NON-WHITES IN BRITISH PAINTING – PART III

Venice Beach, 4 May 2019

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.

Head of a Man (? Ira Frederick Aldridge) (?c. 1827), by John Simpson (1782-1847). Photo credit: Tate. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

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.

Portrait of an African (c. 1861), by George Harrison (1840-1910). Photo credit: Royal Cambrian Academy of Art

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.

Female Figure Seated (1898), by Evelyn Cheston (1875-1929).  Photo credit: UCL Art Museum
Negro in White (c. 1922), by Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1887-1937). Photo credit: Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

The next portrait is the first I found of a South Asian.

Bapsybanoo, Marchioness of Winchester (c. 1930), by Augustus Edwin John (1878-1961). © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

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.

Melita (1931), by Ronald Ossory Dunlop (1894-1973). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Leeds Museums and Galleries
Head of a Negro (c. 1935), by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884-1937). Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

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.

Nurse Brown (undated), by Irene Welburn (active 1936-55). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

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?

Indian Women in Trafalgar Square, London (1950-62), by Harold Dearden (1888-1962). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Museum of London
Caribbean Family in Trafalgar Square, London (1950-62), by Harold Dearden (1888-1962). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Museum of London

Perhaps immigrants were becoming more visible. This next painting is actually entitled “The Immigrant”.

The Immigrant (1960-80), by George Hodgkinson (1914-1997). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Tameside Museums and Galleries Service: The Astley Cheetham Art Collection
Ester Thuriappah (Indian Girl Wearing a Sari) (1964), by James Scott (b. 1920). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Royal Ulster Academy Diploma Collection
Head of a Girl (1971), by Craigie Ronald John Aitchison (1926-2009). © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Rugby Art Gallery and Museum Art Collections
Negro Lady (1978), by Mary Kempson. © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Bassetlaw District Council

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 Thomas Pitt, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, Councillor and Chairman of the Greater London Council (1976), by Edward Irvine Halliday (1902-1984). © the artist’s estate. Photo credit: City of London Corporation

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.

Head and Window (1984), by Andrew Stahl (b. 1954). © the artist. Photo credit: Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection

As far as I can make out, this next painting is the first by a non-white artist in this series.

Man on a Horse (1987), by Gilford Brown. © the artist. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
Chris Ofili (1989), by Susan Thomas. © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Leicester Arts and Museums Service
Figure and Rocket (1990), by Andrew Stahl (b. 1954). © the artist. Photo credit: Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection
Wanting to Say I (before 1998), by Eugene Palmer (b. 1955). © the artist. Photo credit: The New Art Gallery Walsall
Woman’s Head (1991), by Patrick Martin (b. 1958). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection
Changing Face (1994-95), by Andrew Tift. © Andrew Tift. Photo credit: Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

This is the first portrait which I found of an Asian entering the political mainstream.

Nirmal Dhindsa Singh (1995), by Trevor Hodgkison (b. 1928). © the artist. Photo credit: Derby Museums Trust

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.

Randolf Adolphus Turpin (1995), by Gina Busby. © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Warwick Town Council

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.

Rajesh Patel, Shop Owner (2000), by Hans Schwarz (1922-2003). © the artist’s estate. Photo credit: Girton College, University of Cambridge
Self Portrait (2000), by Barbara Walker (b. 1964). © the artist. Photo credit: The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)

I rather like this next double portrait of mother and daughter. It captures beautifully the process of integration, from one generation to the next.

Muktaben Bhogaita and Daughter Alka (2001), by Alan Parker (b. 1965). © the artist. Photo credit: Leicester Arts and Museums Service

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.

Paul Boateng (2003), by Jonathan Yeo (b. 1970). © the artist. Photo credit: Parliamentary Art Collection

One other pinnacle has been scaled, first black woman MP. The honour goes to Diane Abbot, Labour MP.

Diane Abbott, MP (2004), by Stuart Pearson Wright (b. 1975). © Palace of Westminster. Photo credit: Parliamentary Art Collection

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).

Johnson Gideon Beharry (2006), by Emma Wesley (b. 1979). © National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

As for the future, let’s give space to the kids!

Jaida (2008), by Rhiannon Fraser (b. 1986). © the artist. Photo credit: Charnwood Borough Art Collection
The Traveller (2008), by Valery Koroshilov (b. 1961). © the artist. Photo credit: The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust

NON-WHITES IN BRITISH PAINTINGS – PART II

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!”.

Hush! (1875), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

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.

The Coronation Luncheon to King George V and Queen Mary in the Guildhall, London, 29 June 1911 by Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927). Photo credit: City of London Corporation. Distributed under a CC BY-NC licence

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.

Friends in Adversity, Christmas Day at the Dreadnought Hospital, Greenwich (Coming Down to Dinner) (1880), by John Charles Dollman (1851-1934). Photo credit: Nottingham City Museums. Distributed under a CC BY-NC licence

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.

Salon (1971), by Richard Parsons (1925-2000). © the artist’s estate. Photo credit: Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum

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.

Lady in Red (1985) by Rosemary Gabrielle Davies (1922-2016). © the artist. Photo credit: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

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.

Children on a Slide (undated), by Rosemary Gabrielle Davies. © the artist. Photo credit: Alexandra Hospital

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.

Pride of the Nation (1990), by Stuart J.C. Avery. © the artist. Photo credit: National Football Museum

This painting from 1992 (which I’ve used in an earlier post) gives an example of different ethnicities in the workplace.

The Black-Country Steelworkers (1992), by Andrew Tift.  © Andrew Tift. Photo credit: The New Art Gallery Walsall

While this painting from 1993 (also used in a past post) comments on the lack of work affecting all ethnicities.

Unemployment on Merseyside: Campaigning for the Right to Work (1993), by Michael Patrick Jones. © the artist. Photo credit: Museum of Liverpool

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.

History Painting (1993-94), by John Bartlett. © the artist. Photo credit: Museum of London

While this painting, from 1993, gives a view of the more formal political process.

Council Chambers (1993), by Peter Bunney. © Leicester City Council. Photo credit: Leicester Town Hall

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.

Comic Strip (2001), by P.J. Crook. © the artist / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection

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.

Royal Free Consultants (2008), by Bill Butcher; Royal Free Hospital

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.