Venice Beach, 1 May 2019
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.