarried sisters in Greenwich, where he lived from ca. 1731 to 1749. John, Duke of Montagu, impressed by Sancho’s intellect, frankness, and his amiability, not only encouraged him to read, but also lent him books from his personal library. Sancho’s informal education made his lack of freedom in Greenwich unbearable, and he ran away to the Montagus in 1749. For two years until her death in 1751, Sancho worked as the butler for Mary, Duchess of Montagu, where he flourished by immersing himself in music, poetry, reading, and writing. At her death in 1751 he received an annuity of £30 and a year’s salary, which he quickly squandered.
During the 1760s Sancho married a West Indian woman, Ann Osborne. He became a devoted husband and father. They had seven children. Around the time of the birth of their third child, Sancho became a valet to George, Duke of Montagu, son-in-law of his earlier patron. He remained there until 1773.
In 1766, at the height of the debate about slavery, Sancho wrote to Laurence Sterne encouraging the famous writer to use his pen to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade. Laurence Sterne’s widely publicised response to Sancho’s letter became an integral part of 18th-century abolitionist literature. Following the publication of the Sancho-Sterne letters, Sancho became widely known as a man of letters.
In 1774 with help from Montagu, Sancho opened a greengrocers shop, offering merchandise such as tobacco, sugar and tea. These were goods then mostly produced by slaves. As shopkeeper Sancho enjoyed more time to socialise, correspond with his many friends, share his enjoyment of literature, and he attracted many people to his shop. He wrote and published a Theory of Music and two plays. As a financially independent male householder living in Westminster, he qualified to vote in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780; he was the first person of African origin known to have voted in Britain. At this time he also wrote letters and in newspapers, under his own name and under the pseudonym “Africanus”. He supported the monarchy and British forces in the American Revolutionary War.
Ignatius Sancho died from the effects of gout in 1780. He was the first person of African descent known to be given an obituary in the British press. He gained fame in his time as “the extraordinary Negro”, and to eighteenth-century British abolitionists he became a symbol of the humanity of Africans and immorality of the slave trade. The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited and published two years after his death, is one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English by a former slave.
Sancho noted that despite being in Britain since the age of two he felt he was “only a lodger, and hardly that.” In other writings he describes: “Went by water – had a coach home – were gazed at – followed, etc. etc. – but not much abused.” On another occasion, he writes: “They stopped us in the town and most generously insulted us.””
His life encapsulates what a Black person could expect his or her life to be at this time in the UK. Although Sancho was unquestionably a man of great intellectual ability, he rose no higher than a greengrocer. Of course, in those times this was not the fate of Black people alone, it was generally true of any poor person: the top 1% controlled every important position. But what I find really chilling is his commentary on how Black persons were treated back then, almost as animals in a zoo. And of course, there was overt racism.
The debates that Sancho was involved in to abolish slavery were intensifying from the 1760s onward and no doubt were putting moral pressure on slave owners in the UK itself. This probably explains why the kinds of paintings I have shown up to now disappeared. It was “not done” anymore to own little black pages – or at least not to be painted with one at one’s side. They were replaced by paintings such as these criticizing slavery and the slave trade.
I add this last painting because it is the only one I found where black women were the subject.
In the next post, I’ll trace the presence of non-whites in UK art after slavery was formally abolished throughout the British Empire up until the present day.