Venice Beach, 2 May 2019
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.